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Why Sarah Hanson-Young Believes Our National Consent Laws Fail Us

"It’s not being a victim that’s shameful, it’s being a perpetrator”

“Ridiculous.” That’s the one word Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has for the latest addition to the Morrison government’s $7.8 million Respect Matters program, namely the series of videos that compared sex to tacos, rape to milkshakes and consent to shark-infested waters.

“Those videos raised serious questions about quality control, and also showed a fundamental lack of understanding about how young people talk about these issues amongst themselves. I showed the milkshake video to my 14-year-old daughter and she asked what it was meant to be about. I said, ‘Sex and consent.’ And she said, ‘Well, why didn’t they just say that?’”

Hanson-Young believes analogies and metaphors can be helpful in building empathy in some circumstances, but in general our conversations around sexual consent need to be more direct. “Australians – young Australians in particular – have a very highly tuned bullshit detector,” she says. “I’ve always tried to be honest and clear with my daughter when we’ve spoken about sex,” she says. “If you’re not being direct with your child then it makes it very difficult for them to be direct with you, if indeed they need to ask you something or if there’s a problem.”

The Greens, she says, now want a sex education revolution, with a relevant, direct and age-appropriate consent curriculum compulsory across all schools. “We want proper money spent on it,” she affirms. “It’s not just a matter of going away and telling schools to do it – we want it funded. And we need consent training for those working in the various levels of the justice system as well.”

The party would also like to see a uniform definition of consent – in Australia, there are currently eight different legal definitions – but Hanson-Young is adamant this shouldn’t mean resorting to the lowest common denominator. “Having a uniform set of laws is important in [developing] a better understanding of consent in the community, though we want better laws, not weaker laws.”

But the most powerful tools in creating change, believes Hanson-Young, are our voices. She is a trailblazer herself in this space; in 2018 she called out then-senator David Leyonhjelm for “slut-shaming” her (a term Chanel Contos now wants to see included in the school sex-ed curriculum) and was awarded $120,000 in damages. “I feel incredibly heartened and optimistic that since I spoke out, we have had so many other women coming forward.”

She has infinite praise for Brittany Higgins, Contos and Grace Tame for courageously sharing their stories. “Brittany’s brutally honest account of what happened to her is something we very rarely hear in the public realm. It’s something that’s said in hushed tones amongst girlfriends,” she says. “Similarly, the petition by Chanel was incredibly powerful in reminding us that these experiences are all too frequent. So many of us saw ourselves reflected back in her stories – or our girlfriends, our sisters, our work colleagues. But I feel very clear in my mind that things are going to get better. It’s not inevitable; we need to make sure that the bravery of these women is not in vain.”

She continues: “Women don’t deserve to be shamed for these experiences anymore. It’s not being a victim that’s shameful, it’s being a perpetrator.”

This feature originally appeared in the July issue of marie claire, out now. 

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