At university we were given a task to explain how the readings we did that week on sexual coercion in the education system were applicable to the contexts we came from. A woman from a low income country went first, and described how “virginity testing” (where fingers are used to test if the hymen is still intact) was part of childhood schooling in her country. It was my turn directly after and I was slightly lost for words.
“Uhh … I grew up in a privileged area of Australia so nothing like that happened to me in my schooling … but when I was doing the readings on sexual coercion, I realised I and people I knew experienced the behaviour described pretty much every weekend.”
I was met with shock from the rest of the members of the group as I described the ways in which sexual coercion was a fundamental part of being a teenager in Australia. It was hard to comprehend for these people from all parts of the world that this could possibly occur. How could Australia let this happen? It’s such a “developed” country!
This and two other pivotal conversations spurred me to ask my Instagram following if they or anyone close to them had been sexually assaulted by someone who went to an all-boys school in Sydney. Over weeks this turned into a national campaign demanding consent education with more than 45,000 signatures.
It’s shocking to learn that Australia’s norm is riddled with human rights violations and gender-based violence. It hides under a big banner that screams “Australia is a safe and happy place” but our attitudes toward gender and sexuality have created power imbalances, taboos and widespread violence.
I now look back on 2021 and think about the year that Australia said we want better.
I admire the more than 6,700 people who named the school that their perpetrator of sexual assault went to. I remember every time a headline emerged about allegations involving people in the highest ranks of our country. I’m grateful that Brittany Higgins had the courage to come forward with her allegation that she was raped inside our very own Parliament House, which triggered the Jenkins report. I’m thankful Grace Tame used her platform to advocate for victims of child abuse in every way feasible. And I reflect in awe about the students across Australia who protested, shared petitions, walked out, stood up, and spoke out.
All of this has meant that 2021 will be remembered for some big wins.
After decades of women demanding so, and the tireless work of Saxon Mullins, an affirmative model of consent has been passed in New South Wales, and Victoria may soon follow. This reform is groundbreaking beyond the courtroom, because we stop assuming that the default access to a body is a yes, and that “only no means no”, and instead teach the community that without enthusiasm, sex is assault. In NSW parliament, a debate received unanimous, cross-party support for earlier and holistic consent education. It was triggered by 20,000 ordinary citizens who demanded it occurr.
Then there were an estimated 110,000 people who attended March 4 Justice rallies nationally, which will go down in history as the biggest uprising against the treatment of women that Australia has seen to date.
Outside the public sphere, in a time of reflection, myriads of conversations were held across Australia this year, and incrementally each one has contributed to nurturing a new Australia.
This has not come without challenges. For many Australians this year, sexual assault dominating discourse has meant they have had to relive their own experiences, reveal personal details to people around them, or hear heartbreaking stories about loved ones. For some, it’s been a year where behaviours that have seemed normal in the past were suddenly branded as acts of violence. This is something I can say from experience is both confronting and empowering. For too many, these conversations involved finding out that people around them have opinions which have made them feel unsafe and unsupported.
Yet, we still did it. We leveraged the work of human rights activists and feminists for generations before us so that those after us can do the same. This year, Australia learned that it can no longer plead ignorance. We have a problem, and it’s a gendered one. Experts have solutions, youth have opinions. Listen to them.
I’ve read many news articles this year about Grace, Brittany and myself. While it has been an honour to be in their company in this way, I hope 2022 is the year where we better include and elevate the voices of traditionally marginalised groups of society. This is the only way we can truly turn Australia into a safe and happy place for all.
Young Australians don’t care about taboos and we don’t care about expectations. We are making it clear that we want better in 2022 and we will keep marching, keep signing, keep walking out, and keep speaking up until we get it. Listen to us.
Chanel Contos grew up in Sydney, Australia. She has a masters in education, gender and international development from University College London, UK. This year she was the recipient of the Human Rights Commission of Australia’s Young People’s Medal for her work in advocating for holistic consent education