At age 14, Chanel Contos was at a house party in Sydney’s eastern suburbs when she walked into a bedroom to find her best friend unconscious, with pants pulled down and top off, and a boy standing there zipping up his trousers. “My friends and I screamed at him and everyone ran into the room,” Contos recalls. “Australia apparently has one of the best education systems in the world, yet not a single person out of the 15 who ran in knew that that was sexual assault.” After extricating her friend, they left the party to the sound of boos and catcalls labelling them “cock-blocks”.
Eight years later, during a weekend away in New South Wales in early 2020, Contos and her friends found themselves discussing their experiences of sexual assault. “One by one, we just continuously told stories,” recalls Contos. Then, earlier this year, the same friend who had been assaulted at the high school party (who now identifies as non-binary) revealed to Contos that they had been sexually assaulted a second time. Shaking with rage, Contos, now 23 and completing her master’s in gender and education at the University College of London, did what any young gen Z would: she vented her frustration on social media. “I was going to post an Instagram story calling out the boy who sexually assaulted [my friend] and the one who sexually assaulted me,” she remembers of the night that lit the fuse. “But a more level-headed friend suggested I post something broader, and thank God I did.”
The graduate of elite Sydney girls’ school Kambala posted a simple question: “Have you or has anyone close to you ever experienced sexual assault from someone who went to an all-boys school?”
Contos expected a few responses. What followed was a reckoning. Within 24 hours, her poll received thousands of testimonies from girls who attended private schools detailing alleged assaults by students from elite all-boys institutions.
Thus began Contos’ campaign to ensure all Australian students receive comprehensive sexual education. The hope is they will no longer face sexual assault situations, but if they do, they will be able to identify them as such. She set up the Teach Us Consent website, which houses more than 6200 testimonies of sexual assault, ranging from groping to traumatic instances of rape, and her petition for consent to be taught earlier has had more than 41,000 signatures.
Her campaign also prompted a swift and decisive government response. Just two months after Contos’ initial poll, the federal government launched The Good Society website as part of its Respect Matters program. It comprised more than 350 new online materials for teachers about safe and respectful relationships, but some of the resources were met with widespread condemnation (namely an absurd set of videos that used a euphemism of milkshakes to explain consent). Contos, however, believes the backlash is a sign the public is taking the issue seriously.
She’s also hopeful about proposed changes announced by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority to the mandatory health and physical education syllabus. They include students in years 7-8 examining the roles respect, consent and empathy play in developing relationships and the addition of “power and consent” as concepts to the year 9-10 syllabus. “Language is everything,” says Contos. “Having the power to articulate what happened to you, or detail what you saw, or correct someone on their actions with an accompanying word for what they did and why that’s wrong – it’s so important.”
In late May, NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell announced a package of learning materials was in the works as part of the PDHPE curriculum.
Contos has also teamed up with head of the NSW Police Child Abuse and Sex Crimes Squad, Stacey Maloney, to update the underused NSW Police Sexual Assault Reporting Option as “Operation Vest”, which allows people to anonymously report assaults to the police without triggering a formal investigation. “It’s creating historical records. It’s allowing police to pick up on trends,” Contos says. “It’s normalising reporting sexual assault and creating more trust in the police.”
While Contos no longer reads all the testimonies because of the personal toll, she explains her work is made worthwhile by women speaking up for the first time. “I got a message from a lady who said her 80-year-old friend revealed she’d been sexually assaulted at 19. It was the first time she’d ever told anyone.”
Contos is driven by determination and optimism about the potential for change, with a meeting with Prime Minister Scott Morrison next on the agenda. “Oh, it’s happening,” she says, resolute. “Australia is having comprehensive sexuality education.”
This feature originally appeared in the July issue of marie claire, out now.