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“Be ruthless with structures and kind with people”

Dec 20, 2022 | Podcast, Power, Gender, Popular Culture, Relationships, Misogyny, Trauma, Sexual Harassment, Commentary, Sexual violence, Leadership, Dating, Equality, Consent, Feature

Written by Ginger Gorman

Having initiated one of Australia’s most successful campaigns against sexual assault, Chanel Contos shares some valuable advice:  “Be ruthless with structures and kind with people.” 

Chanel believes the decision to focus on changing the culture, rather than demonising individuals, is the main reason for the success of her Teach Us Consent campaign. As a result of Chanel’s initiative, Australia will soon see consent education introduced nationally in every school at every level. 

In February last year, Chanel posted an Instagram poll, asking “Have you, or has anyone close to you, ever been sexually assaulted by someone who went to an all-boys school in Sydney?” The post went viral and Chanel was soon inundated with replies from all over the world. Seventy per cent of respondents answered, “Yes.”

With over 200 responses within 24 hours, Chanel quickly realised an issue she and her friends were discussing privately was not isolated to a few exclusive Sydney schools. Teenage boys are routinely raping and sexually assaulting teenage girls, but rape culture is so normalised in our society that, often, neither perpetrators nor victims understand what has happened between them is a criminal act. 

The problem, identified by Chanel, is that neither girls nor boys receive consent education at school. It isn’t until they leave school that young women realise they have been raped or sexually assaulted – often by boys they trusted, and considered as friends. It’s unclear how many young men gain sufficient insight to understand that actions they considered “normal teenage behaviour” were not only illegal, but hugely damaging to the young women involved. 

Inspired by the response to her poll, Chanel, now working with a team of experts, set up a website called “Teach Us Consent” and started an online petition asking for sexual consent education in Australian schools. The petition quickly gained more than 44,000 signatures supported by over 6,540 stories of sexual assault. 

Recently, I interviewed Chanel Contos for an episode of  the Australian Academy of Social Sciences in Australia’s ‘Seriously Social podcast’. As the mother of 9 and 12 year old girls, the importance of her work really struck home to me. As an older feminist, I finished the interview simply bursting with pride that young women of Chanel’s generation are taking up the cause of women’s safety and equality with such thoughtfulness, insight and skill. 

Chanel, herself,  was sexually assaulted at just 13 years old, but it was not until she left school she discovered the boy who sexually assaulted her went on to do the same to one of her friends. 

She says, “I got really, really emotional about the fact I could have prevented it happening if I had fully understood what was going on; if I’d reported him or held him accountable in some way. But I didn’t.”

“I didn’t know that someone you knew and trusted could do something like rape you. I thought rapists were that stereotype of someone who is going to kidnap you and hurt you. I didn’t realise that sexual violence can occur without physical pain being inflicted. And because I thought what happened was normal, I didn’t tell anyone. I just thought that was part of being thirteen.”

“I thought, maybe if he knew what consent was – how important it was – maybe he wouldn’t have done it to me.”

Chanel’s initial plan was to solicit some testimonies from girls within her own circle and pass them on to local boys’ schools. But then she decided on the Instagram poll – and it went viral.

She says, “I was getting testimonies faster than I could physically read or post them.”

Chanel couldn’t help but be touched by the responses. She told me, “… those stories – every single one of them – was so genuine … None of them were conventional or whatever. Everyone had their own voice and that made their stories feel so real … It was hard to ignore that.”

Watch Ginger’s whole interview with Chanel above.

When, inevitably, the media got hold of the story it took Chanel’s campaign to a level where it simply couldn’t be ignored.

The Teach Us Consent campaign is designed to change lives. But it has also changed Chanel’s life. 

She says, “If we think about the day before I launched the petition I was a big-time, chilled out, uni student. Doing my Masters degree and living in London during the COVID lock-down, I was spending a lot of time inside; sleeping in, staying up late. And then, almost overnight, after the petition started, I didn’t sleep for like three or four days.”

Chanel spent the next 18 months working on her Master’s thesis during the day, then switching to “Australian time” and working on the Teach Us Consent campaign all night.

She says, “It was a massive life change, but it means that now I get to work in gender equality and violence prevention and human rights, which is something I always wanted to do; I just didn’t really think I could do it.” 

Chanel was recently appointed director of the Australia Institute’s Centre for Sex and Gender Equality. It is an inspired appointment, given the runaway success of Chanel’s Teach Us Consent campaign. 

As a direct result of her efforts, NSW Police ramped up Operation Vest, their anonymous online tip site, Chanel met with the Prime Minister and, earlier this year, Ministers of Education from around Australia unanimously committed to mandating “holistic and age appropriate consent education in every school every year, from foundation until Year 10.” 

Chanel was surprised that, once consciousness was raised about this issue, cultural change happened incredibly quickly. It went from cynical responses like, “What do you want the school system to do about it?” to everyone agreeing – the public, schools, police and politicians – that immediate action is required.

Chanel marvels at the people who were “willing to put the most intimate parts of their lives on a public forum for the benefit of the greater good” and credits their selfless generosity for helping to effect this tangible change.

Not all campaigns are as successful as Chanel’s, and certainly few get results as quickly. I asked her, “Why do you think your style of protest got the results it did?”

First, Chanel thinks that people had a strong, emotional response to the testimonies posted on the Teach Us Consent website. To date, more than 6,500 stories of sexual assault have been submitted.

But, having given it a great deal of thought, Chanel thinks what really made her campaign unique was “the fact that no individual perpetrator at any point got any blame. There was no individual finger-pointing.” 

Chanel’s campaign was never about blaming perpetrators, it was about fixing the culture that was creating the problem. The mantra guiding Teach Us Consent was:  “Be ruthless with structures and kind with people.”

She says, “I feel like that’s what the campaign did, which is why it had such an impact.”

Towards the end of our interview, I asked Chanel, what she would do if she had a magic wand.

At first, she says she would abolish normalised violence. But, as the discussion continued she revises her wish and decides that granting empathy to everyone would have the same result and a wider impact. 

The success of the Teach Us Consent campaign should give us pause for thought. Of course, it is only natural to want to respond to sexual assault with anger and blame. But Chanel’s counterintuitive, empathetic approach encourages everyone to focus, not on who is to blame, but on how we can all do better.

  • Feature image: Chanel Contos. Picture: Supplied 
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Ginger Gorman is a fearless and multi award-winning social justice journalist and feminist. Ginger’s bestselling book, Troll Hunting, came out in 2019. Since then, she’s been in demand both nationally and globally as an expert on cyberhate and the real-life harm predator trolling can do. She's also the editor of BroadAgenda and gender editor at HerCanberra. Ginger hosts the popular "Seriously Social" podcast for the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. Follow her on Twitter.

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