If we normalise talking about the positive aspects of sex then it’s a lot easier for children and teens to understand if they want to be in a situation or not.
I want you to know that you can trust your instincts. If your instincts are saying this is not good, trust that. You might not be able to explain why and you don’t have to. It is never too late to call stop on that action, there is no point when you cannot call stop – you have the right to say no.
For as long as women have sought autonomy over their bodies, those in positions of power have dismissed them as hormonal, hysterical, irrational and crazy. But now that dialogues around consent have infiltrated our newsfeeds, our classrooms, our workplaces and even the corridors of Parliament, we may have reached a tipping point. To create real social change, it’s important we demystify the challenges around seeking consent and determining our personal boundaries and believe it or not, that doesn’t have to be awkward... Hear activist Chanel Contos, author and broadcaster Yumi Stynes and journalist Avani Dias in a conversation that is curious and unapologetic as we learn how to navigate the yes, no and everything in between.
If you'd like to purchase Yumi's book, Welcome to Consent head here. For additional UNSW resources and information on consent and sexual misconduct, visit here.
Presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas and UNSW Arts, Design & Architecture as part of Social Sciences Week 2021.
Ann Mossop: Welcome to the UNSW Centre for Ideas podcast. A place to hear ideas from the world's leading thinkers and UNSW Sydney’s brightest minds. I'm Ann Mossop, Director of the UNSW Centre for Ideas. The conversation you're about to hear, On Consent, is between Chanel Contos, Yumi Stynes and Avani Dias and was recorded live. I hope you enjoy their discussion.
Avani Dias: Hello, welcome to On Consent. This is an event presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas and UNSW Arts, Design and Architecture’s Art and Social Sciences Week. My name is Avani Dias, I'm your host tonight. And my usual job is as the presenter of Hack on Triple J. And it's a pretty awesome job, I hear from young people all over the country, every weeknight, and on our podcast, and the topic we're going to be discussing tonight, it's a really big one for us, and something that's deeply personal and important to a lot of young people, but Australians more generally. It's something I've reported on extensively. And yeah, I admire the two guests we're going to speak to tonight so much for the work they've done in this space. Before we get into it, though, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land that I'm on here in Sydney, that is the Gadigal people. And I would like to acknowledge that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been sharing ideas and stories for tens of thousands of years. And as a Non-Indigenous Australian, I'm particularly grateful to be moderating this panel, which will be doing exactly that. So yeah, I pay my respects to their elders past and present and extend that respect to any other First Nations people on this panel with us today. Yeah, what we are discussing, it’s consent. It's a major issue, and it's been a really big topic, especially this year. And even this week, you know, the National Summit on Women's Safety wrapped up yesterday. Advocates, politicians, experts discussing Australia's next plan to reduce violence against women. But a lot of this goes beyond governments, beyond the Prime Minister, beyond politicians. It's something that affects every one of us in our day to day lives. And it comes down to this granular thing and a lot of issues such as education, how our culture teaches us about this issue of consent. And as I said, our two guests have been at the forefront of some of those conversations. They've been honest, they've been fearless in how they've dealt with that as well. Let's introduce our guests, our first one that comes to us from London, her name’s Chanel Contos, she's an activist, and a tutor and she's studying gender. At the start of this year, she asked her Instagram followers if they've faced abuse at the hands of a school friend. That blew off from there with thousands of young people sharing their stories of experiencing sexual abuse all over the country. It's grown into a movement, it's called Teach us Consent. Then Chanel has now been working with schools, with police, politicians to drive change and how we teach young people about sexuality and consent. Chanel, thanks for joining us.
Chanel Contos: Thank you so much for having me.
Avani Dias: So our other guest is someone I've actually watched since I was a little kid on Channel V. She's done so much in her career. She's a writer, she's a broadcaster, she's into food – sounding like a bit of a fangirl, but I'm also your cookbook Yumi. She's also a mother of four, and she hosts the ABC podcast, Ladies, We Need to Talk, on female sexuality. And her book is called Welcome to Consent. She's a leader in educating people, especially young people, about issues on sexuality, and how parents can teach their kids about this. Yumi, thanks for your time as well.
Yumi Stynes: Thanks for having us Avani.
Avani Dias: So Chanel, I want to start with you. Consent, when you bring it down to the basics, it's a very simple issue. It's permission for something to happen, right? When was the first time in your life that you were introduced to that concept?
Chanel Contos: The first time I was formally introduced to consent, and those concepts being related to sex was when I was in Year 10, at school, we had an external speaker come in, and he told us basically the legal side of consent, and the police implications of it, criminal implications of it. And I remember that insanely clearly because the same moment that me and many of my peers realised that we hadn't given consent to situations, and therefore we had experienced sexual assault. But yeah, before that, the concept was something I guess I vaguely knew of, but I knew that you could tick boxes of websites to say you can email me and things like that, but I didn't, I didn't know what consent was.
Avani Dias: Yumi, what about you? When did the penny first drop? Okay, this consent, and it's a thing that we need to navigate in life.
Yumi Stynes: Yeah, not until well into adulthood. I think like most Australian kids, the first time that we hear the word consent is when we get a consent form for our parents to sign. So even in that context where that introductory concept is very much about somebody else giving consent on our behalf, it's a really, kind of, warped introduction that's never really corrected. And I think for me, it probably wasn't until well into adulthood that I really, kind of, confronted that idea about sexual consent. And what the nuts and bolts of that really mean.
Avani Dias: Chanel, obviously you've heard from, what is it now? More than 6500 people, young people, around the country coming forward with testimonies about sexual abuse in their school communities. Were there themes there about how those young people thought about consent? Did they feel the same as all of us here? Did they only learn about it in adulthood?
