Emerging Leaders – Chanel Contos: Building on Shared Experiences

Resource type: Podcast

How do we build from shared experiences to address past injustices and create national change for future generations? In this episode, founder of Teach Us Consent and author of Consent Laid Bare Chanel Contos explores her work, its effect on the Australian curriculum, and the human impact of her work.

Please be aware that the conversation contains stories of sexual assault, sexual violence, and rape. The timestamps for these topics are highlighted in red in the episode transcript below.

You can find out more about our work to help young people develop ethical leadership skills here.

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The views expressed in these podcasts are those of the speakers and not necessarily reflect those of Cumberland Lodge.

Episode transcript

00:00 – 00:28

Munny Purba (MP)

How do we build from shared experiences to address past injustices and create national change for future generations? In this episode of Emerging Leaders, we speak to Chanel Contos, founder of sexual education organisation Teach Us Consent and author of book Consent Laid Bare. We explore the effect her organisation has had on the Australian curriculum and the human impact of her work.

00:28 – 00:49

MP

Please be aware that the conversation contains stories of sexual assault, sexual violence, and rape. The timestamps for these topics are highlighted in the episode transcripts, available on the resources page of the Cumberland Lodge website. Thank you so much for joining us for the Emerging Leaders podcast Chanel, we’re really excited to talk to you about such an important topic.

00:49 – 01:18

Chanel Contos (CC)

It’s such a privilege to be here. Thank you so much for speaking with me.

MP

And so I thought we could just kick off by asking you, and what were the kind of motivations for you getting involved in conversations around consent and really kicking off this work that you’re doing?

CC

I think the main motivations came from two places. One, it was this overwhelming feeling of injustice because of the rates of sexual violence that were experienced by my peers when we were younger that never had any accountability.

01:18 – 01:41

CC

And then the other side of it, which worked in tandem with that, was the fact that it really felt like there was a clear solution. So it was quite frustrating that something wasn’t being done about this. I think having that hindsight, being older, understanding the dynamics more and thinking about how transformative consent education could be, it was just such a simple solution that could prevent so much harm and injustice.

01:41 – 02:11

MP

See I think, often we find these things happening coming from some sort of lived experience or something to do with what you’re seeing in the world around you. So to go ahead and make a difference and really try to make a change is something quite inspiring, I think. So I, So I wonder if you can think about some of that early conversations that were potentially happening at the time of you trying to start this organisation and, and how that may have fed into some of the barriers or a struggle at the start.

02:11 – 02:26

CC

It’s a good question. I think it was also a lot of, as you just said, personal stories that obviously provide motivation around this. And it was definitely a time that I was thinking about this topic a lot, because of, I was studying my masters in gender education and international development

02:26 – 02:57

CC

So lots of conversations around gender-based violence and sexual violence, particularly within the school system. And I think at the very beginning of the campaign, when I was posting thousands of testimonies of sexual assault, the hardest part of that was how personal they were to so many people that I knew, because obviously when I started the campaign, it was just my immediate Instagram following.

02:57 – 03:13

CC

So it was women that I knew and grew up with sending me testimonies about boys that I knew I grew up with, and that was really jarring. But I feel like now my work has gotten to a place where it’s much more about dealing with structural interventions and more high-level policy change.

03:13 – 03:40

CC

And speaking about the issue more broadly, which means that it can be like, it’s a less of an emotional load.

MP

I mean, it does sound like it’s quite emotionally charged work, and the conversation around it can lead to maybe some challenging conversations. And I think, I don’t know if you’ve maybe experienced some of that when doing the work, when speaking to young people, speaking to people around you that you’ve maybe been challenged as to why this work is necessary.

03:40 – 04:00

CC

I think the biggest challenge and pushback has been not if it’s necessary, but more so, is it a school’s place to deliver this content? I think there is a tension between what parents feel is their right and duty as parents, and how much of that they’re willing for the school to either pick up or supplement or support.

04:00 – 04:37

CC

And I think it’s also much more around an age thing, because no one’s going to say we shouldn’t ever teach consent, obviously. Right. That doesn’t make sense. But I think there are lots of misunderstandings of how young this topic actually becomes relevant and important to people. I think there’s lots of misconceptions around the fact that super young kids are extremely vulnerable to child sexual abuse perpetrated by adults if they’re not equipped with this sort of language, and if they don’t feel comfortable having these conversations with parents so that people think, oh, we shouldn’t have this conversation that young, because my child’s not sexually active.

