The recent petition, started by Chanel Contos, has generated 31,00 signatures over two weeks. It shares the graphic, personal stories of over 2900 survivors of sexual assault, and names a wealth of NSW and Victorian private schools. Most recently, a second petition targeting parliament, has again gone viral. It’s causing a conversation and generating important changes in the sexual education of students. You know what it isn’t doing? Creating accountability.
The statistics are dire, and the lived experiences are even worse. 1 in 6 women experience sexual assault, and of those, 8 out of 10 cases are perpetrated by someone known to the victim. Stories in Chantel’s petition support these statistics. They describe the grey area of feeling unsure as to whether you have been assaulted because the acts are committed by people considered friends. Worse still are the statistics of how few rapes go reported. In a 2020 government report, it was revealed that of the women who have been sexually assaulted over the last ten years, 87% didn’t contact the police. This is in part, due to the lack of knowledge around consent and what constitutes assault. It’s also, in larger part, due to the cultural norms that govern our relationships.
Our current perception of sexuality is the by-product of at least 2,500 years within which “sexual values…have favoured the male…and repressed the sexual rights and expressions of women.” Particularly when combined with the rising culture of narcissism and hedonism, female sexuality being defined in relation to the masculine has taught “us to demand and expect instant gratification at the same time that it makes satisfaction impossible.” The ongoing ‘illicit’ nature of sexuality discourages open dialogue around sex, and contributes to the lack of education around pleasure. This encourages a culture that sees sex as a prize to be won, and something to be done to another person, rather than an intersubjective experience between two people.
As individuals, this impacts our lives as we are discouraged from violating any norms due to the threat of social disapproval. This plays out every time an assault isn’t reported, or is dismissed by peers. When someone is told that avoiding sexual assault is their own responsibility, and that cases can be stopped by managing how much one drinks, what they wear, or who they know, it contributes to the feelings of guilt and shame. In our context, the individual raped is objectified, a means to an end, “rather than an end to themselves…precluding the person from moral concern.” It is this culture, where friends mistreat each other, that leads to the use of young sexual experimentation and ignorance as an excuse for sexual assault.
There is no ‘how-to’ guide to approach being assaulted by someone you know. There is no easy way to report it, to own it, to hold them accountable. One of the biggest contributors to this silence and self-denial is this context in which, unfortunately, sex is unable to be divorced from social realities. If ‘everyone’ has a story similar to the ones shared in Chantel’s petition, that means that everyone also has a friend who lived through it. It also means we all know people who have perpetrated crimes similar to those in the personal testimonies, probably even unbeknownst to the assaulters.
To really tackle Australia’s sexual assault problem, there needs to be more than just an education overhaul. There needs to be cultural change, starting with people being willing to call each other out. We all need to know what is permissible and what isn’t. There can be no reliance on structural change or waiting for the legal system to hold assaulters accountable, particularly when only 2 out of every 5 accused rapists are convicted in Australia.
As the petition gains traction and the conversation continues to dominate, it’s important to recognise the significance of actively living our principles. It’s easy to share an Instagram post or sign a petition. But how, in our day to day lives, are we actively supporting our friends? Do you still invite your mate, who everyone knows gets a little too touchy on the piss, out for drinks? Do you still see your friends’ rapists for fear of social groups unravelling? Do you still put your friends in situations where they have to hang out with their rapist?