LONDON – Not so long ago, Chanel Contos led the life of a typical, albeit pandemic, graduate student: sleeping late and taking online classes while enduring months of confinement in her apartment in East London. London.
But a petition she started calling on schools in Australia, her home country, to reform their education on consensual sex – created after she and her close friends began to revisit the painful experiences of abuse sex they had experienced as students – changed that.
Suddenly, Ms. Contos was compiling thousands of testimonials from survivors, responding to calls from reporters and briefing lawmakers on the pervasiveness of sexual assault. And she did it on video calls from her bedroom while her roommates slept next door.
“It’s something that happens every day and nobody talks about it, and it happens to children and adolescents,” she said of sexual assault. âMaybe the same boys who sexually assault people in their teens are taking advantage of people in the workplace when they are in positions of power. “
Now, Ms Contos aims to achieve a major political change in Australia: to make consent education compulsory in the national curriculum, which is currently under review.
Students don’t have the skills to navigate intimate relationships early enough, contos contos, and she believes this omission is partly responsible for the pervasiveness of adolescent sexual harassment and assault.
She is part of a wave of young activists helping to advance the #MeToo movement in Australia, where it has started slowly.
Its new organization, Teach us consent, advocates that children learn consent – not in a sexual context – as soon as they start school. As they grow older, topics like sexual coercion and digital harassment need to be addressed before they reach high school.
To opponents who say such an education could encourage students to have sex earlier, Contos has a straightforward response: âAbstinence is a choice and sexual consent is not.
In a year where allegations of rape and sexual harassment have reached senior levels in the Australian government, its push for earlier consent education is garnering widespread attention.
In March, weeks after her petition first went viral – it now has more than 44,000 signatures – reports of sexual assault to police in New South Wales, the most populous state in Australia, jumped 61 percent. The state of Victoria announced that it would make consent education compulsory from a young age, and in July, The State of Queensland has declared that sexual consent education would start earlier and be more self-explanatory.
Early, age-appropriate education about consensual contact – without necessarily mentioning gender – can prepare children for improved self-esteem, relationships and an understanding of boundaries, and encourage them to treat people with dignity and respect. , said Jessica Ringrose, professor of sociology. at University College London and expert in gender, sexuality and education. âIt should happen sooner and all the research shows it. “
Activists like Ms Contos rely on social media and testimonials from survivors, Professor Ringrose said, to confront education officials about the seriousness of the behavior that often goes unreported.
Australian media turned to Ms. Contos, 23, to discuss consent education, and within just a few months her name has become almost synonymous with her cause; Prime Minister Scott Morrison has promised him a date. And she took on the unexpected role of spokesperson for a national movement more than 10,000 miles from home.
She moved to London from Sydney during the pandemic to study for a Masters in Gender Education and International Development at University College London. The child of Greek immigrants, Ms Contos grew up in an affluent Sydney seaside neighborhood and attended a private girls ‘school, whose social scene included students from nearby boys’ schools.
At 13, she was sexually assaulted, she said, by a boy she later found out – much to her horror – had done the same later to a friend. At first, she blamed herself for not reporting it, but the lack of accountability for such violations quickly angered her.
âIf he had learned respect, he wouldn’t have done it in the first place,â she said.
In early 2021, she began appealing on social media for testimonials from private school students in Sydney, believing that a handful would help her call on schools to reform consent education.
Ultimately, over 6,500 anonymous women and girls from across Australia wrote in, sharing stories of harassment and sexual violence at parties, on the internet and elsewhere, with some survivors saying these experiences haunted them into adulthood. The testimonies caught the attention of the media and local officials, propelling Ms. Contos’ project into the limelight.
She has tried to capitalize on her newfound notoriety both in private meetings with lawmakers and publicly on social media, where she posts in front of 20,000 subscribers. “Just because you don’t think your friend is sadistic,” one of his posts read, “doesn’t mean he hasn’t raped someone.”
Ahead of a recent panel discussion that would bring sexual assault survivors together on Zoom with Australian education officials, Ms Contos paced her kitchen trying to organize a diary. âI feel like I’m making a seating chart for a party,â she said. âCreate press releases – I don’t know how to make a press release! “
Although she lacks lobbying experience, she feels she makes activism accessible to young people, many of whom, Contos said, have traditionally struggled to connect with politics.
“She’s very strong in her opinions and she won’t let anyone tear her down,” said Zoe, 18, a sexual assault survivor who has asked that her last name not be used because she is in court proceedings. .
Despite Ms Costos’ nervousness ahead of the video call, she deemed the event a success.
âI just wanted policy makers and decision makers to remember that we are making decisions for real people – very real 18 year old girls,â she said. “There was a unanimous understanding that something had to change.”
Her advocacy came at a personal price: although she and a team of volunteers were careful to name only schools rather than individuals in the allegations, she received threats of defamation lawsuits.
But these threats weigh less on him than the emotional exhaustion that accompanies providing a forum for others to relive their experiences of sexual assault.
Young men and boys have confessed to her on social media that they have witnessed sexual assaults – and even been abusers.
Women accused Ms Contos’ own friends of sexual assault, which she said needed therapy to treat and made her nervous to go home.
Then there is the constant pressure of public attention, and wanting to leverage that to implement change.
But despite her exhaustion, she is arranging one last chance for survivors of sexual assault to tell their stories to Australian education officials, ahead of a decision in November on whether consent will be mandatory in the new curriculum.
âWhatever the decision, I have to take a step back,â she said, adding that she was so stressed that she had what she called a nervous breakdown weeks ago. (Still a student, she had a thesis to complete.) Until then, she said, she is determined to do what she can, while she can, no matter what the price.
âI kept thinking: keep doing this now, because it’s going to go away suddenly and you want to make as many changes as possible before it goes away,â Ms. Contos said. âBut now I don’t think it’s going to go away anymore. “