Sex, slut-shaming and Sydney schools: Why Chanel Contos is calling for education reform across Australia

As Parliament House grapples with sexual assault allegations, a young activist from Sydney is pushing for sweeping reforms to Australia's sex education program.

Chanel Contos is pushing for major reforms to Australia's sex education curriculum.

Chanel Contos is pushing for major reforms to Australia's sex education curriculum. Source: Instagram

This article contains references to rape and sexual abuse. 

Incidents of sexual assault have one crucial thing in common - education, or a lack of it.

That’s according to Chanel Contos, whose calls for a more comprehensive sex-ed curriculum have echoed across Australia in recent weeks. 

The 22-year-old activist, who over the last three weeks has shared thousands of accounts of sexual assault and rape in Australian schools, says enthusiastic consent, slut-shaming and sexual coercion are among the key topics not being adequately taught to young Australian students.

“It shows that this problem goes across all of society into every institution, and it also shows that schools have a common denominator here and they can be the catalyst for change," Ms Contos told SBS News from London. 

“It's reflective of the rape culture society we live in.

“However, the victim often is the one who carries the burden of that - whether that's shame, regret or mental health issues."

Ms Contos’s petition was published on 18 February, one week before the ABC first reported on a historical rape allegation against Attorney-General Christian Porter.

Mr Porter has strenuously denied claims the raped a 16-year-old girl in Sydney in 1988, and has rejected calls to step aside from his position, warning he has become a victim of trial-by-media.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has dismissed growing calls for an independent inquiry into the allegations levelled against Mr Porter, citing a now-closed police inquiry and the need to uphold the "rule of law".

The alleged victim committed suicide in June 2020.

Christian Porter has denied claims that he sexually assaulted a 16-year-old girl in Sydney in 1988, and rejected calls to step aside from his position.
Source: AAP

Ms Contos was also critical of Mr Morrison for invoking his daughters following a separate rape allegation made by Brittany Higgins.

Ms Higgins, a former Liberal staffer, alleged she was raped by a colleague inside Parliament house in 2019. 

In February, while announcing a review into workplace culture at Parliament House off the back of Ms Higgins’ allegations, Mr Morrison sparked a backlash after saying the decision followed a discussion with his wife Jenny the previous night, and after he considered how he - as a father - would want his daughters to be treated.

"Jenny and I spoke last night and she said to me, you have to think about this as a father. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?" he told reporters.

“Jenny has a way of clarifying things. Always has. And so, as I’ve reflected on that overnight and listened to Brittany and what she had to say.”

Ms Contos said this remark was indicative of a wider problem in Parliament House - and Australian society more broadly.

“Referring to women in terms of how they relate to a man and placing the worth on them being somebody’s mother or somebody’s daughter, or somebody’s auntie … it shows that there’s this ingrained mentality of our society,” she said.

“It's a violation of human rights and it's an act of violence and the fact that it is being looked at from the lens of how that person impacted is related to a man is very telling of the situation that we're currently trying to navigate, as women in Australia at the moment.

“To pretend that we have gender equality right now is, it's wrong, and we can't pretend to students that that's the case. They need to know there's an imbalance in power here.”

Calls for a sex-ed revolution

In the nearly three weeks since going live, Ms Contos’s petition has received almost 30,000 signatures calling for consent to be better taught in Australia’s sex education curriculum.

Ms Contos wants the nuances of consent and sexual coercion to be taught to students at a younger age, noting that these things currently tend to be limited to a one-day workshop when students are 16 years old.

“If you’re just going to learn about consent, you get told that no means no. This is problematic, because, first of all, it’s not just ‘No means no’. We need to start teaching early on that ‘Yes means yes’,” she said.

“We need enthusiastic consent. We need there to be no confusion between people when they are in a sexual situation. They need to be communicative about these issues. And they need to learn that from a young age.

“Being told at 16 what consent is when you’re legally able to be sexually active - it’s like learning how to drive after having a driver’s license. It’s too late. It’s going to be an absolute mess. We’re not equipping the younger generation of Australia properly with the tools for how to navigate rape culture and, in saying that, we need to teach them that they do live in a rape culture.

“They need to be aware that this is not an even playing field.”

Ms Contos has since met with education leaders, politicians and school principals to talk about how sex education reform can be implemented.

“I do think they’re genuinely committed to change,” she said.

“In terms of their reaction, I think there was a lot of shock going around. I don’t think it was clear to a lot of people in positions of power, or people in positions of duty of care, or parents, that this going on at such a scale.”

She said her feedback was positively received, and that everyone was keen to work together to find a solution.

“Obviously we need to think more than an hour-long Zoom call on this, it needs to go further than that,” she added.

“We all agreed that it’s very important to keep this initiative sustained and make changes both internally, at our schools, and externally.”

