At least half of all women in Australia have experienced sexual harassment, abuse or violence. That’s 1 in 2 that has been sexually harassed, 1 in 3 that has been physically abused and 1 in 5 that has been sexually abused. Let that sink in. With #FiredUp, Refinery29 Australia makes an ongoing commitment to spotlighting this serious and pervasive issue with the goal of dismantling gendered violence in Australia.
During that time, the 23-year-old's advocacy work has attracted over 43,000 petition signatures for consent education reform and more than 6,000 anonymous testimonies about people's own experiences with sexual assault.
All of this has been achieved through voluntary work and no external funding, but Contos now wants to elevate the campaign to put more pressure on the government as the Australian Curriculum Review is underway.
Once every five years, the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) reviews the country's curriculum. After having conducted external consultations with professional teacher groups, parents and subject matter experts, ACARA will provide final revisions to the curriculum to education ministers before the end of the year.
Between now and then, Contos hopes to raise $100,000 that can be used to create cross-media campaigns to further the cause, promote cultural change and challenge "attitudes toward sexuality and gender that result in a rape culture."
"There are a handful of people whose minds we need to change, but we need thousands to be involved in doing it," Contos told Refinery29 Australia over email, ahead of her appearance at the UNSW ADAnow On Consent virtual event. "For cultural change, we need millions."
Contos said it's essential that schools don't simply skirt around the issue of consent when teaching sex-related topics in personal development and physical health education (PDHPE) classes.
"At a national level, we need consent mandated in the Australian curriculum, and we need to teach it with explicit reference to intimate relationships," she said.
"The same time kids learn about the biology of sex, they should be learning about consent. The elaborations of consent in the curriculum need to be holistic in that they address factors such as power imbalances and gendered expectations."
When the Teach Us Consent campaign began, it was ignited by an Instagram call-out that Contos made after she noticed a pattern of sexual abuse experienced by her peers. Within 24 hours, 200 people said that they had, or knew someone who had, been sexually assaulted by someone who went to an all-boys school in Sydney.
Contos said toxic masculinity, including when it thrives in all-boys schools, is a "structural issue" and sexual assault "is a by-product" of it.
"I hope that education will prevent students perpetrating and encouraging them to question what is expected of them and give them the tools to understand what is right and wrong," she said.
"However, to address toxic masculinity within all-boys schools, there needs to be a whole school and whole community approach that challenges gendered norms and expectations and works towards equality."
Last week the federal government announced a $29 million package towards informative tools and preventative initiatives that will inform young people about sexual violence, consent and respectful relationships.
Contos said it's "absolutely essential" the government consults with young people when rolling out its package, because older generations are not necessarily aware of how different problematic behaviour and intimidating environments unfold in this age group.
"We need to understand current problems in youth and use language that makes sense to them to communicate these ideas," she explained.
"Issues that didn’t exist 20 years ago are rife now (eg. forwarding someone’s nudes or coercing someone into sending them to you). When I was at school this happened sometimes, but not on the scale it does today. I would have never learnt about this if I didn’t speak to youth."
Speaking of consultation, Contos was supposed to meet with Prime Minister Scott Morrison earlier this year to discuss consent reform, but the meeting was cancelled due to border restrictions as she is currently living in the UK.
Hoping to reschedule soon via a Zoom call, she said she'd like to reiterate to the PM that these issues need to be front and centre in policymaking.
"I would explain how sexual assault occurs at scale in Australian school children," she said, "and tell him that gender equality needs to be at the forefront of political issues in Australia moving forward."