My name is Chanel Contos and in February 2021 I started a campaign called Teach Us Consent to advocate for mandatory consent-based sex education in my hometown of Sydney, Australia. Originally, I intended to get only my old school and a few nearby schools to teach consent, but it became a national campaign almost overnight. After a year of tireless advocacy in schools and with parents and politicians, consent education was mandated in every Australian school from Kindergarten to year 10.
If you’re passionate about consent based sex education and would like to see change in your local community or in your country, here are a few tips from my experience to support you in your activism.
1. Don’t be scared to ask for meetings with ‘important’ people
Just because you’re young doesn’t mean that you don’t deserve to be talking to ‘important’ people. You’re the future of your community! Request a meeting with your Principal or community leader or with the local/state/federal politician in your electorate. Or all of them! More often than not, they’ll be thankful that you took the initiative to share your thoughts and insights with them.
2. Collate your research
If you’re an advocate for consent-based sex education, many of the facts and statistics surrounding sexual violence may seem obvious to you. But for others, this information might be new and shocking. People may ask to see the research that you’re referring to, so it’s helpful to have a one- or two-page document that’s simple to read and well-referenced. You can even include a ‘further reading’ list to encourage them to learn more about the benefits of consent education.
3. Keep the narrative about culture and change, not about individuals
The media can be ruthless to victims of sexual violence. They love to dramatize them, and use their story to sell papers or to get clicks. If you’re passionate about consent education, there’s a good chance you or someone close to you has had an experience that has made you so. But it can be difficult to ensure the media doesn’t frame sexual violence as isolated or one-off instances. The need for consent-based sex education is due to a culture which has created an epidemic of sexual violence, so try to portray the importance of this distinction to the media. This is also where your collated research will come in handy.
In the same vein, whilst you may want to name perpetrators as part of your campaign, make sure that individuals are not scapegoated as the sole problem. We are all responsible for upholding rape culture in one way or another. That means we should all be responsible to dismantle it. Consent-based sex education is a good place to start.
4. Remind people that this is preventable
It’s important for people to understand that the vast majority of sexual violence is preventable with education. Not utilising that tool is a tremendous shame. Being complacent is being complicit in the culture when there is research that shows how consent education can effectively reduce rates of sexual violence and dismantle rape myths. It’s also helpful to remind people that consent education can be adapted and taught in culturally sensitive ways.
5. Ask for advice
Don’t go into it alone. Set up an advisory group of people who are committed to the campaign and to your wellbeing. Think of people that you look up to, who have run similar campaigns or who are leaders in the field and ask them for 20 minutes of their time to share their learnings with you. Curate a list of people that have different and complementing skill sets, and that you can call whenever you need them for on-the-spot advice.
6. Protect yourself
Sexual violence is a draining topic. It’s important to prioritise and protect your mental health by limiting the amount of time you spend engaging with specific instances of sexual assault and instead using your time towards advocating for structural change. Make sure you switch off whenever you need to and take care of yourself. I found long showers therapeutic after a long day.
You may also need to protect yourself legally. I faced many defamation threats and legal issues through the Teach Us Consent campaign. Try to find a pro-bono lawyer before starting any sort of public campaign and make sure you can call them up for legal advice.
Lastly, make sure you block people who are sending you hate messages. It’s one thing to engage with people with varying opinions for the purpose of debate and learning, but you don’t need to read hateful messages while you do this important work.
Good luck, and thank you for advocating for a better future!
Header image credit: Sakina Saidi (@heyimsakina) via The Greats