04:37 – 05:10

CC

But the whole point is that sexual assault is not a choice. Therefore, it’s not as if they’ve come to this time in their life where they think, I’m now ready to engage in this, and I want to have this conversation. It’s about intervening before that is the case. Obviously, in a much less explicit way when they are super young. But I think the conversation needs to be there about their own body autonomy, and about ways that they give permission and deny permission and ways that they, you know, speak to their parents or trusted adults about anything that feels as though it’s crossed their boundaries in any way to keep them safe.

05:11 – 05:29

MP

So it’s about tailoring it rather than it being kind of maybe that overt conversation initially at that young age, but kind of getting people on board as to why it can be taught at a younger age and why it’s actually really necessary because, as you say there, it’s never a choice for these things that happen that young or at all.

05:29 – 05:51

MP

So yeah, I think that’s really interesting. And then I suppose going on from that, where do you feel that you’ve seen maybe some of the biggest successes in the work that you’ve done in terms of pushing and forward with maybe policy or even in interactions you’ve had with people one on one? Where do you think there’ve been some really amazing successes that you’ve seen with this work?

05:51 – 06:14

CC

Well, I think the biggest success is the fact that consent education is now mandated in the Australian national curriculum from kindergarten until year ten every year, which is really great, and it’s in an age-appropriate way. But there’s been lots of small wins and small successes, and it’s actually the small personal stories that always get me emotional, whether it be from a young person who, you know, told their family about something that happened to them

06:14 – 06:40

CC

and then in breaking that shame, they realised that similar things happened to their mother or grandmother or both, and just showing how intergenerational this is and how important a conversation can be for relieving that sort of taboo around it. Yeah. And then there’s also been some really great success feelings, I guess, with conversations with men and young men, there’s been a lot of not very success stories around that as well.

06:40 – 06:57

CC

One that really comes to mind when I think about a lot is so I was running a campaign around Stealthing, which is the nonconsensual removal of a condom during sex, and it was to get it criminalised in all Australian states and territories. And that’s another big win of the campaign. We’ve got an act criminalised in two more states, which is really incredible.

06:57 – 07:29

CC

And I posted on my story saying massive long shot. But any chance anyone who’s stealthed someone before would be willing to talk about it with me and this like 28-year-old man basically sent me a DM and was like, I didn’t realise that I had sexually assaulted someone or raped someone until I was reading your stories about this and told me about, you know, an experience when he was 18, when he was feeling extreme social pressure and also extreme desire for sexual gratification, which led him to, in a split moment decision, to take a condom off without permission.

07:29 – 07:48

CC

And I think it was really powerful to hear him talk about the fact that he knew it was wrong, but he didn’t know it was illegal, and how much he kind of regrets it now. And after seeing what the not just physical, but also psychological effects of stealthing someone can be, I think really felt like a bit of a win.

07:48 – 08:06

CC

I don’t know. To see this sort of accountability, where it’s so rare to say it. And I actually recorded him speaking with his permission, obviously, and played it at a roundtable with attorney generals and shadow attorney generals from around the country as part of this campaign around law change. And there are a lot of victim survivors there as well, telling their own stories as part of this activism.

08:06 – 08:38

CC

And afterwards, they’re all like, it was so healing to hear a man admit that he messed up, admit that he had caused this harm, and admit that he had enacted violence, without being defensive and without deflecting. And I think that, yeah, really felt like a big success.

MP

I mean, incredible success. And I think that’s something that I have seen through this work, is that there is more space and there’s more language to be able to talk about these things in open conversation.

08:38 – 08:59

MP

And like you said, that that person didn’t even really know what they were doing as being, you know, sexual abuse. And so I think even just having more of an understanding of these things that make people think about what they’ve done in the past or how they act in the future, potentially is just a huge win. I think that is something that I’ve seen.

08:59 – 09:26

MP

Maybe working a little bit on this topic as well is just the ability now for people to feel that they have a space to talk about it.

CC

100%. That’s so important to create that space, because then it’s like we can only, you know, we can agree to collectively do better, hopefully. If we tried to, you know, suddenly imprison every single person who’s ever done something like this, particularly when we’re looking at adolescent boys being the largest demographic of perpetrators of these crimes so they’re literal children.

09:26 – 09:40

CC

Our society wouldn’t function if everyone just suddenly you know disappeared, went to jail, or whatever. So there needs to be, we need to reimagine what accountability looks like and hold space for that, because the current system doesn’t have any. So I think that that’s better than nothing. Personally.