Chanel Contos: I feel like there was a massive common thread there that it was, as you said, this kind of penny drop moment of, oh. And it changes the situation from something that you felt really uncomfortable about, perhaps, or, you kind of deep down knew it was wrong, or you thought it was am over reaction, but you weren't equipped with the language and understanding to be able to identify it as sexual assault. And I think the main reason for that is because so many of the testimonials on my website, the perpetrators are people that the victims know well and trust. And I think, that's, we have a real disjoint between our understanding of what sexual assault is and the type of people who can perpetrate it.
Avani Dias: Chanel, this wasn't a new issue. You know, we've known that sexual abuse occurs, but the sheer volume of people that came forward to was just never really seen before. To that extent, what do you think triggered that, I guess, collective response from young Australians?
Chanel Contos: I think the climate was right in Australia for it. It was Grace Tame, Brittany Higgins, leading the way in terms of normalising speaking up about sexual assault. And I think that what Teach Us Consent has done differently is make it targeted and noticeable, there’s more accountability being held, enabling naming schools, but allowing the perpetrators and victims to stay anonymous, so that we can, kind of, collectively attack a structural issue rather than individuals. I think it was just momentum. I think once started, people saw that other people were doing this, I mean, like I was on the receiving end of this, obviously, and it just started with a few DMS, and then suddenly they were coming in quicker than I could read them. So it is just momentum. And also, even though there's six thousand five hundred testimonies, I think we're all very well aware that that barely even addresses the problem, the extent of this problem. And those are all sexual assault testimonies, not even, you know, harassment and other acts of gender based violence. Totally, it's just such a broad spectrum of what people experience and how much consent comes down to that. But as Chanel said, you know, education and that lack of education around this issue, it's been such a big thing in the spotlight. Yumi as someone who focuses on that, where are we as an Australian society failing when it comes to teaching young people about consent, do you think?
Yumi Stynes: Across the board, I feel like we're failing them across the board. So, trying to get change in school education is one of the most thankless tasks that anybody can do. It's still worth trying, but having been among people who are on the front line of trying to push for change in education, I can tell you from their experience that it's very hard to make real change. So what Chanel has done, and is doing, is very meaningful. So in the meantime, it's kind of like, alright, so what are we going to do here? Are we going to wait till things change, or are we going to just put measures in place to protect our kids in the meantime? And I think that's kind of where I sit as, as a realist, and a parent, I have to assume that school can't do this for multiple reasons, and I want it to, but I'm going to fill that gap as a mum and give my kids the tools that I can to be really fluent in the concepts that surround and are deeply ingrained in consent. Because it's quite complicated. It's more than just, you know, yes means yes and no means no, although that is a true thing. But when you start unpacking the realities of consent, often you'll say yes to something, but then the thing changes and you feel like you've said yes, and thus it continues. And if somebody doesn't spell it out to you, that actually considers to be quite specific, and it can change, so you need to have some language around that. Like I agreed to kissing, I didn't agree to tops off, you know? But it's like you said yes, you said yes, you can't be too black and white about yes means yes and no means no, because there's a whole lot of grey areas that you don't know about, because you're inexperienced. And once you're in there, sometimes you're way over your head and you don't know what to do. So that's why we have to, kind of, have these conversations really quite young, really early in a kid's life and then keep them going well into your 20s. And even in your 30s, things like medical consent never never stopped being relevant.
Avani Dias: Totally. And I think, you know, it's interesting Yumi, because you focus so much on parents and, sort of, passing that down to kids as well. But I'm keen to know Chanel's thoughts on that point you just made that, you know, trying to get schools to change is a thankless task and Chanel, you focus so much of your time there. Why did you feel schools was the right place to focus your attention? Whereas Yumi’s you know, obviously focusing on parents and almost cultural change, in that sense.
Chanel Contos: I decided to focus my attention on schools, because that was my environment planning consent and where I did so too late. And I just say, education as, kind of, the largest catalyst for social change in the country. But it is, so, it's good in a way, because if you standardise it, then it means that we're all receiving the same information. But then it's up to every single individual teacher, to relay that content in an appropriate way, in a productive way, which is obviously always hit or miss. But I think all these things need to be happening at once. But I think that getting consent in the curriculum is a big first step in getting the topic of conversation. And at least having that idea in people's heads, and then hopefully people's parents and, you know, the public and the media we engage with and everything contributes to a better understanding of consent.
Avani Dias: Keen to get both of your thoughts on this, but Yumi, first you, I mean, at what point should we start teaching kids about consent? Because this has become quite a contentious issue, right? You know, a lot of politicians say, we can't start too young, because, you know, why are we teaching kids about sex at this age? No, we need to teach those basic concepts at a really early age. What have you come to in terms of age or age bracket?
Yumi Stynes: Yeah, it's so funny, isn't it? How much fear there is around what kids might learn if we accidentally blab about consent? Like they might learn how to say get your hands off me! Oh, my God, that's terrible! It's a calamity! The thing with that question is that, that is the number one question that people ask us, you know. There is a lot of fear around it. So, as with everything that you teach children, you start straight away, you start when they're born, it's just like, you teach them love, you teach them how to eat, you teach them how to be cuddled, and cared for, you teach them that their bodies are worth respecting, as a person from the outside, and there's the person within that experience. Obviously, you're not going to need to talk to a newborn baby about sexual assault, and they're not going to understand. So you just keep bringing what's relevant to them, and updating the information regularly, which is the thing, you know, parents need to really understand, that needs to be emphasised that the information needs to change, really, all the time, depending on where your child is at. They might be fifteen, and just not into kissing, they might be fifteen and having full penetrative sex, there's all kinds of different spectrums of information that are required based on the kid. But the key thing to do also is to lead by example, with young ones. So to show them that they actually have a say over what happens to their bodies. So you know, and a really good example is sunscreen, like little kids, fucking hate sunscreen, right? You have to chase them around, and sometimes you have to force it onto their faces. At some point, you're going to say, listen, you need to be able to say yes to this. And I'm going to lay out all the reasons why you should do this, but there's going to come a time when I'm going to stop forcing you because you're the boss of this, okay? This is your responsibility. And that's it's a really great way to open up the conversation about consent about something that's completely not sexual.
