This article contains references to sexual violence, which some readers may find triggering.
“I said no, repeatedly.”
“I woke up in pain.”
“I was not the only girl he did this to.”
“He got away with it.”
Over the last eight months, high school students across Australia have voiced their experiences of sexual assault in an online campaign called Teach Us Consent. Thousands of testimonies, spanning generations, are exposing the rampant culture of sexual assault in high schools. For many, the campaign has illuminated the Australian education system’s failures.
Victoria, who wished to be identified by only her first name, attended a small Christian all-girls school in Melbourne, where a teacher once told the class not to resist rape because it would just hurt more. “Things that we were told probably primed us for being more accepting of a rape culture later in life,” she said.
A 2019 graduate of the Scots College, a private all-boys school in Sydney, told me, “It was not okay that we went to school with sex offenders and nothing came about from it. No punishments or anything. I read the testimonies and I just knew this is what was going on every weekend.”
“We all knew in the back of our minds that it was happening,” said Emilia Doohan, a graduate of a private all-girls school in Sydney, in an interview with The Politic. “It wasn’t shocking at all.”
As of early October 2021, over 6,700 accounts of sexual assault that occurred in Australian high schools have been published on the Teach Us Consent website.
The project began in February 2021 with the testimony of Chanel Contos, who was a student at Kambala, a private all-girls high school in Sydney, when she was first sexually assaulted. At the age of 22, Contos realized how common stories of sexual assault and rape were among her peers. She posted an Instagram poll with a stark question: “Have you or has anyone close to you ever been sexually assaulted by someone who went to an all-boys school in Sydney?”
Within 24 hours, 200 respondents had said “yes.”
Contos collated the responses into an online petition demanding mandatory sex and consent education in Australian high schools. By March, the website had 30,000 signatures and 5,000 testimonies. While the campaign began with students in Sydney private schools, it soon touched on all types of schools across the country. The testimonies inundated headlines and intensified national debate on the prevailing rape culture throughout Australian high schools.
Student assaults had received local media attention before, but this news surge differed in two ways. First, the overwhelming number of testimonies demonstrated that assault was not an anomaly but rather a common experience. Second, almost all the testimonies named the schools of both victim and perpetrator, demanding responses from school administrations.
I grew up in the same Sydney private school system from which many of the testimonies came. The schools named were schools that I knew. I could identify their uniforms. I competed on their sports grounds and in their classrooms. I read countless testimonies from students of my own school. The content of the testimonies didn’t shock me, but the sheer number of them was stunning.
Over the summer, 16 current and former Australian high school students spoke to me over the phone. They came from a range of schools—public, private, single-sex, co-educational—across the states of New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland. They told me about rumors, relationships, and what they wish they had known.
Maisy Lam-Po-Tang attended St. Catherine’s School, a private all-girls school in Sydney. After reading the testimonies, Lam-Po-Tang and her friends talked about assaults that none of them had shared before. “Even among my friends, I know no one who reported incidents that happened to them in high school,” she said. The testimonies gave Lam-Po-Tang the courage to talk to her own parents.
“I actually told them about two experiences of sexual assault that [happened to me] in high school for the first time ever,” she said.
To Contos, the high number of sexual assaults in secondary schools is inextricably tied to Australia’s unique high school education system. Of all the high-income countries in the world, Australia has the largest independent (non-governmental) school sector and the highest proportion of single-sex schools, she explained in an interview with The Politic.
Advocates of single-sex schools cite the perceived academic advantage. They laud all-girls schools as places that build girls’ confidence in a supportive environment. One 2017 study conducted by the Australian Council for Education Research showed that students at single-sex schools are more likely to outperform their peers at co-educational schools in reading and numeracy.
Others, however, argue that the single-sex system is unrepresentative of the real world. “It reinforces gender norms,” Contos said. “It is exclusive and it is elite.”
Australian students experience wildly varying sex education, if they receive one at all. In an interview with The Politic, sexual assault researcher and Churchill Fellow Katrina Marson explained why sex education in Australian high schools was so inconsistent.
Although there is currently a national curriculum that recommends teaching sex and consent education, it is only a voluntary guideline for states. “In Australia, the states and territories tend to fiercely guard their education as being one of the state responsibilities,” Marson said.
