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    7 MIN READ

    Re-writing rape culture


    By the time you read this, Chanel Contos’ website will have collected over 23 thousand signatures of young people demanding a change to sex education programs in Australian schools. Whilst the movement is largely Sydney focused, as it’s where Chanel herself graduated high school, testimonies have flooded the site putting pressure on schools all across the country. What it reveals is a collective yearning, as we all examine ourselves and our sexual experiences wondering: could it have been different? 

    I still remember being pulled off the streets on North Stradbroke Island in 2015 by a policeman. It was a rite of passage for the Year 11’s and 12’s from Brisbane to head there each year in a “pre-schoolies”/spring break affair at the end of Term 3. Quite blatantly, it was a trip rooted in privilege, led by the private schools and their graduates. My parents had made arrangements to pick me up after a few days given the amount of bad press the “Straddy pre-schoolies” had generated. In return, I’d promised them the trip would look like wholesome camping and beach days. It had seldom been one night into the trip before I figured out that the stories that circulated weren’t over glorified schoolyard gossip, and my life would be irreversibly changed. 

    Stumbling down the street behind a group of boys holding my best friend’s hand, I saw a patrol car pull up, and a uniformed cop flashing his light in my face. “I’m looking for Sophie Marsh, do you know her?” he asked, tracing a line horizontally over my eyes. In the weariness of the drinking and partying of the preceding nights, I hardly flinched, and less so as I choked back a defensive yet shocked: “No”.  

    Apparently someone had reported the sexual assault I’d spent the past 24 hours trying to obliterate from my memory. And no-one expects to see someone who’s been sexually assaulted back into the chaos of street parties the next night, walking alongside her girlfriends, swigging from a bottle of vodka.

    But as you get older you realise that sexual assault victims don’t look anything like the ones on Law & Order SVU. They don’t really get a chance to be victims at all, mostly.

    The oldest of the 20 or so girls from my school was 18. I’d gone missing from the campsite I was staying in with her and some other close friends from my touch football team. I’d been offered a bed in a house down the road where other girls from school were. A lot of them had parents who paid for their trip, and their house was way closer to where all of the boys’ groups were staying. “Typical Sophie always forgets her phone,” my fellow campers campaigned with thought. But it didn’t stop them from walking over to the house of girls from our school, worried as to my whereabouts. In fact, they’d all gathered on the balcony that morning, just in time to see me stumbling up the driveway. 

    I had slept a couple of hours, but I was wreaking of sweat, blood and cigarette smoke. I’d been found dazed in the bathtub in a nearby house, barely coherent. Instead of answering anyone’s questions as to what had happened in the room upstairs, and why there was blood on the walls, I’d stood up and begun dancing in the lounge, swigging a bottle of dark spirits from the kitchen bench, before I passed out on the couch. The girls who’d found me watched over me as I slept that night, then arranged for me to be walked home in the morning.

    I was a virgin, and I’d always thought I would’ve liked to have lost my virginity to someone I loved. I thought of that as I walked down the main road mid-morning, following my couch nap. Someone was walking alongside me, chatting, though I don’t really remember who. The sun was bright, and it was hard to concentrate on much other than the fact that I wanted to literally die. How was I going to tell my parents that I wasn’t a virgin anymore? How was I going to explain to them that the reason was because I had been drinking? What would they do when they found out that a boy had hurt me? Would they lock me up forever?  

    Reaching the driveway, I was pulled into the house by a flurry of 15 girls, who had begun crying at the mere sight of this battered version of me. My arms and neck were ripening with purple and black bruises before their eyes. “What happened to you?” one of them croaked as she clutched me to her, horrified tears fleeing her eyes. I was bleeding from my vulva, and walking up the stairs ached in a way my athletic body had never experienced. They put me in the bottom of the shower and took turns sitting on the bathroom floor. Some of them cooed the most comforting words they knew. Some of them just sat and said how sorry they were. A few of them cried because they’d been through similar. But by the time I’d got off of the shower floor, all the words had been exhausted and they were all getting ready to go out again. 

    That’s the thing: 16-year-olds don’t learn at their religious schools how to first-aid for a rape. They are scarcely taught what consent is beyond “no means no”. So what happens when you’re unable to say no because god forbid, you’re drunk and high?

    What happens when the lights are turned off in a foreign room, and the forced kissing you’re uncomfortable with turns into being weighed down with your pants sliding off?

    All of the lights never really came back on for me when I woke up from what my psychologist described as a black-out triggered by a tonic immobility many sexual assault survivors experienced. The system seems to leave you in the cold of the infamous ‘grey area’, where questions of why you didn’t protect yourself more, serve as further battery into a place of deep shame. I didn’t know such brutality was possible from another human, or the world around me. Call it my privilege being a white, hetero-normative, eurocentric beauty aligned, private school educated young woman.  

    My 17th birthday fell one week after my return from Stradbroke Island. As much as I begged and pleaded with my mum and dad for some semblance of a normal celebration, I was allowed 30 friends in my backyard until 8 o’clock. The perpetrator of my rape decided he’d hold a party on the same night as mine. In the Facebook event he’d made, there was some note made about the party being for “all the people who knew the truth”.

