WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT SEX.
When Chanel Contos started an online petition to teach consent in sex education earlier, she triggered a landslide of people sharing stories of sexual assault while in school. From London, where she studies gender and education, she writes about the power of language, and how finding the right words – from what we tell our children, to what we tell ourselves and what we say to one other – can change a culture broken.
From the age of five, I have memories of being told “go change your clothes” before men came into my house. As I got older, I wondered whether the men were told not to sexualise a five-year-old girl upon entering. Now, I question why it was acceptable to welcome someone who my parents thought had the potential to do that into our family home in the first place. My answer: because we live in a rape culture society, where anyone could harbour the potential to do this. But when you’re five and that’s what you’re told to do, you just change your singlet into a baggy T-shirt and shuffle around uncomfortably when someone who cares about you gives you a familiar look that you know silently says “don’t sit like that”.
Most people would agree that rape is unacceptable. Yet we live in a society where most perpetrators of sexual assault continue through their lives unaffected by their actions, often with praise and – sometimes – without even being aware of what they’ve done. Victims carry the burden in the form of shame, trauma, social stigma and constantly trying to avoid risky situations.
We are educated on a subconscious level by millions of micro throwaway phrases. It starts in childhood. Your parents tell you what to wear and how to act in order to prevent being raped. This puts the onus of avoiding rape on children, and consequently, prepares us to contribute to the victim-blaming society we live in.
For many young people, this is how it goes. You reach your early teens. People start talking about sex in a different way to how you were told about the birds and the bees, but it’s all hearsay and gossip. What you do know for sure though is that the girls who do it are labelled ‘sluts’ and the boys who do it are ‘legends’. You’re told that sex is the “only thing boys want” and that they’re going to try their hardest to have sex with you, but you simply must “avoid it”. You’re told “sex is going to hurt the first time”, and probably the many times after that.
Years go on and you hear more and more about sex. You want to be able to contribute to lunchtime conversations but you don’t have anyone in your life you feel comfortable doing that with. You’re at a party with a boy you have known for years. He’s in the ‘cool group’. You’re so excited to be kissing him. Then, he asks you to do something you’re not sure of. He says: “I really want to do this with you.” He complains: “All my friends have done it.” He asks: “Why did you come upstairs with me if you didn’t want to do this?” You don’t exactly say no but you do shy away as he pushes you slightly and pleads. Suddenly you’re doing it. It doesn’t feel good, but sex isn’t meant to the first few times, right?
You feel strange, so you don’t tell anyone at school on Monday. But he does. By Wednesday, everyone knows your cup size and you are officially classified as a slut. Some welcome you to the club, others shun you. The boy you were texting for a few weeks stops replying, but new texts come in
I DON’T KNOW HOW TO EMPHASISE ENOUGH THAT SOCIETY NEEDS TO RECONSIDER HOW IT TREATS ITS VICTIMS IF SPEAKING UP ABOUT SEXUAL ASSAULT IS DEEMED BRAVE
from older boys now that they know you can provide this service to them. You’re thinking about it as you wait at the bus stop on the way home from school when as usual, a car of grown men drive by, honk, and call out to you. You go home and say that it embarrassed you. You’re told “boys will be boys” and to take the catcalling as a compliment as “it just means they think you’re pretty”.
You see him at parties a lot. You avoid eye contact and pretend not to hear his friends’ sly comments. He gets a raise in social status for cracking the ‘frigid girl’. He starts paying out his ‘whipped’ friend who hasn’t popped the cherry of his girlfriend. That weekend, his friend begs his girlfriend to go down on him so he can finally leave the Virgin Club.
You leave school. You hear about consent and sexual coercion. You confide in close friends and family, and many of them take it upon themselves to double-check that you did not in fact want it to happen. You’re asked: “Why are you bringing this up now?”, “What were you wearing?”, “Were you drunk?” You’re told to consider the implications this claim could have on this boy’s life and career. You say nothing. He is now an executive at a large corporation. His friend is a member of parliament.
Now, let’s imagine another scenario entirely. You grow up without any part of your body being taboo. You wear what you want, and your guardians only allow people they trust into the house. You know the difference between your vagina, your labia, your clitoris and all the rest, just like you know the difference between your ankles, feet and toes. You know that your body is yours and that if anyone ever touched you in any of those places you could detail what happened without shame. You go to school and get taught about this thing you’ve heard of before called sex. It’s not something that happens between birds and bees – it happens between humans. You will do it when you’re ready, and when you’re ready, you will enjoy it.
You go to a party and almost have sex with an old friend. You realise you’re not enjoying the situation and you know that means that you should leave it. Years later, you’re in a similar situation again. You feel good, comfortable and respected. You have sex and no one calls you a slut.
You teach your kids what you learnt, and about boundaries and respect. When they go to parties, you remind them to be considerate of other people’s bodies. One day your teen comes to you and tells you they had an unwanted sexual experience. You do not blame them for it. You both know what sexual assault is, and that it is not their fault or shameful in any way. You take correct measures instantly, so the perpetrator is punished and does not carry these values with them if they go into a position of power. The structural conditions that maintain rape culture fall in a generation.
I’ve been told many times recently how brave I am for starting this conversation. I don’t know how to emphasise enough that society needs to reconsider how it treats its victims if speaking up about sexual assault is deemed brave. Malcolm Gladwell explains the concept of a tipping point as a magic moment when something small finally shifts the balance of a system and brings about large societal and behavioural changes. I think we are very close to this tipping point, and potentially, at it already.
Once Australia reaches a situation where it is more socially acceptable to call out the objectification of women than it is to objectify women, the structural conditions that uphold rape culture will begin to fall. For this to happen we must acknowledge the reality of our environment, so we can navigate our way out of it. We live in a rape culture society, where toxic masculinity, slut shaming and victim blaming thrive. These notions need to be included when explaining the intricacies of sex and consent to the next generation of Australians.
There would not be thousands of testimonies of sexual assault if perpetrators did not think their behaviour was normal. There would not be thousands of testimonies of sexual assault if society did not excuse this behaviour. There would not be thousands of testimonies of sexual assault if these perpetrators did not end up in their position of power, to do it again. There would not be thousands of testimonies of sexual assault only surfacing over the past few weeks if it wasn’t a fiveyear-old girl’s responsibility to not be sexually assaulted. It’s in the small things. For help, contact 1800RESPECT national confidential helpline: 1800 737 732; Lifeline Australia, 13 11 14; Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636.