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Future Shapers Civic Chanel Contos
Photograph: Courtesy of Chanel Contos/India Hartford Davis @indiahartforddavis

Time Out’s Civics Future Shaper: Chanel Contos

The Time Out team talk to the exceptional individuals moulding the future of Sydney

Alannah Maher
Written by
Alannah Maher

Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Sydney in this Future Shaper series. These remarkable individuals and organisations were nominated by a panel of expert judges including editor of Time Out Sydney Maxim Boon, celebrity chef and restaurateur Kylie Kwong, head of talks and ideas at the Sydney Opera House Edwina Throsby, NSW 24-hour economy commissioner Michael Rodrigues, CEO of IndigiLab Luke Briscoe, and NIDA resident director David Berthold. Read more about the project here.

Content warning: this article contains references to sexual assault and rape. 

It began as a simple poll posted to Instagram and grew into a sex education revolution. Student, activist, and founder of the Teach Us Consent campaign, 23-year-old Chanel Contos has sparked a wake-up call in the way consent and sexuality are taught and talked about. Even after relocating to a different hemisphere, she is continuing to put in the work to make big changes in the Australian schooling system from her flat in London on the other side of the world. 

In February – the same month that allegations of rape and sexual misconduct by powerful men in Parliament House entered the media and public discourse – Contos posed a question to her Instagram followers: “Have you or has anyone close to you ever experienced sexual assault from someone who went to an all-boys school?” More than 200 people, 73 per cent of those who responded, said yes. The question quickly sparked a movement, and soon was launched – a platform for survivors to anonymously share their testimonies of sexual assault.

A petition backed by Jenny Leong MP (Greens member for Newtown) gained enough signatures (more than 40,000 by now, plus over 6,500 testimonies) to bring a debate to NSW Parliament and push for more holistic education around consent and sex from a younger age. Prime minister Scott Morrison has also agreed to meet with Chanel to discuss reforms to combat rape culture. The campaign has already taken a sledgehammer to old taboos and begun to make a quantifiable change in sex education. Contos, who grew up in Vaucluse and is currently studying a masters in gender, education, and international development at University College London, is only just getting started. 

“Young people don’t hold much power. But when we come together for seconds or minutes, to sign a petition or write a testimony, we have the ability to create serious change,” she told us. 

You can follow Chanel on Instagram at @chanelc and the campaign at @teachusconsent

Can you tell us what sparked you to post that poll to Instagram?

I had started collecting testimonies in May 2020. I was at a sleepover with four friends from different schools around Sydney. I told my story of sexual assault from when I was 13, and said the name of the perpetrator. As the four of us shared endless stories of sexual assault, I found out he had also sexually assaulted another girl I knew. I couldn’t sleep that night. I was thinking “If I reported him, it wouldn’t have happened to her”. Now I think, “If he knew what consent was, maybe he wouldn’t have done that to me”.

The next day we thought up this plan and I began to collect testimonies, but then got sidetracked as I moved to London. My friend told me of a sexual assault that happened to them that I didn’t know about when we were younger, and we talked about another one that I saw, and stopped. We were crying and wondering “Do they even know they did this to us?” So I posted the poll and started posting the testimonies I had collected in the last year, and asked for more. 

Why did you decide to launch and the formal petition? 

To start the campaign, I decided to come out publicly as a sexual assault victim/survivor. I was 13 [at the time of my assault]. I only realised it was rape after I turned 15 and was taught about consent for the first time [at school]. I didn’t know oral sex could count as rape. 

My generation knows how to use social media. We know how to use it to do good. Originally the petition was on a Google Doc, then moved to a Google Form as it instantly got so much traction. It was obvious these testimonies needed a permanent place, so when Jack [Pascoe] offered to build a website I was ecstatic. He and [fellow volunteer] Sophie [Gardner] did so within days. The website is also a great way for people to gain a form of closure from their stories, or tell them for the first time. 

What are some key topics you want to see included in education about sex and consent? 

I want people to know that oral sex counts as rape. What sexual coercion is, and real-life examples of what it sounds like. The education system also needs to do better at teaching about issues like toxic masculinity, slut-shaming and why it’s wrong, female pleasure, rape culture, porn literacy, problematic gender norms, power imbalances, and how rules of consent apply to the cyber world.

What has your campaign achieved so far? 

So far we have achieved mandatory consent education in Victoria, and a review into the Australian school curriculum has proposed that consent education be made mandatory nation-wide. The campaign triggered a debate in the NSW Parliament (June 24). We launched Operation Vest [a new platform from NSW Police that allows people to report a sexual assault without initiating a criminal investigation] which saw a 61 per cent increase in reporting of sexual assault month on month from February to March. We have increased awareness around the prevalence of sexual assault and rape culture. Thousands of people around Australia have come forward to their friends and family. 

What else do you hope to achieve?

For the curriculum to make consent education mandatory in an explicitly sexual way from Year 7; a  commitment from independent schools to reform; and an overall reduction in the rates of sexual assault.

Is there anyone else who has worked on the campaign whom you’d like to acknowledge? 

Thank you to Jack Pascoe and Sophie Gardner for volunteering to create the website and doing it so amazingly and quickly. Matthew Hubner for doing endless behind the scene work and support. Mei Ling Dorey and Ant Simmons for helping me turn this Instagram post into an organisation. The team of law students who reviewed thousands of testimonies for defamation. Ruby Belnick (@rubydoodles) for all of her graphics on each post. Bronte Morgan, Sarah Coupland, and Nikki Riesel – the girls at the sleepover with me, for your friendship and the courage they gave me to start this movement! 

What does the future of education about consent and sexuality look like to you? 

I hope to see a world where we move away from teaching only the negatives of sex, and to reduce the taboo. I hope we start teaching students how to engage in positive intimacy and have empathy for each other. 

If this article has raised any issues for you, you can call 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732, the line is open nationwide 24 hours a day. In NSW, you can call the NSW Rape Crisis Counselling Service on 1800 424 017, open 24 hours a day.

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