    Unfortunately for him, he was suffering the backlash of a rape he was denying. He’d told everyone I’d been practically begging for it. In something I am still shocked at myself for, I’d spoken to him on the phone after getting out of the bottom of that shower the morning after. I had asked him point blank, with as much ferocity as I could manage, “What happened last night? I’m not okay”, to which he demanded that I started clearing his name from the ‘cries of rape’ that had been echoing around the island. He also threatened to ruin my family in court. “How can you say I raped you if you don’t remember?” he’d spat at me, ignoring the fact that I hadn’t uttered any definite words to anyone before giving him a chance to explain what I couldn’t.

    Reports had come back to me that as he bounced down from the room my passed out body had been left in, he’d made a point of saluting the boys smoking bongs on the couch and popped open a bottle of Passion Pop in celebration. Friends from a nearby house also reckon he’d arrived at their house party not long after, announcing to a bunch of them, “I just fucked Sophie Marsh”. As if I was a pig he had slaughtered. And to his credit, his choice of words was immaculate. 

    Fucked was exactly what it felt like.

    There’s a certain separateness I felt to my life in the months and years proceeding. It took a few months for the questioning at parties to stop; mostly by girls who didn’t want to have to sacrifice social ties with my perpetrator or his group of friends. I hung out more with my male friends because I felt physically safer somehow, protected by these boy groups I’d become the token stoner of. I don’t know how many of them believed me, and it didn’t matter to me anymore. But I saw the way they’d treat other girls they brought home from nights out, and the sickening emptiness I smoked into grew wider. The culture was rife. Most of these young men didn’t know any more about enthusiastic consent than I had. The pressure to score was rife. And the pressure for young women to be available, non-frigid and fun, was real. Sometimes in the back courtyards of parentless mansions as a bong was being passed around, jokes were made about the girl that one of the boys had slept with the night before. About how she was a fiend/animal/complete whore. I always packed more weed than anybody else into the cone to obliterate the way those remarks turned my stomach. It felt like they were talking about me. And my silence hadn’t moved.  

    I actually did tell that police officer that stopped me on the street in 2015 that I was Sophie Marsh after my initial no. I was taken to the station and asked about this sexual assault a worried mum had reported after a fight had broken out at her house when my perpetrator arrived there to party. I sat unemotionally, picking through a bag of red frogs I’d been offered, detailing the little I could remember. At first they told me I should report it officially, and “get justice” for myself. I repeated several times that I wasn’t interested, knowing I didn’t have the strength for that fight, and neither would my family. Hell, I didn’t even want my family to know. And I wasn’t interested in the outcomes the justice system had to offer. I didn’t want to lock him up, or see him destroyed. I just wanted him to never do it again. After all, he was only 17, and he hadn’t been taught anything different. 

    As I left the station at 3am, my fist clutching the half bag of red frogs I hadn’t finished, the female officer said something to me along the lines of: “You made the right choice. These sorts of cases in court often do more damage than they solve.” Something she echoed to my mum on the phone a few weeks later. 

    We live in a rape culture that is offended by the notion that rape is common. We live in a culture that denies there is a problem because “obviously we can all agree that rape is bad”. We live in a culture that focuses on the prevalence of false accusations. As if rape is perpetrated by complete strangers with some sort of sick, presupposed intent. When we say rape culture, we are not blaming the culture for rape itself. We are blaming a culture for allowing “boys will be boys” to mean “boys can be rapists” because individuals are not taught about sex, enthusiastic consent or sexuality. We are talking about a culture that still struggles to accept that the gender binary we have socially constructed is in fact, a spectrum. We live in a society that scapegoats drugs and alcohol as the perpetrators of destruction. And we are so consumed in finding someone or something to blame for this big rape culture problem, that no-one is any safer than they were before. Statistically, those who suffer the most are women of colour and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Victims are still being asked what they were wearing, as if it fucking mattered. 

    It is time to commit ourselves to educating ourselves and one another. It has to start in schools, but it cannot stop until every CEO, every teacher, every minister, every MP and everyone in a position of power understands what is being asked of them. We want to live in a safer world. We want to feel safe in our bodies, in our homes and in our choices. And we demand access to the tools to make it happen. 

    How to be part of the momentum

    Please leave your stories and experiences here in this Sexual Violence Survey.


    If a friend discloses to you about being raped, take it seriously. Encourage them to seek a psychologist, counselor, or other form of professional emotional support. 1800 RESPECT is a free rape and domestic violence hotline open 24/7. 


    + Use Self-Service textline to receive free love and relationships advice 

    + Leave your testimony at
    + Email your high school, local MP or state government.
    + Do not assume consent. Consent is not gendered. Anyone can ask for consent.

    + Read our article here about how to know what to do with difficult consent conversations. 
    + Define your own sense of what masculinity and femininity is. Stereotypes and tradition are important, but only when combined with self-authorship – you are in the driver’s seat of who you are. 
    + Talk to your friends, loved ones and peers. Keep the conversation going.