LONDON — Not long ago, Chanel Contos was living the life of a typical graduate student, albeit a pandemic: sleeping up late and attending online classes in her east London apartment during months of lockdown.
But a petition she started calls for Australia, in her home country, to improve her education about consensual sex – revisiting the traumatic experiences she and her close friends had as students. Started – changed it.
Suddenly, Ms Kontos was compiling the testimonies of thousands of survivors, calling on journalists and briefing lawmakers about the enormity of sexual assault. And she was doing so over a video call from her bedroom while her roommate next door slept.
“It’s something that happens every day and nobody talks about it, and it happens to kids and it happens to teenagers,” she said of sexual assault. “Perhaps the same boys who sexually harassed people as teenagers take advantage of people in the workplace when they are in powerful positions.”
Now Ms. Contos aims to achieve an important policy change in Australia: making consent education mandatory in the national curriculum, which is currently under review.
Ms Kontos argues that students are not given the skills to navigate intimate relationships as quickly, and believes this omission is partly responsible for the prevalence of sexual assault and assault among adolescents. .
He is part of a wave of young campaigners who are helping to prop up the #MeToo movement in Australia, where it has had a slow start.
His new organization, Teach Us Consent, advocates that children learn about consent—not in a sexual context—as soon as they start school. As they mature, it calls for topics such as sexual harassment and digital harassment to be addressed by the time they reach high school.
To opponents who say such education may encourage students to have sex earlier, Ms Kontos has a befitting reply: “Abstinence is a choice and sexual consent is not.”
In a year where allegations of rape and sexual assault have reached the upper echelons of Australia’s government, their push for prior consent education is gaining widespread attention.
In March, weeks after her petition first went viral – it now has more than 44,000 signatures – there was a 61 percent increase in reports of sexual assault to police in Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales. The state of Victoria has announced that it will make consent education compulsory from an early age, and in July, the state of Queensland said that education on sexual consent would start earlier and be more explicit.
Sociology professor Jessica Ringrose said early, age-appropriate education about consensual contact — without mentioning sex — can set up children for better self-esteem, an understanding of relationships and boundaries, and give them respect and May encourage you to treat people with respect. at University College London and specialize in gender, sexuality and education. “It must be the first and all the research points to it.”
Campaigners like Ms Kontos are taking advantage of social media and survivor testimonials, Professor Ringrose said, to confront education officials with the seriousness of behavior that often goes unreported.
Australian media have turned to Ms Kontos, 23, to discuss consent education, and in the span of just a few months, her name has become almost synonymous with her cause; Prime Minister Scott Morrison has promised to meet him. And he has played the unlikely role of spokesperson for a national movement more than 10,000 miles from home.
She moved from Sydney to London during the pandemic to study for a master’s degree in gender education and international development at University College London. The child of Greek immigrants, Ms. Kontos grew up in an affluent beachfront neighborhood of Sydney and attended a private school for girls whose social scene included students from neighboring schools for boys.
At the age of 13, she was sexually assaulted, she said, by a boy who later found out – to her horror – had later done the same thing to a friend. Initially, she blamed herself for not reporting her, but the lack of accountability for such violations soon angered her.
“If he had been taught respect, he wouldn’t have done it in the first place,” she said.
In early 2021, she began appealing on social media for testimony from private school students in Sydney, thinking her petition would help a handful of schools improve consent education.
Ultimately, more than 6,500 anonymous women and girls from around Australia wrote on the Internet and elsewhere sharing stories of harassment and sexual violence at parties, with some survivors saying these experiences haunted them into adulthood. The testimony caught the attention of local media and officials, bringing Ms. Kontos’s project into the limelight.
She has tried to take advantage of her newfound prominence publicly, in private meetings with lawmakers and on social media, where she posts as many as 20,000. “Just because you don’t consider your friend sadistic,” wrote one of her posts, “doesn’t mean they didn’t rape anyone.”
Ahead of a recent roundtable event that would bring together survivors of Zoom’s sexual assault with Australian education officials, Ms Kontos took a peek around her kitchen trying to organize an agenda. “I feel like I’m doing a seating chart for a party,” she said. “Making a Media Release – I Don’t Know How to Make a Media Release!”
Although she lacks lobbying experience, she has a sense of making activism accessible to youth, many of whom, Ms. Kontos says, have traditionally found it difficult to engage in politics.
“She’s very strong in her opinion and she won’t let anyone tear her down,” said 18-year-old Zoe, a sexual assault survivor who requested not to use her last name because she is in legal proceedings.
Despite Ms Kontos’ nervousness before the video call, she described the event as a success.
“I just wanted policy and decision makers to remember that we’re making decisions for real people — very real 18-year-old girls,” she said. “There was a unanimous understanding that something had to change.”
Her advocacy has carried a personal price: although she and a team of volunteers have been careful to name only the schools rather than the individuals on any charges, they have received threats of defamation lawsuits.
But those threats weigh less than the emotional exhaustion that comes with providing a platform for others to re-live their sexual assault experiences.
Young men and boys have acknowledged on social media for sexually harassing her – and even for being an attacker.
The women have accused her friends of Ms. Kontos of sexual assault, something she has said she needs treatment for and has harassed her to go home.
Then there is the constant pressure of public attention, and the desire to take advantage of it to effect change.
But despite her exhaustion, she is giving sexual assault survivors one last chance to tell their stories to Australian education officials, ahead of a decision in November on whether consent would be mandatory in the new curriculum.
“Whatever the decision, I need to take a step back,” she said, adding that she was under so much stress that she had what’s called a nervous breakdown a few weeks ago. (Still a student, she had a dissertation that had to be completed.) Until then, she said, she’s determined to do what she can, while she can, no matter what.
“I kept thinking: Just keep doing it now because it’s going to suddenly go away and you want to change as much as you can before it goes away,” Ms Kontos said. “But now – I don’t think it’s going to go away anymore.”