Chanel Contos on Consent Laid Bare

Chanel's new book is a manifesto full of personal stories, cutting-edge research and harrowing evidence, all about unpacking where we are in terms of the complex minefield that can be consent.

CW: This article discusses concepts that some readers may find distressing, including but not limited to sexual assault, rape culture, misogyny, and toxic masculinity. Please read with care.

It's cold and raining in London when I call my friend Chanel Contos to finally chat about her incredibly important book Consent Laid Bare, published last year. It's a manifesto full of personal stories, cutting-edge research and harrowing evidence, all about unpacking where we are in terms of the complex minefield that can be consent. But more than that, it's about the impact that that complexity has on the way we form and navigate gender roles, relationships and body image, among other things.

Chanel's curled up under a blanket, while over the other side of the world, the humidity is turning my hair frizzy and I'm sweating buckets. We've been trying to coordinate this interview for weeks, preferring to have it done when we are both in the same country, but our schedules never quite seem to align, so Zoom will have to do. Such are the demands of advocates turned debut authors, who are consistently and tirelessly working to make the world a better place for women and girls.

Chanel and I have known each other for a while but it's the way we are the Barbeinheimer of the Australian literary scene (our books were released on the same day) that binds us together now in a whole new way. That, and the fact that we're both members of the Global Institute for Women's Leadership Youth Committee. Chanel is the Chair of the Committee, and we've not long wrapped up a headspinning few days at the Institute's first Youth Summit, an intense workshop and presentation-driven couple of days where young women offer solutions to everything from climate change to male violence.

This has been the scope of Chanel's work since she shot into the public consciousness three years ago. She started the Teach Us Consent campaign with a petition after an Instagram story went viral, unpacking a culture of sexual assault and terribly toxic male behaviour in Sydney private schools. She asked her followers if they'd experienced anything that fit under this banner, and the testimonies in the thousands she got in response are still deeply nauseating for her to consider.

What followed with the Teach Us Consent campaign was a nationwide push for consent education to be mandated in school curriculums across the country, something that has been taken onboard spectacularly, in no small part thanks to Chanel's determination, charm and relentless work ethic. This, combined with the compelling story she had to tell, made Chanel an ideal candidate in the ever-watchful eyes of publishers looking for the next big book. So, her publisher did what everyone does when they're trying to attract the attention of a stranger these days and sent her a DM via Facebook Messenger.

"I thought it was a scam," Chanel laughs. "I grew up in a generation where our parents were like, 'Beware strangers on the internet telling you you are doing a good job because they may not be who they say they are." Chanel's hesitancy was eased by the inclusion of a small yet significant detail in the publisher's message - her daughter had been a year above Chanel at primary school. Deciding that must make things legitimate, Chanel took a chance and what followed was an offer she still couldn't believe was real. "I never thought I'd get to write a book and I had no idea how it worked."

When describing the writing process, Chanel laughs about the daunting task of 80,000 words, saying she would "often go literally two months at a time without writing a single word and then smash out anywhere from 2,000 to 8,000 words in a couple of hours when I was on a roll." If that sounds chaotic, it's because it was, but that's what happens when you're the CEO of an organisation like Teach Us Consent, writing a dissertation and regularly being called upon by government policymakers for your input all while trying to write.

After finishing the book (I digested it in about two days) I felt like I needed to take a shower not because of anything to do with the writing but more so to do with the feeling that I wanted to scrub some of the content off my skin. Knowledge is power and in this fight, we all need to be armed to the hilt but god it's raw. There's nothing Chanel shies away from, breaking down the different types of male offenders in situations of toxicity, to unpacking the pervasiveness and easy adoption of 'rape culture' as both behaviour and mindset by society at large. Even though it's a confronting read at times, I think it's necessary for as many humans as possible to inhale it and then talk about it. Loudly.

Perhaps the most moving chapter for me personally was the last, an open letter Chanel penned to young boys and men. She didn't chastise or attack them. Paint them as the bad guys. She just gently encouraged them to interrogate how they think and act. To question the narratives they'd been given about what made a man and the things he should aspire for. It's a powerful reminder that the only way we're ever going to make things better and safer is if we bring women and men along together. Consent involves all of us. Working together. If you're stuck on where to start, pick up Consent Laid Bare. I promise it will help.

If this article raises any concerns for you, please call 1800Respect for around the clock counselling and support. Alternatively, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.