'It’s not just private schools’

Ms Contos’s website is flooded with thousands of sexual assault testimonies from current and former private school students across the nation.

Every account is anonymous, and instead names the school at which the author attended. The vast majority of schools referenced in more recent accounts are private schools in Sydney’s North Shore and Eastern Suburbs, and some date as far back as the 1970s.

But Ms Contos stressed that this isn’t just a “private school” issue.

Rather, it’s a complex combination of single-sex school culture, social expectations, privilege and a lack of education on consent, she said. 

“It’s not necessarily just private schools. It’s moreso single-sex schools, which often happen to be private,” she said.

“And I think it’s because of all these factors we’re talking about, like toxic masculinity and slut-shaming.

“They all stem from gender inequality, and from segregating the sexes and their education.”

Ms Contos said a key issue with single-sex schools is that boys and girls aren’t adequately taught how to interact socially.

“If the only time that boys and girls get to interact with each other is on a weekend, when their mission is to have something to talk about on Monday morning at school, it’s going to set a really, really unhealthy environment,” she said.

“I think Australia in general has a massive rape culture issue for being such a high-income country, and I think that it is the single-sex schools and the consequently a lot of private schools that heighten all these.”

Ms Contos identified three main factors from which toxic masculinity stems - social status, wealth and sexual conquests.

“Most people who go to private schools are wealthy, and I think these factors all interact with each other and find each other. In comparison to the rest of the world, most people in Australia are wealthy. I think that’s why this culture is so prevalent.”

On Friday, SBS News reached out to more than a dozen schools that were referenced on the website.

Only two schools - Waverley College in Sydney’s east, and St Ignatius Riverview in Lane Cove - responded.

“Sexism is an everyday reality for women, and it absolutely should not be. Often it’s the seemingly small acts that are overlooked, dismissed or ignored. ‘Boys will be boys’, shouldn’t mean what it does in Australian culture,” Mr Graham Leddie, Principal of Waverley College, told SBS News.

“We all need to start the fight against sexism early, and that includes teaching boys that witnessing an inappropriate comment or gesture and tolerating it, is actually participating in the appalling behaviour.”

Dr Paul Hine, Principal of St Ignatius' Riverview, said the allegations are "shocking" and that the school "fully support such matters being referred to the Police for their investigation". 

"Non consensual sex is a crime and this message is given unequivocally to our students as part of their education which is underpinned by the importance of human dignity, respect and equality," he said.

The Principal of Waverley College stressed the need to 'start the fight against sexism early'.
Source: AAP

Tim Bowden, the headmaster of Trinity Grammar - another school that was repeatedly referenced on the website - said he had issued a letter to parents telling them not to be “foolish” by allowing their children to host parties with alcohol.

“Anyone who’s read the testimonies of these young women must be compelled to think ‘what can we do?’ to keep them safe,” he told 2GB on Monday.

“There were more than 2,000 stories. The thing that caught my attention is the scale and scope of the issue.

“Many involved these types of parties, which take place in homes with significant intoxication and space for people to be taken off to the side and apparently no effective supervision.”

He also said young women needed to take better measures to “protect” themselves.

“Not because boys will be boys but because we lock our cars because some people can’t be trusted … We lock our houses because some people can’t be trusted,” he said.

“At these parties, there is every chance there will be people who can’t be trusted. It’s good sense to be safe.”

‘Let’s open up a conversation and normalise it’

Ms Contos admitted that reading through hundreds of graphic accounts initially took an emotional toll on her.

“It’s been really hard, especially the first week, because I was so committed to making sure that I read every individual one and responded to every single person who came forward to me,” she said.

She now delegates to friends and family to help her vet the testimonies before they go public on the website.

“It's definitely been draining, but I've gotten to a point now where I've got it sustainable and I'm actually sleeping.”

Chanel said she feels optimistic for the future, but stressed there's a lot of work to be done.
Source: Instagram

Ultimately, the young activist feels optimistic for the future.

Ms Contos said hearing testimonies from Ms Higgins, Grace Tame and the thousands of current and former school students who shared their experiences with her makes her feel positive that change is afoot.

“I’m so optimistic. I think the thousands of people who have had conversations about sexual assault in Australia this week, whether that’s, among their friend group at school, in the classroom, where it’s at home, whether it’s with their partners… it’s about opening up a conversation and normalising it,” she said.

“Every time someone talks about sexual assault without victim-blaming adds another inch to a society where victims feel as though they can be empowered by telling their story.”

If you or someone you know is impacted by family and domestic violence or sexual assault, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.

Readers seeking support with mental health can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. More information is available at Beyondblue.org.auEmbrace Multicultural Mental Health supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.


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Published 8 March 2021 at 6:36pm, updated 8 March 2021 at 6:49pm
By Gavin Fernando

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