Sexual assault survivors hope NSW consent laws will inspire nationwide reform

Sexual assault survivor Saxon Mullins says the reforms would bring laws "up to the standard that they should be at already".

Victim-survivor Saxon Mullins.

Victim-survivor Saxon Mullins says the new laws can open up discussions around the country. Source: Supplied

This article contains references to sexual assault.  

New South Wales is on track to pass law reform that will require affirmative consent during sexual encounters, with victim-survivors hoping it inspires change across the rest of Australia. 

The new bill was introduced in NSW parliament on Wednesday by attorney-general Mark Speakman who said the move “brings us another step closer to implementing these important reforms that will set clearer boundaries for consensual sex”. 

If the bill is successful, NSW will follow Tasmania and become the second state requiring a person to do or say something to find out if the other person is consenting to sex.  

The long battle to achieve such reform sparks hope in victim-survivors such as Saxon Mullins who have been advocating for change in laws relating to sexual assault. 

“It is a really necessary change to our consent laws but it's also a really simple change and it's bringing the laws up to the standard that they should be at already,” she told SBS News.

“It’s just making sure that they align with our current common sense.”

Ms Mullins endured two criminal trials and appeals for four years after her report of a sexual assault in 2013, which triggered the state’s law reform commission into consent. 

Saxon Mullins's case set off a robust discussion during two trials and an appeal that ended with acquittal.
Source: Stephanie Simcox

While Tasmania has been the most progressive state in enforcing consent laws since 2004, Ms Mullins believes the affirmative consent model in NSW will “open up discussions”, and could result in sweeping change across the nation. 

“People are now looking into ‘what is affirmative consent, what does that mean is that what I'm doing?’” she said. 

Change is already sweeping the nation, with South Australia introducing a bill to criminalise 'stealthing' just a week after the Australian Capital Territory became the first jurisdiction to outlaw the practice

Victoria’s law reform commission is undergoing an inquiry into its definitions of consent after submissions to the committee indicated frustration over the court’s low threshold in directing the jury to consider, rather than require, the accused person to take reasonable steps of ascertaining consent.

In Queensland, the state's police force this week announced the appointment of additional liaison officers to support victim-survivors throughout their investigative and judicial processes.

It follows a 12-month trial in Logan and Townsville where police saw an almost 20 per cent increase in reporting incidents, and a reduction in victim-survivors retracting their complaints.   

NSW is also leading the charge for earlier, holistic consent education, with a petition signed by 20,000 people in the state to mandate consent education in the state's school curriculums. 

A big factor in the push has been 23-year-old Chanel Contos, who encouraged victim-survivors of sexual assault to share their experiences through an initiative called Teach Us Consent.

Schools in Australia will soon be provided with more education materials on sexual consent following a petition by Sydney activist Chanel Contos.
Source: Instagram

To her surprise, she received more than 6,500 responses that led to unanimous support in NSW parliament on Thursday to teach students about consent in schools before they become sexually active. 

"People around Australia, especially women, are putting their foot down and ... are demanding reforms that seem drastic because it’s all happening at once ... but these issues disproportionately affect us," Ms Contos told SBS News.

"I think it’s really special that people have no power, who are literal teenage girls, resulted in this changing ... this power shift is quite unprecedented and we need to keep the momentum going.

"I’m really hopeful that, as a resident of NSW, they are leading by example with these kinds of reforms.” 

Greens MP Jenny Leong (centre) and others hang over 6,000 green ribbons to each represent sexual assault complaints at NSW Parliament.
Source: AAP

But NSW's proposed consent laws do not come without their limitations, said University of Melbourne criminology lecturer Bianca Fileborn. 

On Wednesday Mr Speakman said in NSW Parliament that a person can consent through words or by providing a facial expression with a gesture.

With the laws requiring a person to take reasonable steps in receiving affirmative consent, Dr Fileborn said it has not yet been made clear what is considered “reasonable”.

“That’s concerning to me. It suggests it is giving scope for an accused to be reading into a victim-survivor’s behaviour rather than getting an explicit affirmative ‘yes’”, Dr Fileborn said. 

Dr Bianca Fileborn researches sexual harassment and violence at University of Melbourne.
Source: Supplied

While the bill has been widely hailed as a milestone, Dr Fileborn would like to wait and see how the legislation is interpreted in the courts before feeling confident in its practical benefits within the legal sphere. 

“We have seen previous rounds of law reform that seemed quite progressive and then in practice haven’t necessarily played out in the way we might’ve hoped,” she said. 

“We’ve seen research in other Australian jurisdictions that the defendant continues to draw on problematic stereotypes and rape myths they continue to make a case for the reasonable grounds for consent that are based on them reading into survivors' behaviour.” 

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


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Published 22 October 2021 at 5:28am
By Rayane Tamer, Eden Gillespie
Source: SBS News

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