Avani Dias: Yumi, I was gonna say, like, can you give me an example of a lesson, which I think you have just done, and then obviously thinking, how can we give that to politicians? I'm picturing you like giving them the sunscreen politician and chasing them around with that. I feel like it'd be good theatre.
Chanel Contos: Yeah.
Avani Dias: Hey? What was that?
Chanel Contos: Yeah, the milkshake video.
Avani Dias: Yeah, the milkshake video, yeah keen to actually get both of your thoughts on that, sort of, area at some point. But Chanel, What do you think about that question? You know, as someone who's really thought about this through personal experience, when do you wish you were taught about this concept of consent? Because you know, you didn't learn about it till year 10.
Chanel Contos: I 100% support everything Yumi just said, in saying that there's ways to talk about consent from, as soon as a human can interact with another human, and you know, telling the people around that human, that in the newborn baby, that consent applies to the child as well. In terms of an explicitly sexual way, I think that we should teach at the same time that we teach sexual biological perspective. You know, when you learn about sperm cells and egg cells in year seven, you should also be learning about consent in that conversation. It doesn't need to be in detail, practicalities of it. But the concept of it. The legalities of it. I know there's lots of I mean, UN Best Practice suggests talking to children as young as year five and six, about definitions of just what sexual harassment is, what sexual assault is, because those are the kind of ages where children are especially vulnerable to, kind of, pedophilic types of sexual abuse. But yeah, for peer on peer, it just needs to be ingrained. And the thing is, I find it so hard to comprehend as well, why people say, like, oh, we can't talk to kids about this. I don't remember not knowing what sex is. Like, I don't remember finding out what sex is. Like, oh, you know, people always talk about the birds and the bees, you see things in movies, your parents tell you to close your eyes when the movie scene comes on, whatever. So it's not, it's almost like it's just a secret. It's a kids and parents secret, but the kids are talking to each other about it, and they're spreading false information about it. So just having those open conversations in, kind of, all aspects of our society in the home, and schools, will only make people safer. And I mean, all evidence shows that it makes people have sex later, and less frequently, when there's an open dialogue about sex in a country.
Avani Dias: I'm gonna be the devil's advocate here and put to you… pretend to you guys that I'm some of those politicians or those leaders who have that view that, you know, we're teaching kids too young about these issues. And what they would say is, well, are we taking away their innocence by introducing them to these issues around sex and so on. Yumi, what do you think about that argument? Um, no, of course not. And anybody who spends any time with young children knows that there are always ways to communicate with them that keep them safe and keep them protected. Kids love, squeamy ooey gooey stuff, so I mean, you don't have to worry too much about what you tell them that might gross them out. But and you don't have to be graphic about what a sexual assault might entail. But you can be very clear about, you know, this body is completely yours and ways in which consent can be communicated, some of the golden rules of consent, you could learn it and in the book that we wrote Dr. Melissa Kang and I wrote, we use the example of borrowing a t- shirt. So around the idea of my sister wants to borrow a t- shirt, that needs to be communicated. It needs to be specific. So just because you've loaned your t-shirt, doesn't mean you'll learn the matching shorts, okay? So it's specifically about the t-shirt. Consent can change. So it's your t-shirt, so if you've said yes, you're actually allowed to change your mind and say, actually, I didn't realise you were going camping with my t-shirt, that's my favourite, so I withdraw consent. It needs to be enthusiastic and freely given. So that's a case where you could be saying, Here's my t-shirt. Yeah, okay, you can have it. So that’s clearly not enthusiastic, okay? That sounds like a no to me. And in all situations where consent is an issue, or is on the table, power matters. And that's a big conversation to have as well. So you can talk, you could talk a lot about that t-shirt without destroying anyone's innocence.
Avani Dias: Chanel, do you think there is, I guess, a general shift in how we're thinking? Are we adopting those methods that Yumi is talking about those, you know, really basic understandings of consent, and how we teach those to kids? Do you think that parents and young people are getting around that and saying, yeah, we do need to teaching this at a young age.
Chanel Contos: I think they are. And I think it's, kind of… I follow quite a few – obviously, I don't have a child myself – but I follow quite a few of, like, parenting things on Instagram to, you know, let's see how people communicate consent these days. And it is seeming to come more so into kind of like mainstream parenting books, that these issues should be communicated. And that if your child doesn't want to kiss a family member at a family function, you don't force them to say hello to them in a physical way and things like that. But I think the thing that is still slightly missing from discourse, and Yumi just touched on it when she said, it sounds like a no to me when someone is hesitant about giving a t-shirt. I think what we're not teaching properly is full empathy. And I think this is also why there is, why sexual assault is a gender based violence issue, because we socialise boys and girls differently. We socialise girls to be over-empathetic and willing to extend boundaries and compromise, compromise on their own needs and things like that. And we socialise boys to, one, not do that, and two, to, kind of, expect that sort of thing. And I think the real problem is in this t-shirt situation, a lot of the times boys don't realise that oh, yeah, maybe not sure is a no. And that is because of a lack of empathy in the way that we're raising children and this real discrepancy, in the way we socialise the binary genders.
Avani Dias: Yumi, do you feel as though, you know, when you do teach young people these issues, they're receptive to it, and they get it? You know, you're obviously a mum, but when you're talking to young people about consent, are they understanding what's going on?
Yumi Stynes: Yeah, and I think they're actually, they're very thirsty for this information. They really love the candidness and honesty of it. And for some of them, it's the first time they've heard this stuff. So, I’ve been to classrooms where you can literally hear a pin drop. These kids in year 10, year 11, year 12, and they are sitting there completely zipped up, they have no sass when I'm in the room, and all they want is this information. The boys don't want to be going out there assaulting girls. I mean, I'm sure there's the odd sociopath here and there. But for the most part, these kids want to be doing the right thing. They want some guidelines, they want some clarity. And in the absence of it, there is a lot of guessing. And like Chanel says they don't necessarily read the body language of mmm, yeah, sure, you can borrow my t-shirt, they're not getting that. So they need all the information that they can get. They need it spelt out that sometimes no, is communicated through body language, through silence, through going quiet on your phone. There's a bunch of ways that people say no, that never use the word no.
