Updated: Nov 4, 2021
CW: Abortion, rape culture, sex and sexual violence, sexually transmitted diseases, and institutional betrayal.
This speech was written and delivered by Lara Woolley at the Canberra Reclaim the Night online event, 29th October 2021.
Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet - the Ngunnawal Peoples, and pay my respect to their Elders past, present and emerging. I would like to extend this respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in attendance today.
Thank you Savannah and Canberra Rape Crisis Centre for giving me the opportunity to speak on behalf of The STOP Campaign today.
Today, I am going to talk about sex.
In Australian culture, the topic of sex is strictly ‘off limits’ until you are having it.
A few young people are lucky enough to receive ‘the talk’ from their parents.
Most, however, learn from the sexual education provided to them in school. An education that is often limited to the heteronormative penetrative sex act, male and female anatomy, reproductive processes, sexually transmitted infections and, of course, contraception (although the option of abortion is notably omitted).
Young people are therefore left to seek out information on their own accord, turning to popular culture, pornography, and their peers as sources of education.
But many end up engaging in sex long before learning about it.
The problem with this culture of silence is that there is no opportunity to discuss the issue of consent with young people—something which is fundamental to sexual wellbeing, safety, and pleasure.
It is this silence that allows rape culture to thrive.
We at The STOP Campaign aim to ignite social discourse surrounding the issue of consent in all its facets, in the hope that through education and raising awareness, we can create a ‘consent culture’ in our community.
We often get asked as activists, ‘What can activism achieve that educational, political, or legal institutions cannot?’
This question is born of the assumption that our societal institutions are purposed to prevent sexual violence. However, the damning rates of sexual violence in this country attest to the opposite being true—particularly when it comes to marginalised groups such as people with disabilities, Indigenous Australians, women of colour, and the LGBTQIA+ community.
Where institutions fail, activism has proven to make meaningful change.
At the beginning of this year, we witnessed a national debate surrounding the prevalence of sexual violence in Australia sparked by just a few brave activists. A debate that saw governments heed the call to reform sexuality education curriculums, law reform surrounding sexual consent, and media interrogation of patriarchal power structures which inform our societal resignation to rape culture.
This is a testament to the power of activism. The power to inform cultural and structural change. The power to realise consent culture in Australia.
The STOP Campaign is no exception.
Since it was founded by Camille Schloeffel in 2018, following the publication of the Change the Course Report by the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Campaign has worked to support and empower victim-survivors, and advocate for a safe and inclusive community.
While universities remained largely discouraging of student advocates, and reluctant to prioritise the safety and wellbeing of victim-survivors, the Campaign continued to advocate on behalf of victim-survivors.
We as a Campaign have endeavoured through zines, video series, and social media campaigns, to provide a safe space for victim-survivors to share their stories and seek community recognition for harm that perpetrators of sexual violence cause both victim-survivors and the broader community.
In the absence of comprehensive sexuality and respectful relationships education, the Campaign hosts workshops and events to facilitate inclusive, trauma-informed conversations on sexual wellbeing and sexual ethics. Indeed, we also create free and accessible resources including those which explain the different aspects of consent, that it must be voluntary, enthusiastic, continuous, sober, conscious, informed, non-coerced and transparent.
In understanding that our legal processes fail to prioritise the protection and wellbeing of victim-survivors, we are committed to designing a Safety Response Toolkit for victim-survivors and their supporters to provide essential information on how to safely respond to disclosures and access support services in Canberra. And we run an empowerment program which centres the wellbeing of victim-survivors.
And while we hold institutions accountable for their shortcomings in the prevention and response to sexual violence, we continue to work with and advise them on how to better serve our community.
The STOP Campaign, in solidarity with other community and activist groups, will continue to advocate for young people, especially those in marginalised communities, not just in the hope of achieving an absence of harm, but a consent culture which centres safety, pleasure, respect and agency.
After all, sex without consent is not sex, it’s rape. So, let’s start talking about sex.
By Lara Woolley