09:40 – 10:01

MP

And I think also, you know, I’ve seen in schools that there have been moments where there hasn’t been a want for this educational setting. Maybe parents don’t think it’s necessary for the kids to have it at all. Maybe. And I think schools I’ve seen recently have been quite forthcoming with saying, you know, it’s necessary and bringing in organisations to do this work.

10:01 – 10:23

MP

And, you know, I hope that it continues because, well, it needs to do it’s essential. It’s imperative that this stuff is talked about. Well, thank you for getting it going and really having, you know, creating such a big conversation around it. I think it’s amazing.

CC

Thank you so much. One thing I just want to add to that as well, this idea of like some parents not being comfortable with it, but that sort of thing.

10:23 – 10:52

CC

I think we also need to think about the greater good in the collective, because you might not want that, particularly for your child, because you would rather have those conversations with your child, and you would rather provide that space. But so many parents either don’t or won’t, or unable to have these conversations with their kids. Devastatingly, so many parents can be the perpetrators of these sorts of crimes for children, so ensuring that there are other trusted adults in their life.

10:52 – 11:20

CC

Ie the school, like, you know, this external speaker who comes in and has these conversations is really important for the whole community. Even if you personally don’t think that your child needs to hear this through school because you think you’ve got it covered at home. It is really the absolute minimum and fall back for those who don’t. And then we only hope that parents also, you know, take it in their stride, to have this conversation consistently and in depth and in a way that they’re comfortable with on top of all of that.

11:20 – 11:33

MP

Then I hope generationally this conversation won’t even be a question, because, you know, these young people have had this experience in school and learned about it, and therefore it becomes embedded in the culture to have these open and honest conversations about these things.

11:33 – 11:59

CC

Yeah.

MP

I read something that you’d written recently that said sexual assault and violence is when entitlement is more important than empathy to perpetrators. I mean, that is essentially the case. And something I really it was put so well and I hadn’t really thought about it in that way. But I wonder how, if you could talk a bit on that as well, and how you kind of created that conclusion on this work.

11:59 – 12:17

CC

Yeah. So I wrote about this in my book and I said, sexual assault occurs when the entitlement to another person’s body outweighs the empathy that you feel towards them. And that really just came from, I guess, my whole theory of change is really hard to explain on a really small podcast, you can check out my book Consent Laid Bare if you want to.

12:17 – 12:45

CC

My whole theory is that the vast majority of sexual violence, particularly talking about teen on teen perpetrated, you know, young men. It’s out of entitlement. It’s out of desire for instant sexual gratification. It’s because they’ve been socialised to have the world kind of carved out for them. And I also have, I did my dissertation on the intersections of male entitlement with wealth entitlement, and the increased rates of sexual violence and single-sex private education institutions.

12:45 – 13:08

CC

A whole other topic. We won’t go into that now, but entitlement is something that I think is really interesting to me and I think really is at the core of all of this. And yeah, my whole, I guess, theory of change is around empathy and saying, well, actually, if we teach young people, particularly young boys, to be empathetic towards their sexual partners, to, you know, centre their sexual experience as well, then it’s pretty much impossible to violate someone’s consent.

13:09 – 13:35

CC

Quick anecdote that I think is really interesting. So my friend, when she was in year 12 got invited to two school formals and the first formal was a state school formal, and she got dressed up and out, whatever. And her dad was just like, you know, be home by midnight or whatever, and it wasn’t really a big deal. And then the next formal she went to was, you know, super exclusive private school, like kind of Eton version of Australian school.

13:35 – 13:54

CC

And her dad sat her down and started giving her all these talks about all this stuff and, mentioning consent and mentioning how, you know, she should always feel comfortable to say no, and he can call her or she can tell him anything, blah, blah, blah. And she was like, dad why are you freaking out so much? Like, I went to formal last week and everything was fine.

13:54 – 14:20

CC

Like, why are you freaking out about this formal? And he said, because these boys have never been told no. And I found that just, like, so interesting and just really encapsulated this whole idea of how entitlement is such… It is the main driver of sexual violence, and male entitlement is celebrated and permeates everywhere in our world. And at the same time the opposite.

14:20 – 14:48

CC

It’s done to women like the, we’re socialised to feel bad for taking up space or for setting boundaries, or for saying no, or for all of these things. I think it’s a really insidious combination of gender stereotypes that play out in this field.