Avani Dias: It is… there are so many grey areas, as you said, and there are a lot of complexities to this issue around consent. So, how do you break down and even understand, as a young person some of those really complex parts about it, which you know, it isn't as easy as just yes and no. And you know, there are different situations where it can get really complicated. How do you navigate that?
Yumi Stynes: We've said it's a really simple trio. You ask, you listen, and you observe. So you could say to somebody, listen, do you want to make out? And then you listen to their answer. So you give them a chance to answer, you make sure that they're safe, that the power imbalance isn't out of whack. And then you observe, so make sure that their body language is matching what they're saying. And if at any point, you're not sure, like if you're saying yep, yep, they definitely said yes. But they're crossing their arms like this, so I feel like that's a no. Then you go back and ask again. And you can be really, like, meta and say, listen, you're crossing your arms, and I read this book, and I feel like you’re kind of saying no. Or, you know, is there something else you want to do? Do you want to just, like, just hold hands? You know, you can keep the questions coming, it doesn't mean that you're slamming the door shut on the potential for intimacy. Just checking in, asking, listening and observing, it's a really great starting point, and it's not that confusing.
Avani Dias: Chanel, what are you finding with your generation? I'm slightly older than you, but it's similar with my generation, too, because we've learned about this quite late in life at school. Do you find that once you're learning, you know, in your later teen years, it's almost harder to grasp some of these issues?
Chanel Contos: One hundred percent. And honestly, in my, kind of, adult dating life, and, you know, the way I interact with people, especially in, like, relationships, sort of thing, intimate relationships, there's so much unlearning to do. Because so many values and, kind of, like fundamental, like, things, I just thought were normal, things that I thought things were how they worked, were ingrained in me from so young. When it was you're so you know, you're so vulnerable to influences then, and it's where you kind of set the scene for how you’re willing to interact when you're older and through life. And I think that is harder to grasp when it’s later, but that's why it is so important to start with, start with sunscreen, start with a t-shirt, blah, blah, blah. So then by the time you link this to this concept that you learned about in science, like, this biology thing, this thing that you know is how you make kids, it just makes sense. It's not confusing, whereas, kind of, throwing it on students in your 10, if you get consent education at all – which by the way, by year 10, a half of Australian students have been in a sexual situation, it's too late – it's it's hard to set those you know ingrained concepts of respect and consent and boundaries.
Avani Dias: Yumi what is your advice there as someone who is an educator and has researched so extensively in this space? How do you as an older person, when I'm saying older, I'm meeting late twenties and older. How do you unlearn that sort of stuff? I wasn't calling you old, by the way, you’re not! But you know, how do you learn that once you’re not of the, you know, kids generation that's coming through? Yeah, how do you unlearn those behaviours?
Yumi Stynes: I think humility, like being humble about your ignorance, is a great way to live your life because you just keep learning. But you know, like, I need to keep learning, we all need to keep learning. I think particularly fearful are the dominant people, white men, and I think it's a scary place for them to think, oh, well, the chickens could come home to roost for me, given that I've been on this earth for, say, 50 years, and, you know, who knows what happened when I was 20, and 30, and 15, you know? But just on that idea of educating when you're younger, the key time to get the messages in really is, as Chanel knows, it's when kids are younger, before puberty strikes. So puberty is like being hit by a freight train that's electrified by multiple bolts of lightning. It is such a shock to the whole body, the entire system is kind of, burnt to the ground and then rebuilt. So in amongst that there's a lot that if there's some pre-existing wiring, it is very, very helpful. So one of the things, there's a bunch of things that happen to a body going through puberty. One is the hormones are starting to make you want to do things that you never used to have any interest in doing. And those things are sexual things, right? But it's confusing, and it's new. And people are kind of cagey about what you can do, because you're a child, effectively and it's awkward. So you kind of left in the dark to literally fumble your way through that. At the same time, you're embracing risk taking behaviour, which is very different from boys to girls. So you know, boys would do crazy stuff like drive without a driver's licence. Girls might colour their hair or pierce a body part. It is manifest in different ways, but it is risk taking. And then there's also the complete elevation of your peer group as the thing that matters most to you, with the demotion of your parents, as the people you know, who you used to really, really, whose opinion used to really care about. So given that all that is going on, it becomes a really tricky place to make good decisions. And that's why teenagers are generally so thoroughly awful. So if you can…
Avani Dias: No offence to the teens on the call, you know.
Yumi Stynes: If you can have some grounding in how to make a decision, and also have had some conversations about sex that prepare you, I think one of the key things that trips teenagers up is they think there's a scarcity of sex, and that's because in some situations there is, and there's been a scarcity for the first 15 years of their life. And out of the desert of sex, and then suddenly, they're presented with an opportunity, they might have fluffed it last time and blown it and nothing happened. So the next time it's presented, they really want to gobble it up and cram everything into that one experience, not trusting that there will be countless more to follow. So, in that one time, they might pressure somebody else to do something that they don't want to do. They might be non-consensual with themselves and go look, if I don't fuck him tonight, I might never ever, I might die in virgin, you know, and that’s something very, very real and very pressing at the time. So if you can communicate to young people that there is no scarcity when it comes to sex and intimacy, that they will have countless opportunities, that they can… and this is so crucial, I think, for any age group, who, in any situation involving consent, that if you're not sure, like, if you're like, ooh, I haven't done that before, or… and these situations present to people in my age group who are newly single and dating again, you know, it's not just people in their teens and early 20s. But a situation presents… you are actually allowed to take time to think about it. And you're actually allowed to say, listen, I don't even know if I want to do that, you know, and it's totally okay for you to say that. I think we're just a little conditioned by movies and porn, to think that everybody knows what they want. They are fluent in this silent communication. And that to actually verbalise it is seen as really weird, but it's actually the best thing that you can do, is to say, listen, I like you and I liked that thing we were doing before, that was really fun, if we just did more than that, that would be cool. This thing that you're proposing, I don't even know if my buddy wants that. So can we park that? You know, there are so many ways that communication can get you out of a bind without shutting the whole thing down. But we’re never ever really shown how to do that communication.
