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By Keryn Donnelly
4 min read
Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault in a way that may be distressing to some readers
“The actual posting of the Instagram story was a moment of anger,” she tells Refinery29 Australia. “I hoped it would create some kind of justice or some kind of control by removing the shame around it.”
In the Instagram Story, she asked her followers whether they or someone they knew had been sexually assaulted when they were at school. Within 24 hours, over 200 people had replied ‘yes’.
Contos asked this question because she, too, was a survivor of sexual assault. When she was just 13 years old, she was sexually assaulted by her older boyfriend. Two years later, she received her first lesson about consent.
“When I was 15 years old and received consent education myself for the first time, it made me realise how preventable this widespread form of sexual violence is in young adults and young people and how obvious the solution seemed,” she says.
After the overwhelming response to her Instagram Story, Contos started a petition calling for more holistic and early consent education in schools. She also posted a Google Doc, where young women could share their stories anonymously. Over 44,000 people signed the petition and over 6,600 women came forward to share their stories — many for the first time.
“It gave people the confidence to care about themselves and say, ‘actually that’s not okay, and that happened, and that person did do this me’,” Contos says.
This petition and the testimonies later became the Teach Us Consent campaign, which was presented to MPs around the country to advocate for better consent education. In February 2022, Ministers of Education from around Australia committed to mandating holistic and age-appropriate consent education in every school, and in every school year, beginning in 2023.
While Contos was initially motivated by anger, her approach throughout the Teach Me Consent campaign and all the work she has done over the past two and a half years has been one of empathy. She wants to attack the problem, not the individuals.
“The quote at the start of my book is ‘Be ruthless with systems, be kind with people’ and I feel like that’s very much an ethos I’ve tried to take on,” she explains.
“I think it’s really helpful to understand the problems we have in our society as structural and systemic issues and be willing to take individual accountability to try to change that, without feeling as if it’s an individual’s fault.
“How much can you blame an individual versus the context they grew up in and the environment they grew up in and what media they were consuming and what their parents said at home and what their teachers said at school and what their friends said because of what their parents and teachers said?”
This is exactly what she will be tackling next week when she appears on the Masculinity Reimagined panel at SXSW alongside The Daily Aus founder Zara Seidler, human rights activist Tarang Chawla, and men’s mental health expert Dr Zac Seidler.
The aim of the panel is to discuss how masculinity can be reimagined in a society where men like Andrew Tate reign supreme and Men’s Rights Activists are teaching boys and men harmful attitudes towards women, consent and sexual violence from a young age.
“We’re trying to unpack this concept of masculinity and what it currently means for people and what it could mean,” Contos explains.
“I think we’re in a really interesting era at the moment where Andrew Tate has taken over and Donald Trump has been the President of the United States — two very influential men in the world who do not exhibit masculinity in a way that we think is productive or healthy or safe for society.
“And I think we want to understand why. I think the reason that these people have been allowed to thrive is also because there is a gap missing for healthy influences for young men.”
Contos says if she was asked to list 10 women who inspire her, or that she aspires to be like, she would be spoilt for choice. But she believes young men don’t have the same access to healthy role models.
“I think we need to mobilise men to want to be that sort of person they wish they had to look up to when they were younger,” she says.
“Teenage boys are very influenced by external factors. They’re in a school system where there’s this social hierarchy and there’s very clear rules about what can make you cool and what can make you not cool.”
Ultimately, Contos believes changing the narrative around masculinity from a young age could change the way men interact with women as they grow older.
“How do we reinvent that and change the script so that masculinity is ultimately
about being a good human?”
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