MP

And so then, like you said, at the beginning, it’s it’s really now a conversation about the structural issues that exist to allow for these things to continue and how we can try and build a system that is not that at all.

14:48 – 15:15

MP

And is really as far away from that as possible, because it’s about now a shift in those structures, than really just having a conversation that at at surface level is embedding that into practice.

CC

Yeah.

MP

It’s no easy feat. It’s such a… it will be a generational shift. It will be a constant conversation, I think. But it’s the start of that is the going out there making it happen, which will, you know, turn the wheels of getting it going.

15:15 – 15:38

MP

So which you are starting with Teach Us Consent, which is amazing and the book as well. I wonder because you are an expert and a leader in this. So thinking about the qualities that you’ve either felt have been part of you, that have allowed you to do this work, but maybe some qualities that you’ve also learned along the way that have kind of helped you on that leadership journey.

15:38 – 16:04

CC

Oh, it’s a tough question. I think my inherent passion was really helpful. I think that, so my, I don’t know what to call it, like motto for life sounds a bit dramatic, but a motto that I love and live by and it’s also the opening quote of my book. And really, I think I try to employ it in all the work I do is: be ruthless with systems, be kind to people.

16:04 – 16:32

CC

And I think that inherent understanding of the fact that I am quite outspoken about structures and systems and policies and high-level stuff, whereas when it comes to an individual person, even to the extent of perpetrators of sexual violence, which is something I receive criticism for before being too almost like understanding that, I guess I hold a lot of empathy in that space, because I just don’t think, especially when we’re talking about young teenage boys who are, again, children.

16:32 – 16:49

CC

I just don’t know how much we can blame them for being a product of their own environment. And of course, we can to an extent. And of course, there are many teenage boys who would never dream of doing this or, you know, do these things. So I’m not excusing it, but I think that was something that I didn’t really tangibly know I had in me.

16:49 – 17:22

CC

But on reflection, is, something that’s been really useful in the leadership journey. And then things I had to learn, I definitely got better at public speaking, which is helpful, I don’t think I was ever, you know, bad at or anything. It’s just something I didn’t do very often, but I was thrown in the deep end there, so that was good. And I think the other really big thing I’ve had to learn is to not react instantly, because I think sometimes things can feel very personal or something happens and you think it’s the end of the world and you think, oh my God, I need to post something on Instagram in the next seven minutes, or I need to reply to

17:22 – 17:44

CC

this email the next 24 hours. But something that I’ve learned as part of leadership is to really just slow down, especially with anything that’s big or inflammatory or seems like the end of the world. Because if you give it some space, then it’s probably going to be de-escalated on all sides.

MP

Really important stuff there. And as you say with this work, public speaking is kind of essential, that’s true.

17:44 – 18:12

MP

And I think with talking about this and being, you know, doing so well with getting this conversation out there, it’s yeah, it’s it’s important. But also so interesting that you mentioned there that being kind to people versus systems is something that you’ve used as a motto because ultimately, like you said at the beginning, if we put every single person away that’s been a perpetrator of some sort of violence or harm, you know, the world wouldn’t function.

18:12 – 18:31

MP

Or, you know, if we targeted young people because of their actions in any every form, then the system would crumble. So thinking about people in a, in a kind of way, thinking of them as a product of their environment is really interesting. And I think, I think something I’ll also take away and think about a bit more too.

18:31 – 18:52

MP

Yeah, for sure. So interestingly, a lot of work that we do is centred around young people and getting young people involved in social change. And I wonder if you have any sort of words of advice for young people wanting to get involved, maybe in this sort of topic or around this issue, but also just generally wanting to lead issues of change.

18:52 – 19:19

CC

Yeah, I think my advice would be to not be, I don’t know, maybe not everyone feels like this, but I feel like I was hesitant to start this and actually started Teach Us Consent in private, by only like texting people before I ever took it to social media, which is where it blew up. But I had, you know, gathered testimonies a year before, but I was kind of too shy or embarrassed to be public about it, and my life would be so different right now if I had done that.

19:19 – 19:33

CC

Sounds so corny, but basically, don’t be shy. Don’t be scared. Don’t think about what people may or may not think about you, but just kind of do what you’re passionate about. Because actually, I think it’s a really cool thing to do and I wish something, it was something I was passionate about when I was 15 as well.