Avani Dias: And I think it's really interesting, the point you made earlier, that people do want to do the right thing, you know, and remembering that makes you feel more comfortable in, I guess, raising your own boundaries, and I guess where you stand in that sense. But we are getting a lot of people getting in touch with us. Don't forget, you can comment on Facebook, as well as on the YouTube chat if you've got questions or comments for our guests. Someone's commented that someone from a socio-cultural background that hushes anything about the body — I appreciate this so much, I turned 20 this year and would have loved to be taught, as opposed to left to my own devices. Sarah has sent in a question as well. How do we approach consent as a society when our own government seems to ignore it? Chanel, this is a space you've been working in really extensively, what do you say to that question?
Chanel Contos: I say to that question that we keep making the government know that we're not going to let them ignore it, because it's on their radar. And it's hard, I mean, I think what you said before about being, you know, being humble and acknowledging that our own views may be… like, that, we need to educate ourselves. And that's the hardest thing about this, we're not just educating a new generation of children. Were re-educating everyone who has already gone through society up until this date when they have been socialised by norms and attitudes towards gender and sexuality that have made sexual assault so prevalent. So we all need to be willing to, kind of, reflect on our own values, be critical about where we got them from, what those, yeah, where they stemmed from, and things like that. To, kind of, take agency back over like what is truly right, rather than what's just normal. But it's hard, and it's disheartening. But we can't be disheartened, because they're just, yeah, so many people around Australia right now who are willing to be having this conversation, and we need to capitalise on that until the government does start listening to us.
Avani Dias: Yeah, clearly, there's a big social movement in terms of this conversation. But when you're meeting with politicians, Chanel, are they receptive to what you're saying? Are they keen to do more than just have a chat with you?
Chanel Contos: A lot of them are, but I'm also willing that the ones who are willing to meet me or have reached out to me are the ones who are willing to do more. The ones who are key decision makers, there are definitely some who can see what's right and what's wrong, but it's just so political, and there is so much, there's so much taboo around this and taboo around sex. And, like often the more conservative politicians will suggest abstinence as an alternative. They say that someone, this is a quote, it's just as absurd as what you're suggesting, and it shows that the older generation doesn't have a concept of consent themselves, because, okay, like, fine, wait until you're married to have sex, but you can rape your wife, you can rape your husband, you can marry someone and still not want to have sex with them the next day, you can not be in the mood one night, all of these things. It's not… the concepts aren't mutually exclusive. And I think that, again, there's a theme between the types of people who are funnelled into those positions of power, and the types of people who are socialised in a way who are potentially quite apathetic towards marginalised groups, or disadvantaged groups, including women, and I think that's where the real problems stand. But they are, it's almost as if people are willing to listen and question their own views. But there is, kind of, like a, loud background noise of saying we can't speak to children about this. And I also think, again, it's about breaking those stereotypes. With Scott Morrison, for example, I think that he, I haven't met with him yet, but my analysis of him is, I think he thinks sexual assault is horrible, and that it's, you know, shouldn't happen, and it's terrible, but I don't think he understands that it's something that happens every day and that people don't speak about. I think he thinks it's something that makes headlines every time it does happen, and therefore is an issue and it is really sad, but we shouldn't allocate all of Australia's resources in terms of reducing this problem. Because I think the thing that is lacking from decision maker’s perspective is the prevalence of it, the normalisation of it, the fact that statistics don't even begin to report this problem because we are so we're so indoctrinated by society's views around the way women are treated that a lot of people don't even know that victims until they're older, or ever. Sorry, I went on a massive tangent there, but I think it is just…
Avani Dias: No it's great, that's what you're here for. Bring on the tangents, it’s good. Yumi, keen to get your thoughts on that issue as well. Because, you know, Chanel made a really interesting point just then that a lot of people would argue that some politicians don't understand this issue. And perhaps that their example can really influence how we as a broader society deal with an issue like consent. So how do you navigate that? Considering the example they're setting, motivation to help parents and society change on that level?
Yumi Stynes: Yeah, it's really tough because it is easy to feel disheartened. It's easy to feel really angry, and we can't live in a state of fury all the time, although I feel like I have, so I can give you lessons in how to be angry 24/7. There's, I think the politicians are a bit of a throwback to this idea of victim blaming, like, were you drunk? What were you wearing? How many times have you had sex? You're a sex worker? Well, you know, there's a lot of people who want to diminish this as a real thing. And I think it's worth getting our heads around, because it's meaningful to them. And it's meaningful to us. And it's also meaningful to victims. So for instance, a friend of mine was, was raped by an older family member when she was a little girl. Now, her parents' reaction was to disbelieve her, and at the time, I couldn't believe that they'd made that choice, and on reflection, I can see that they did a quick calculation, that if this were true, what she alleged were true, they're gonna have to cut off the family member, which means not just him, but his parents, which is their parents, the cousins, the entire, sort of, situation that circles this family in order to believe the little girl. And it's not because they're horrible, it's just the calculation that they made was, she must be lying, because that is so much at stake right there, for us to dress to cut that off, to basically remove a limb of our family, we're going to actually choose to bend the logic of our brains, because we can't make that sacrifice. And I think that in a lot of the older male politicians' minds, there's just got to be a better explanation than this being real. It's got to be, she was drunk, or she's, you know, she's a lunatic, there's got to be something better than the reality because the reality is so hideous to contemplate. A what Chanel's… putting her word out there, and then getting that avalanche of responses, what that did was just, it provided an avalanche of believable victims, that was just, it was just earth quaking, because you actually couldn't find a single justification for any of it. And it was also incredibly, horribly believable. So in that, I think that Chanel has done the unbelievable, which has actually made change.
