One evening, while I was in high school, three friends and I went to a party. Halfway through the night we noticed one of our group was missing, so we went to find them. Find them we did. Unconscious, with their top off, pants pulled down. On top of them, a boy, pulling himself out. There was a commotion around the door, so someone rolled our topless friend off the bed, to save them the embarrassment of being exposed to everyone. Their limp body hit the floor as I pushed the boy out of the room. He zipped up his pants, laughing, and telling us to calm down. “Cockblocks’’, one of the girls witnessing remarked. All four of us were then booed out of the party.
As we carried our unconscious friend over our shoulders, our conversation centred around the embarrassment of being told to leave, rather than the fact that one of our best friends had just been sexually assaulted. We didn’t know they had been sexually assaulted, because we didn’t know what sexual assault was. Not a single person who witnessed it did. A group of people who were educated in supposedly one of the best school systems in the world.
Many years later, and two weeks ago, this friend and I sat on my floor shaking, crying, and reflecting. We discussed how our experiences affected us in our adult life. With support and time to process, we’ve been lucky enough to become aware of how experiences like these impact our current sexual relations. One thing we couldn’t figure out though was: “Do they even know they did this to us?”
Hours later, I posted an Instagram poll asking “have you or has anyone close to you ever been sexually assaulted by someone who went to an all-boys school in Sydney?”. In 24 hours, 200 people said yes. Over the same period of time, only 50 replied yes to “if you went to an all-boys school in Sydney, do you think any of your friends has ever sexually assaulted someone?” It was interesting to me how almost every girl knew someone who had experienced sexual assault or had themselves, but so few boys claimed to know anyone who’d ever been a victim or perpetrator.
In response, I launched a petition the next day calling for more holistic sexual consent education, from an earlier age. I also gave signatories of the petition the chance to upload a testimony. It’s been three weeks now, and with over 30,000 signatures, and almost 5,000 testimonies, Australia has been confronted with the harsh reality that we live in a rape culture. In a rape culture, attitudes about gender and sexuality create an environment where sexual assault and harassment is the norm. These types of attitudes are sexist, and enable gender-based violence against women to persist in its many forms. Every single person contributes to this rape culture – unless they actively don’t.
We need to acknowledge that everyone is sexist. I acknowledge I am. Of course I am inherently misogynistic – I grew up in a world that has deep-rooted sexism in all of its structures. Every day I have to call myself out on my own thoughts, or something I say. When someone tells me they are visiting their doctor and I ask who he is, I have to take a step back and reflect. When I find myself being surprised to hear a girl is intelligent and attractive, I have to consider why society has taught me that those attributes are somehow mutually exclusive.
It is only normal that my behaviours from when I was younger and less educated filter through to my thought process today; I just need to take active measures to correct them, and to keep educating myself. Of course I called girls sluts, of course I made assumptions about someone’s sexual activity based on their outfit, of course I victim-blamed, of course I perceived sex as a way to pleasure a boy, of course I called people frigid and of course I made my friends feel insecure about their level of sexual activity. Of course I did, because everyone I knew did.
Of course you did too. The only way forward out of this is to admit this, reflect on what we consider normal and why. We all have the chance to know better. Try to unlearn these behaviours. Call your friends out, call yourself out, ask your friends to call you out. We are at a monumental moment in history. The perfect storm has emerged where women all over Australia, from those in government offices to young school students, are demanding change for the future. But for that change to occur, we need to understand what was wrong with the past and what is wrong with the present.
In the midst of the current debate, that boy who zipped up his pants and laughed as I pushed him out of the room all these years years ago was finally confronted. His response? Denial. We have far to go.
Chanel Contos grew up in Sydney, Australia. She is completing her masters in education, gender and international development at University College London, UK