The result is that while the state of Victoria’s curriculum mandates consent education, schools in Western Australia can choose to not teach it at all. Private schools can also elect to diverge from a state’s curriculum, giving them complete control over sex education.
Contos was most familiar with the culture and sex education of Sydney’s private school system. Her campaign began with these specific schools in mind. “That’s as far as I saw my reach going. I never imagined what would have happened,” Contos admitted.
In less than a year, however, Teach Us Consent has exposed the failures of Australia’s sex education framework nationwide.
Among the testimonies, a handful of specific schools are overrepresented: Allegations against private all-boys schools from large cities are alarmingly frequent. For years, private all-boys schools had made headlines for scandals and assaults, but these usually faded without lasting consequence. For the first time, the issue is at the forefront of the national conversation as the public questions the prevalence of sexual assault among these schools.
James Greenup never liked the culture of Saint Ignatius’ College Riverview, a private all-boys school in Sydney from which he graduated in 2020.
“It was a very hyper-masculine culture,” Greenup said. “If you walked away from a [house party] or a night out and you hadn’t hooked up, you were probably going to be made fun of the next day.”
Contos began her campaign targeting these schools. Private schools have the resources and freedom to work beyond the curriculum, yet perpetually seemed to be at the center of the sexual assault testimonies.
Students who spoke to The Politic felt that private all-boys schools breed a culture of toxic masculinity and entitlement. Lam-Po-Tang said that the lack of diversity within private all-boys schools made students unable to “recognize women as individuals who also have successes and tribulations, lives going on.”
Contos explained the link between this school culture and sexual assault.
“The number one reason someone perpetrates sexual assault is an entitlement over another’s body,” she said. “So these people, these young teenage boys, are not malicious, they’re not sadistic, they’re not rapists in the way we imagine rapists, but they feel entitled to another’s body.”
A 2019 graduate of the Scots College, a school often mentioned in the testimonies, spoke to The Politic anonymously in order to speak candidly. Scots is a private all-boys school in Sydney’s Bellevue Hill, one of the richest suburbs in the country. Houses are sold at a median price of 6.4 million AUD (4.6 million USD). It is a school of proud tradition, with a bagpipe band once patronized by the Queen Mother.
The party culture at Scots, the graduate said, was intense.
Excessive drinking and drug-taking began early, when students were 14 and 15 years old. There were typical house parties, with about a hundred people, alcohol, and occasional parental supervision. Then, there were ‘Meritons.’
At these exclusive gatherings, boys “with more money than they knew what to do with” would rent out hotel penthouses or Airbnbs in the city.
“If you were invited to a ‘Meriton’, you’d expect drugs and alcohol and only teenagers,” the graduate said. “[It would be] twenty to forty people all out of their minds.”
Students dealt weed, MDMA, and cocaine. There was a constant danger for women at these parties, the graduate said. The boys’ behaviour could turn aggressive. Stories of sexual assault would make the rounds in class, at sporting events, and on social media. “Everyone just dismissed it,” the graduate said. “It was always linked to those parties.”
Despite Scots’ status as an elite educational institution, sex education was sparse at the time of the graduate’s schooling. “It was just sexual reproduction and nothing to do with consent or contraceptives,” he said. “Students didn’t care too much and would joke about it afterwards.”
The Cranbrook School, another Sydney private all-boys school, resembles Scots in several ways, and its name appears frequently in the testimonies. At Cranbrook, however, an anonymous Year 9 student described a more complete sex education.
From Year 7, classes cover a unit each year on sex education, including a unit in Year 8 on consent. In Year 9, the student said, the grade heard speeches and participated in activities on consent. The problem, however, was that the teenagers were not engaging with the lessons.
“Because people don’t pay attention, no matter how much you teach, it’s never going to make that much of a difference,” the Cranbrook student said. “People are always going to think it has nothing to do with them.”
Cranbrook’s problem is not unique. In many schools even with sex and consent education mandated by a curriculum, teachers struggle to make an impact on young teenage audiences. Marson believes that the state of sex education is reflective of a broader inability to discuss sex that leaves students uninformed.