Avani Dias: That's such a good point. And I think so many people would agree. Chanel, what do you think of comments?
Chanel Contos: I just want to say thank you, that’s very kind of you. But yes, I completely agree. There's this like, weird, this weird thing about, oh, she's lying for attention. She's lying to ruin his life, whatever, all these things. It's like, I don't I don't know how many rapists whose life have been ruined by an allegation, something that's not even been approved and not taken to court or something like that. And, I think that yeah, and the anomaly of Teach Us Consent dot com, kind of like, platform provides means there's absolutely no reason to lie, every single testimony is better for defamation, so not a single individual can be held accountable. Again, it's an attack on a structural problem, not individuals who are just products, not just products, the society, as you said, some are definitely sadistic in the way they approach sex, but a lot of them are products of their own environment, and if they would taught these things from a young age probably probably wouldn't have done it. But yeah, it's I think, again, that kind of, again, it is because when sexual assault is talked about publicly, it often does make media headlines when someone comes forward because it is so hard for a victim to do that. That's not why they're doing it. And I mean, I think that's really stuck out to me through this whole campaign, and I went forward with my story of sexual assault, so many people were contacting me to say like, wow, that was so brave of you. And it's like, what fucked up society do we live in for it to be brave to be a victim of sexual assault? It's just telling of how people treat you as a result of it. So…
Avani Dias: Chanel, can I ask you, you know, when you first posted on Instagram and your DM started to go berserk. Did you ever have any regrets? Like oh my god, this more than I can take on, I would wind back time and not do that.
Chanel Contos: No. I had no idea what was gonna happen, but I definitely don't regret it at all. I'm very thankful for the whole experience. Even like all the hard parts of it, but yeah, that's been like some insanely moving messages I've gotten, being like, oh, my grandma, my mum and me, were all sitting in a room, and told my story, and then my grandma told hers, and then my mum told hers, and none of us never told anyone before. It’s just like, just so telling of how that's been going on for so, so, so long. And I'm just really proud of my generation, for being willing to hopefully stand up for it. And even if the government doesn't change their policies, even the curriculum doesn't get updated, even if our, like, our tangible asks don't get seen through, the fact that there's thousands of people around Australia who have normalised talking about sexual assault and feel more comfortable doing that, maybe that means I'll speak to their children about that, and that will have a difference on the parenting styles that people will have.
Avani Dias: And I'm keen to get both of your thoughts on this. First, you Chanel, I mean, on what Yumi asked you, is it ever really tough to be reading those stories so often, and every day? You're a young person yourself, you know, I've reported on this area, and then it can get a lot. And then, you know, you kind of move on a little bit, because it's just hard to read about all the time, but you've focused all your work on it. What is that like?
Chanel Contos: It’s really draining. Yeah, it's super, super, super, super draining, especially at first. At first, I was just kind of, I was almost, like, numb to it, when it first started coming in, when the answers started coming in, because they were coming in so quickly. I didn't even have time to process what I was reading, I was basically just again, checking for defamation. But it's, I just, kind of, now just like, allocate time to look at it. I don't read all the testimonies myself anymore. There's been a volunteer team of lawyers, and also some of my friends who have helped read through the testimonies and post them. But yeah, sometimes, like, someone will send me something Instagram, or even just like my algorithm is, like, fully tailored to just, like, stuff about this topic. And sometimes it's just like, oh, I can't read that, like, I get halfway through and I'm like, that's too much.
Avani Dias: Yeah, totally fair enough. And Yumi you, obviously, educate people about these issues a lot. I mean, does it ever get hard sometimes when it may feel like things aren't changing, it's really slow. How do you deal with that feeling?
Yumi Stynes: Yeah, I have to say, like, same as Chanel, when your Instagram started going off Chanel, I watched the first, I think, week, and then I was like, holy shit, I can't keep absorbing this, it’s hurting me spiritually. And it's a lot, you know, there's a lot of stories where it's so horrific, but so incredibly, like real. Just the, the really gruesome, concise language used by these young women, you just know, you can see the entire story. It's horrendous. I have no chill about saying assaults and rapes on the screen anymore, like I used to think I was tough because I could watch that stuff, now I'm just like, get that shit off of my eyeballs. That is not entertainment to me. When I finished the manuscript, and I kind of pressed send on it, it's a co-write, by the way, it wasn't just me by myself, but pressed send on the on the final draft, I actually howled with to tears for the feeling of being burdened for so many, literally years, actually, two years, being deathly afraid that we'd get something wrong, leave something really crucial out of the manuscript, misrepresent something. And it took until very late in the piece that I actually realised that I was afraid that somebody would have the book – this is it – and having read it and felt like they understood their boundaries, and they knew the definitions of consent, they understood how to communicate it, they would still be assaulted. And that is absolutely going to happen, like that is absolutely the way the world works. And I was like, how am I going to carry that burden that I haven't managed to immunise people that can see these things happening? And the fact is, we can't. But I did put a line in here, which is, I'll read to you: to be clear, there are many things beyond your control. A book cannot make you immune to the bad behaviour of other people. And so once I, sort of, found that line, and realised, I'm being honest here, then I felt like okay, I can hold my head up in this world and get through and continue because otherwise it's too great a responsibility.
Avani Dias: It's something that a lot of people have been, sort of, writing in on the, in the comments as well is, obviously you're in the media Yumi, Chanel, you're so prolific on social media and speaking in the media. But this is one thing that someone said, how can the media make more of a difference in this teaching? It feels like the media can also create the problem. How do you feel about that Chanel? As someone who engages so much with the media to get this message out there.
