It’s almost impossible to read the headlines without seeing a mention of consent or sexual assault in recent weeks. There’ve been brave stories shared by survivors, urgent calls for change and some of the most serious allegations we’ve seen levelled at Australia’s most senior politicians.
And all this has been coming to a boil ahead of International Women’s Day.
The truth is there’s a lot of significant change going on, and it can be difficult to get a handle on what it all means for us. So, let’s take a deeper look at the key movements happening in Australia and what impact they could have on women and Australian society at large.
What key movements have been hitting the headlines?
Australian Parliament’s #MeToo movement
The conduct of politicians at Parliament House has recently come under the spotlight and led sexual abuse survivors and staffers to break their silence.
Former Liberal party staffer Brittany Higgins has been spearheading this movement. Higgins alleges she was raped by a former staffer in 2019. Following an interview in February 2021, she has revealed the toxic culture of silence and poor avenues of support that led her to drop her complaint about fear of irreversible damage to her career.
But Higgins’ case isn’t the first of its kind. Back in 2020, ABC’s Four Corners aired an explosive investigation, “Inside the Canberra Bubble”, that questioned the conduct of some of Australia’s most senior politicians.
Part of the program focused on Attorney-General Christian Porter, who has been in the headlines for naming himself as the Cabinet minister facing a historical rape allegation.
Porter is adamant the incident “simply did not happen” and has since taken an extended period of leave. Tragically, the woman at the centre of the allegations took her own life last year, and with not enough admissible evidence on hand, the case has now been closed.
While there have been calls from the Former Solicitor-General Justin Gleeson in recent days for the Prime Minister to seek legal advice from the solicitor-general (which would determine if an independent inquiry is warranted), these calls have been rejected by Scott Morrsion.
For those working in Parliament House, the treatment of women has been a point of contention. Former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop recently discussed the culture of Parliament House at length on ABC’s 7.30 program on International Women’s Day, explaining there is a “powerful culture within all political parties to ensure that no individual does anything that would damage the party’s prospects”.
As a result, Bishop believes a culture has developed where “inappropriate or unprofessional or illegal behaviour gets a sense of protection.“ But as more women bravely share their stories, it’s clear that this conversation is far from over.
Australian high schools’ movement for better consent education
At the same time, there have been growing calls for urgent reform to the way sex education and consent is taught in Australian high schools.
Sydney activist Chanel Contos has been leading the charge by calling for the NSW state government to improve the way consent education is delivered to students.
Following the rising number of past and present students coming forward with stories of sexual harassment and abuse, Contos has launched an online petition that calls for urgent law reform. Specifically, Contos is calling for the curriculum to cover content that acknowledges things like toxic masculinity, rape culture, slut-shaming, victim-blaming as well as queer-friendly consent content.
The original petition has already garnered over 30,000 signatures, with an official ePetition now running on the NSW Parliament website. To trigger a debate in the lower house, the ePetition requires at least 20,000 signatures.
It comes as many voice concerns about Australia’s sex-ed curriculum not staying in touch with the needs of young Australians. The latest stats from the Australia Institute of Health and Welfare show teenagers experience the highest rates of sexual assault. Plus, the most recent national survey revealed 47% of Year 10-12 students have engaged in sexual intercourse, indicating the need for earlier age-appropriate education about consent.
What do these movements mean for Australian women?
What both movements reveal is that we’re at a pivotal turning point in Australia. Attitudes towards sexual abuse are shifting as more survivors share their stories and shatter the shame and stigma that have kept women silent for too long.
High profile cases such as these are also revealing the damaging culture present in workplaces at even the highest level. By exposing the scale and severity of sexual harassment and abuse in a professional context, the groundwork is being laid for workplaces to investigate and rebuilt their systems for reporting, reviewing and preventing sexual abuse cases.
What’s emerging is a broader shift in the ways we understand what consent is and isn’t as well as challenging the outdated attitudes that have caused abuse survivors to navigate shame, guilt and secrecy.
What impact could these movements have on Australia?
In practical terms, these movements are already sparking the beginning of the structural change in Australia.
Following Brittany Higgin’s formal allegation, Scott Morrsion has announced five separate inquiries into the culture of Parliament House as well as the process of reviewing complaints and supporting staffers. These inquiries have the potential to revolutionise the standards, expectations and practices of staffers as well as how to better support those who do make a complaint.
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins has also been appointed to led part of this review, believing Australia is “at a turning point” in the way we handle sexual harassment and assault.
If Chanel Contos’ petition does appear before parliament, it has the ability to deliver a “once-in-a-generation reform” to Australia’s high school curriculum. Already, the petition has earned bipartisan support from NSW MPs on all sides of the political spectrum.
Across the country, other political leaders want to see similar changes made with Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk calling for urgent reform to consent education in her state.
This all matters because education at a school-age level is key to shaping the kind of society we want to live in. That’s because school curriculums reach thousands of young Australians and have the ability to influence and shape their values at a critical time in their lives when they’re starting to explore sex and relationships.
We also know that advocacy can lead to real, structural change. Advocist, sexual assault survivor and 2021 Australian of the Year Grace Tame is a perfect example of this. She successfully overturned a Tasmanian law preventing survivors from sharing their experiences of assault as part of the #LetHerSpeak campaign.
That means each of us can play a role in challenging the structures that perpetuate systemic inequality, particularly for women. If you live in NSW, you can sign the petition for earlier and holistic consent education in NSW schools. If you live elsewhere, you can get in touch with your local Member of Parliament to ask what they are doing about reforming consent education in your state.
Plus, if you’re near Canberra on March 15th, join the March #March4Justice and call on the government to do more for women and sexual abuse survivors across Australia. You can check out more about the events in your city here #March4Justice Facebook Page.
The more voices that speak up and call out inappropriate behaviour and a lack of proper sex-ed in schools, the better chance we have of improving outcomes for generations of Australian women to come.
If you or someone you know is experiencing distress you can contact the crisis support service Lifeline on 13 11 14. And if you or someone you know has been impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, called 1800RESPECT or 1800 737 732 or visit www.18000RESPECT.org.au.