Content warning: This article discusses domestic and sexual violence in a way that may be distressing to some readers.
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.
Sexual consent is the focus of the new SBS docuseries Asking For It, but the issue is not new to the national conversation.
Over the last two years, the government has faced increased pressure to take the issues of sexual violence more seriously. This is at least in part thanks to the likes of Brittany Higgins, Grace Tame, Chanel Contos and Saxon Mullins speaking out, and thousands of Aussie women marching to demand change.
"What we're really doing [with this series] is boosting the work of advocates and people within the sector, police and others to bring it back to the forefront of national consciousness," investigative journalist Jessica Hill tells Refinery29 Australia.
Across three episodes, Hill interviews advocates, experts and victim-survivors to unpack consent education, legal reform and the alarming rise of image-based abuse.
"We say that a new sexual revolution is underway, and at this time, it's about consent," Hill says. She says there's been a shift in the way many people, and particularly Gen Z Australians, engage in sex. More of them are opting to be more selective about the sex they're having.
"They're not feeling locked into an unfortunate by-product of the sexual liberation movement", Hill says, which brought with it the idea that you should be up for sex all the time — "but if you're a woman, you shouldn't be too enthusiastic about it".
Hill says there was the notion that women "should just always be willing to comply and, as time went on, willing to comply with anything that you're asked to do."
In Australia, an average of 85 sexual assaults are reported daily. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, men between 18 and 24 years old had the highest sexual assault offender rate between 2010 and 2020. This makes consent education more important than ever, with experts in the series saying that it should be taught well before high school.
"It's definitely shocking to see that figure, and I think more than that, it's so sad," says survivor and law reform advocate Saxon Mullins. "These are a group of young people, and the people that they're offending against are a group of young people who haven't been given the tools to talk about this, or who have been given the wrong tools."
Both Mullins and Hill believe that there needs to be a new approach to educating and including men in the consent conversation. In its absence, they will continue turning to the manosphere, a term used to refer to communities promoting masculinity, misogyny, and anti-feminist beliefs on the internet.
Hill says these figures "are pushing the line to boys that feminism is not for them. That it tells them that they're toxic, that feminism is a fad. And really, that the natural order is that men should be in control and should be strong."
Mullins was instrumental in the push for affirmative consent laws, which were passed in NSW in November 2021. A survivor herself, Mullins' case saw the accused person's conviction overturned because the court said he didn't know Mullins hadn't consented. The new sexual consent laws mean that if a person does not obtain affirmative consent, they could be found guilty of sexual assault.
Since first speaking out in 2018, Mullins' story and continued activism has attracted a great deal of attention from the media and the general public. Talking about your personal experience and trauma sadly comes with consequences for many victim-survivors, who often pay a price for speaking up.
"In the age of the internet, you will always find a way to see what people have said about you, especially when you're trying to use social media as a tool to advocate," says Mullin. "That is when you see that price continually paid in replies and comments.
"Now that your story is in the public domain, people feel they have a right to be judge and jury on what they believe to be the truth based on a few articles."
In the Asking For It series, Noelle Martin speaks of the "price you pay" in sharing her situation after speaking out against image-based abuse. The Perth-based woman was 18 when she discovered that photos had been stolen from her social media and photoshopped onto the bodies of adult film stars. Since speaking about this and pushing for a national law that would fine companies if they don't comply with removal notices for such content, she's found the offenders only creating more deepfake porn featuring her face.
Ultimately, the exploration of consent education, image-based abuse and the manosphere illustrate how multi-faceted the conversation around consent is, and the necessity of addresssing this in multiple ways. Hill hopes that the series will encourage more survivors to report sexual assault, but also emphasises the urgency for greater funding for frontline and support organisations that help victim-survivors.
"There's our show, continuing advocacy and also a consent education rollout that's going to happen nationally. Yet, sexual violence centres around the country are radically underfunded," she says.
"There's going to be a serious rise in reporting off the back of all of these different things... you need to have the infrastructure ready to catch the people who are going to fall out."
Asking For It premieres Thursday, April 20 at 8:30pm on SBS and SBS On Demand.
If you or anyone you know has experienced sexual or domestic violence and is in need of support, please call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), the National Sexual Assault Domestic Family Violence Service.