Chanel Contos: I completely agree the media definitely can be make or break. It's one of it's one of society's biggest learning tools, the media we engage with on a day to day basis. And it is victim blaming in its approach, a lot of the time, the way that almost everything is, you know, we read, like, woman gets raped, we don't read, man raped women. In a place, the language we use is always so powerful. It's always putting the focus and the blame on the victims often. And also, I mean, the way that sexual assault was reported, a lot of the time, sometimes it can be very dramatised. It's always a good hook. You know, media outlets love to ask if any survivors will come forward and speak. And the whole point is that, like, every fifth woman is a survivor, it’s not hard to find one. It's hard to have that conversation publicly, and for it to always be portrayed in a way… like some of the media articles I've read in the way that people betray sexual assaults, making the victim look so, like, powerless and all these things. It's so counterproductive because that's why people don't want to speak up about sexual assault, because they don't want to feel like a victim, they want to feel like a survivor. And the media can be absolutely key in portraying which way an individual is, yeah, perceived and how they feel in themselves as a result of them coming forward. Yumi, how do you think about that issue as someone in the media?
Yumi Stynes: I think it's a big ask on people like Brittany Higgins, and Grace Tame. I remember Tori Amos, the singer, talking about being raped on the way home from her bartending job, when she was a young woman. And that story following her for a really long time. Like, she's an artist, she's a singer. She's an amazing songwriter. You want to talk about something that happened to her in her 20s. Can she exist beyond being a victim? And I think that for a lot of people, their hesitation about coming forward about being a Brittany Higgins or being a Grace Tame, is they will be forever viewed through that lens. And no matter how powerful they are, no matter how eloquently they speak, there is a taint, according to the media, that you have been a victim. And you will always wear that taint, it'll be Tori Amos, the rape victim, not Tory Amos the incredible singer who's got a 30 year body of work. And for most of us, we would, really, choose not to be that person. We don't want our head in that particular frame. And I think the media has a lot to do with that. So the media could well serve to put the frame around accused rapists next. So yeah, you want to talk about policy? Aren't you the accused rapist? Oh, you want to talk about your latest attack on the opposition. But were you accused of groping somebody at the Christmas party? Like, can we just keep reminding the perpetrators of what they've been accused of instead of the victims of what they've endured?
Chanel Contos: Also there as well, as, like, as someone who I guess, is relatively well known as a victim of sexual assault, I actually think we just need to also change at the same time that we do put that language and accused rapist, we also just need to make it like, we need to get rid of that taint that comes with being a victim of sexual assault, because definitely, like, not something I think of in my day to day life, or when I'm doing media interviews and things like that. That's kind of, yeah, I think that I've been lucky in that I've also had, like, a mission that I, like, very clearly talked about, and it hasn't, kind of, just been that story. But I agree we need to really show that there is way more to victims and the fact that they just are victims because what that person did to them does not define who they are or their life.
Avani Dias: Yeah, it's not how you introduce yourself when you meet someone. And yeah, when you introduce someone on the media, and it's something that everyone does. There are so many good questions coming in that I want to get to guys, before we wrap up. Someone… Francis has said how can we make consent education more intersectional or inclusive to those from conservative cultures? Where talking about sex is even more taboo. Chanel, was that something that you've come across hearing from survivors?
Chanel Contos: I've definitely come across survivors whose parents are more conservative, therefore they've never told them, or like have told me that they're scared to tell them or something like that. Um, again, I think we just need to think about where we're getting these values from. What these values do, who they protect, who they leave vulnerable. Something Yumi was talking about before that was on my mind a lot when Yumi you were mentioning, kind of, like, being in a situation and not being 100% sure, those sort of things. If we, if we normalise talking about the positive aspects of sex, then it's a lot easier for children to understand if they want to be in a situation or not, and teens. And that's a big cultural difference. It's something that not many cultures in the world do address, the positive aspects of sex, in an open way with children and teens. And I, yeah, it's a big challenge to make this conversation culturally inclusive. And I think that's, again, where this education through the schools can be so great, because it's standardised, but so problematic, because you leave the burden on every individual teacher to understand the classroom and the situation right in front of them, in the way they’re delivering that content.
Avani Dias: Yumi, what's your advice there? So people who have more conservative family backgrounds, or parents who, you know, find it really difficult to speak about sex or consent? What's your advice there?
Yumi Stynes: Well, it's very, very understandable. You know, I came from a pretty conservative background, my mum's Japanese, you know, she was a rebel to marry an Australian guy and come here, but in her own way, she did carry her own cultural baggage as well. And a lot of children of migrants understand that, sort of, dichotomy. And of course, there's other ways to be intersectional with consent, and the issues around consent. Look, I think, I honestly think, at the risk of sounding like I'm plugging my book, use my book, please, use it. It's really accessible, and kids can read it, but it's also really useful for adults, it's a way you could just leave it on somebody's dresser and they can hopefully read it. Failing that, then it comes down to, look, a lot of the children of migrants end up, sort of, being in a parental role. And you have to educate upwards, you know, translate letters to your parents, help them understand their internet connections, and whatnot. And perhaps it's something where you're gonna have to educate upwards as well and say, listen, we're not in the old country anymore. This is how we do it here. Alright, guys, we've got about five, five to six minutes left. So I want your sort of final thoughts, especially on where this is going, you know, 2021 has been a really significant year with your work Chanel, Grace Tame, Brittany Higgins, as we've heard, and there's been so much momentum on this issue. But you know, Yumi, your work has really put that into homes and made people educated and understand these concepts as well, but there is so much attention this year, right? Chanel, where do you see this movement going?
Chanel Contos: Well, the Australian curriculum gets updated once every five years. 2021 is that year, it will be updated by the end of this year, and then it will not be able to be reviewed again for another five years. So it is super essential that we keep momentum going, to keep this in the public space until then. And then you know, whilst that doors closed, whatever the outcome is, we need to continue to promote education through the public, through parents, we need to continue. And this will benefit all aspects of our society, if we normalise, kind of, like reflecting on what we know and what we do, and the result that has in society and thinking about how we can change that for the better. We need people to be more willing to, kind of, reflect on their own views and listen to youth as well, as, like, the crux of this. But I really do hope that we do keep this momentum up that it just keeps going. And that there can be kind of like grassroots changing cultural change from every single person who's taken upon themselves to have hard conversations with family members. And then at the same time, kind of like, more higher level policy change coming from the top down. But it does seem like the government is continuously disappointing us in that space. But at least it's keeping us angry.