“Generally as a society, we need to get a whole lot better quickly at talking about relationships and sexuality,” Marson said. “Young people don’t need to be patronized, they don’t need to be spoken to in metaphors around sex and sexuality.”
Since February, private city schools have dominated national discourse on the testimonies and sexual assault. But this bias has left certain voices out of the story. In schools across Australia, students feel that a lack of education has endangered them.
In Tweed Heads, a small Gold Coast town eight hours north of Sydney, Jemma Wilson described a different school culture.
Wilson graduated in 2019 from a local co-educational private school on the New South Wales-Queensland border. The closest city is Brisbane, a two-hour drive up the coast. Tourists come for the beaches and the subtropical national parks where mangroves hang over the ocean. The weather is always good, and girls wear bikinis year-round. Asking for consent is not a part of everyday language. It was a small community and often victims of sexual assault would remain quiet because “you don’t want to be known for that.”
There was no mention of consent in Wilson’s sex education class. “The only thing we were taught was how to put a condom on a banana, but my class missed it,” Wilson said.
In Tweed Heads, the sexual assault testimonies that rocked Sydney schools barely made a wave. “None of my friends at home talked about it,” Wilson said. “I heard nothing.”
For many, the Teach Us Consent testimonies illuminated the insufficiency in their school education. Countless testimonies feature stories where girls did know they were assaulted because they had not been taught what rape was. Those with boyfriends did not realize they still had the right to refuse sex.
“It’s not enough to say that we need better consent education in boys’ schools,” Lam-Po-Tang said. “Sex education amongst girls and women empowers them to recognise the control they have over their bodies.”
This education was happening too late in schools, if it happened at all. Contos’s campaign calls for earlier and comprehensive sex and consent education. From primary school, actions such as asking permission to touch someone or their belongings can establish the value of boundaries, Contos explained. By Year 7, she explicitly wants discussions about sexual consent and its legal definitions.
“We need to teach that the type of rape that happens from someone you know is hard to identify,” Contos said. “We need to teach that allowing misogynistic comments and having competitions with your friends about who can get with the most people are things that contribute to [rape culture].”
Her campaign had been putting pressure on the political agenda. Contos met with state education ministers and Prime Minister Scott Morrison earlier this year. Since then, Victoria has instituted mandatory consent education and, after a review, the Queensland government recommended introducing consent education from the age of 10.
Marson has traveled the world to investigate Relationships and Sexuality Education. She compared the Australian patchwork of state sex education curriculums to Germany, where education is also within the purview of the states, but the federal government leads, funds, and houses the department of research and resource development.
“It’s not impossible to have that kind of symbiotic relationship between the federal level government and state governments,” Marson said. “But we don’t have that cohesion here.”
Contos is campaigning for cohesion. As the Australian curriculum currently undergoes a once-in-six-years review, she argues for the inclusion of mandatory consent education, which would set a precedent for schools across the country. But she also believes that schools individually must implement actions to change school culture.
In response to the testimonies, Dr. Ian Lambert, principal of Scots College, met with Contos. In a subsequent letter to “Parents and Carers,” he outlined action steps that Scots will take, which included a review of teaching programs, increased activities between boys’ and girls’ schools, an analysis of global research, and a series of parent educational opportunities.
Mandating national sex and consent education will require some political courage, Marson explained. Opposition comes from sectors of the population that believe sex education is something to be taught in homes and not in schools. Many religious groups also advocate abstinence-only sex education. But research, such as a 2017 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, shows that abstinence-only education is ineffective in preventing sex, teenage pregnancy, or sexually transmitted diseases. Instead, comprehensive sex education was a more successful measure.
Marson believes that teaching students about sex and consent is the best way to protect them.
“Information is not something that we can justify censoring for young people because of the concern that it will sexualize them,” she said. “[Sexual assault] is something that is pervasive and starts a lot earlier than many would wish to acknowledge.
“We don’t educate for the world as we’d like it to be,” Marson said, recalling a quote she encountered in her research. “We educate for the world as it is. That’s what we need to be doing.”
The Yale Sexual Harassment and Assault Response & Education (SHARE) Center can be reached 24/7 at 203-432-2000 and is open 9 am – 5 pm weekdays at 55 Lock St, Lower Level.