Last year a young woman named Chantel Contos shared her personal experience of sexual assault at school online. She received an overwhelming number of responses, shares and support.
The story, and the underlying issue – a lack of understanding of exactly what consent means, to our young people – went viral.
Next, Ms Contos started a petition which received more than 44,000 signatures and more than 6,700 personal testimonies of sexual assault.
Sexual harassment and sexual assault at ‘all time highs’
As mainstream media began to pick up the story, it became abundantly clear that the issue was more widespread than originally thought. The formal statistics show that one in five women in Australia has experienced some form of sexual violence. One in every four of these women was younger than age 18 at the time.
Tweens as young as 11 have reportedly had to deal with receiving unsolicited sexually explicit images, or having their own intimate images shared online without consent.
Another report shows that more than 70% of women who work as servers, bartenders or in other food industry roles say they’ve been sexually harassed by their employers, coworkers or customers. Australia’s hospitality industry has one of the highest rates of sexual harassment in the nation. It’s a similar story in retail where nearly half of retail workers say they’ve been sexually harassed. Typically, these are jobs that high school and uni students take on part-time.
It paints a pretty dire picture.
But as a result of lobbying by Chantel Contos’ as others, as of 2023, ALL Australian high schools will adopt age-appropriate sexual consent education into their curriculums. Subject matter will include coercion, gendered stereotypes and power imbalances.
Educating young people about boundaries and consent
The reality is that there are significant issues presented by the amount of time these young ‘digital natives’ spend online, including the potential for the online environment to expose them to predators and enable them to access pornography. There’s also the fact that the online environment ‘speeds up’ dating and relationships in ways that are very different from previous generations.
But the other major consideration is recent law changes in New South Wales. Under the new laws, sexual consent can no longer be a vague agreement. And the consequences for those who do not understand this can be severe. Lack of knowledge of the law is never an adequate defence.
Affirmative Sexual Consent Laws in NSW
While critics of the new affirmative consent laws say they’ve gone too far, and they have eroded the naturalness of sexual expression and intimacy between people wanting to have an enjoyable loving experience together, the laws will go a long way towards aiding in the prosecution of rape cases and clarifying the previously ‘grey’ area of consent.
The new laws require those parties wanting to have sex to have a prior conversation and to seek mutual consent – a clear yes – before proceeding. The law also states that consent can be withdrawn at any time, even in the midst a sexual encounter. Consenting to one particular act, does not mean consent for a different sexual act.
In addition, we must remember that teens are not beyond the law. In New South Wales, a child over the age of 10 can be held criminally responsible. The issue of doli incapax – a person old enough to understand their actions are criminal – requires consideration on a case-by-case basis.
What is clear is that the conversation around consent needs to evolve from ‘no means no’. Schools have a significant responsibility on their shoulders. But the burden should not be theirs alone – parents also need to get involved, or at least provide their children with good, reputable resources so they can learn from a range of viewpoints about what it means to respect boundaries, what healthy relationships look like, how to manage rejection, how to know when they’re ready for sex, and most importantly, how to have a conversation about sexual consent.
This post is informative only. It is not legal advice. If you have a specific legal matter you’d like to discuss, please contact us.
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