Avani Dias: Yumi, where do you feel it's going?
Yumi Stynes: I think there's gonna be a nationwide women's strike Avani. Women have had enough. I think we're really, really pissed off now. We’re feeling pissed off to our cause. And I think that the government continually playing to this idea of a base. I don't think that base exists. I think that base is Rupert Murdoch. I think he's playing to Rupert Murdoch. Deeply conservative, deeply right wing, anti- migrant, anti-women, force for that. And most Australians aren't like that. Most Australians are way, way better than that. So eventually, we're all going to get on board with this. But I do want to leave you with a couple of things that the research about consent has taught me, is very important to know yourself. When you're in a situation and you don't know what the fuck is going on, you might be a bit overwhelmed, you might be keen to impress somebody, but you don't want to be coerced into doing something that you don't want to. So in this situation, I want you to know that you can trust your instincts. This is something that every educator, every person who's worked in sexual assault, everybody who's been assaulted will tell you, that if your instincts are saying this is not good, trust that, okay? You might not be able to explain why, and you don't have to, you can just bail out of the situation. In fact, sometimes it's better not to provide an excuse. Just say, listen, I don’t feel… actually I'm going. You can say that. If you're being nagged or pestered about sex, to go further than you want to, or in any situation, work harder, be more. A good line in consent is, it's a bit of a mantra, you asked, I answered. They’re choosing not to listen to you. You asked, I answered. And finally, with consent, in any situation, where you're with another person, and they're doing things, and you're doing things, or you're not, it is never too late to call stop on that action. So you can feel like oh, well, I've gone this far, I've gone home with them, or I said yes, or I let them buy me 15 drinks. There is no point when you cannot call stop. You can call stop at any time, and that includes midway through what we call penetration. If you've just suddenly gone cold on the whole idea, you have the right to say no, I don't want to continue this, I withdraw consent. And that behaviour is completely legal, and it's completely normal, and it's completely okay for you to do.
Avani Dias: Such good advice, and just such easy to understand advice. Chanel, do you have any last advice for young people listening about how they can navigate this?
Chanel Contos: Yeah, I just want to add to Yumi’s last example, just then. She said, if you're mid penetration, and you think I don't want to do this anymore, 100% you have every right to stop. But what I want to point out to everyone is, if you're mid penetration with someone and they freeze up, they stop, they take the hand off your back, suddenly their face expression changes. Take that opportunity, be empathetic, be understanding of people's body language, feel their emotion, and say, are you okay in this situation, and stop yourself. Because, as Yumi said, you can read her book 100 times, you can know exactly what to say and how to say it, and sometimes just don't, you just can't, it's too hard, and that's not your fault. But that's also why we need both parties to be aware of the situation and willing. Every single sexual experience should be a positive one. And if it's not positive for both people, then remove yourself from the situation even if you feel uncomfortable about it, but not being positive.
Avani Dias: All right, I think, yeah, amazing notes to end on, and it really does show that these are simple concepts that people can wrap their heads around and really practise in day to day life. Yumi Steyns, thank you so much for being here.
Yumi Stynes: Thank you for having me.
Avani Dias: Chanel Contos, thank you for joining us all the way from London.
Chanel Contos: Thank you so much for this conversation, it was so great.
Avani Dias: Yeah. And yeah, to hear about any more upcoming events and podcasts, then you can subscribe to the UNSW Centre for Ideas newsletter, or you can visit centreforideas.com. Thanks so much for tuning in and, yeah, taking part in this extremely important conversation. Yeah, we'll see you next time.
Ann Mossop: This event was presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas and UNSW Arts, Design and Architecture as part of Social Sciences Week. Thanks for listening, for more information visit centreforideas.com, and don't forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Chanel Contos is an activist, tutor and student undertaking a Masters of Education, Gender and International Development and International Global Studies at the University College of London. Chanel entered the public domain in February 2021 after seeding the Teach Us Consent movement which has inspired a national conversation around the lack of consent education in schools. She has collected over 6,500 personal testimonies of sexual abuse and over 40,000 signatures demanding education reform. Her activism and collaboration with schools, police and parliamentary officials, has driven change across Australian states in the reform of sexuality education, legislative change and resource reallocation, and she is currently establishing an international organisation to reduce structural barriers to gender inequality.
Yumi Stynes | Chairperson
Yumi Stynes is a broadcaster and writer who's been working in Australian media for almost two decades, evolving from music reporter to her current focus as a writer on arts, culture, food, gender politics and human sexuality. She’s known for her honesty, warmth and humour.
Like many women, Yumi is juggling — she does a daily radio show, works on several writing projects (two cookbooks, Zero F**ks and Zero F**ks Endless Summer, Welcome to Your Period, and most recently Welcome to Consent), and regularly runs 5km for a laugh — all while raising four children. She fronts Ladies, We Need to Talk, the popular podcast with ABC Audio Studios and was the host of the award-winning documentary Is Australia Sexist? on SBS television.
Yumi is an accomplished MC, facilitator and speaker; recent events include Melbourne Writers Festival, Sydney Women's March, She Leads Conferences, Art After Hours at AGNSW, Rural Sexual Health Conference and Women in Leadership Symposium.
In 2021, Yumi presented The 3pm Pickup, spoke at the All About Women Festival and published in the Guardian Australia.
Avani Dias is the host of Australia's national current affairs show for young people, Hack on triple j which broadcasts to millions of people around the country. Avani has interviewed the country's leaders, some of the world's biggest thinkers, and reported on and investigated major stories. Avani has been a Walkley Awards finalist four times and has been recognised with a number of other journalistic accolades. She was previously a multiplatform reporter for ABC News across TV, radio and online in Sydney and Darwin.