19:33 – 20:06

CC

I shouldn’t do much about it, but imagine how amazing it could have been to be more outspoken then and how much that may have changed my school. Other advice I would give to young people is when you’re starting something up, put together a sort of like advisory committee or board, even if it’s just like 4 or 5 people who you respect, who you value, whose opinion you want and who have a mix of skills that you don’t have, whether it’s someone your parents friend who’s a lawyer who can give you advice and stuff if you need it, or someone a few years older than you who’s good at writing speeches.

20:06 – 20:27

CC

I don’t know, like whatever is the skill set that you feel like you don’t have to, like, assemble that kind of committee to feel as though you have that support and endorsement from them. But it’s still, you know, your project in different ways. And my other piece of advice would be to, again, try focus on the systems change.

20:27 – 21:00

CC

Grassroot movements are really effective because it shows the scale of problems. And sometimes when we zoom in on an individual case or issue, it’s so easy to scapegoat and for everyone to think like, oh, them but not me, and not look at how they may be contributing things. And I also think that when activism becomes too individualised, it can take a really large toll on the activist in terms of maybe them being the only person who can actually do the work for their mission, and also if it gets any sort of like media attention or even like within the community, it can be really draining emotionally and physically.

21:00 – 21:18

CC

So that would also be my advice to protect yourself and don’t feel as though you need to put yourself up as a case study that, you know, if you have lived experience on this topic, you can share as little or as much of that as you feel comfortable with. Don’t feel like it’s necessary in order to make the campaign, or whatever you’re trying to do, successful.

21:18 – 21:37

MP

I think that’s really useful because I think a lot of people think that they can only do this alone, or they have to go out there on a limb by themselves. But actually the support networks that you can build around you could be the thing that really helps this project or issue get off the ground. So really looking to people around you, that’s amazing.

21:37 – 21:54

MP

And and yeah, I think not being afraid because like you said there, there are probably so many other people that would have loved to give this a voice, but didn’t have the confidence to. And, and you could be that voice for that person. So if you believe in something really having that vision and and going out there and doing it is great.

21:54 – 22:21

MP

So yeah, thank you for those pieces of advice. And then I think to finish it off, I would love to hear a bit about maybe some of your future plans, anything you’re excited about or coming up that you can share with us.

CC

Oh god, future plans. So tough. So Teach Us Consent, my organisation’s just been given $3.5 million from the Australian government to run a project around consent, education, resources on social media, which is really exciting.

22:21 – 22:43

CC

So that’s a new plan. And once those social media resources are created, I do have the intention to try to expand Teach Us Consent’s reach into the US, UK because it’s obviously social media resources. So it’s free to share them. And I know that the videos might have annoying Australian accents, but they will hopefully be quite culturally relevant to the UK and US.

22:43 – 23:04

CC

And obviously such a significant investment will be going into making sure they’re evidence led and applicable to youth and all of that sort of stuff. So shameless plug but follow Teach Us Consent on Instagram to stay up to date with potential resources that may be useful for you. And yeah, so we’re looking at, I guess trying to expand reach in terms of, the thing is in Australia was super well recognised and known.

23:05 – 23:24

CC

And you know, we’re a go to consultant for the government and all that stuff. But when I’m in the UK, I don’t even know how to start explaining what we do or how we work. So trying to change that a little bit, get into the sector here so that we can share those sorts of resources and learn from the UK, because you guys also tend to be a bit ahead of us in a lot of different ways and things.

23:24 – 23:46

CC

So that’ll be great, hopefully. And then yeah, I’m also actually going back to study again at the end of the year. So I’m going to go to Oxford in September, to do a Masters of Public Policy, which is really exciting. I go down to a part time work because I’m taking it as like a gap year. But now that we have the resources to hire a team and do that and then hopefully come back stronger for more advocacy.

MP

Wow, that all sounds really incredible.

23:46 – 24:12

MP

And congratulations on your is it a master’s?

CC

Yes.

MP

Amazing, amazing public policy. So really trying to take everything that you’ve learned already and put it into more policy-focused work, amazing. Congratulations for that. And also all the work that you’ve been doing. And I’m so glad to see it going from strength to strength. And I will definitely be keeping an eye out and seeing you move over to the UK.

24:12 – 24:38

MP

Hopefully being able to share a lot of that work and join you on that movement.

CC

Thank you so much. It was so nice to have the opportunity to come on the podcast.

MP

Of course, of course. Thank you so much for being here. Thanks for listening. You can find out more about the work we do at Cumberland Lodge with young people and beyond, by visiting CumberlandLodge.ac.uk. You can also find us on social media @CumberlandLodge.