A viral online petition generating more than 500 testimonies of sexual assault from current and former Australian private school students has sparked calls for an overhaul of sexual consent education in schools and at what age it is taught.
The petition, which called for more thorough and earlier education about consent, was started on Thursday by Chanel Contos, a former student of Sydney’s Kambala girls’ school, who is hoping to draw attention to how frequently girls experience sexual assault from all-boys’ school students in Sydney.
By Saturday morning, more than 5,000 people had signed the petition, which also calls for testimonies from current and former students.
While most of the testimonies involve students from Sydney’s single-sex schools, Contos has also received claims involving private schools in Melbourne, Brisbane and New Zealand, from girls who were as young as 13 at the time of alleged assaults, as well as from university students.
Stories frequently feature interactions at parties, and relationships between students from single-sex schools, and include instances of male students taking advantage of female students while drunk.
The disturbing testimonies – from some victims who say the anonymous forum is the first time they have revealed their experiences – have been submitted mostly by students who graduated from private schools over the past decade.
Students from Scots College, Cranbrook, Sydney Grammar, Waverley College, Kambala, Kincoppal-Rose Bay, Monte Sant Angelo and Pymble Ladies’ College are repeatedly mentioned in the testimonies.
Students describe situations in which school-aged boys forced female peers to perform oral sex and other acts on them without consent, while others recount feelings of shame after being raped while unconscious.
Men have also sent Contos testimonies, supporting the push for better education about consent that they say they did not receive when they were students at single-sex schools.
Contos hopes the testimonies, which will form part of the petition sent to the heads of Sydney private schools mentioned, will make both male and female students aware of consent laws at a younger age, and counter “slut shaming” within girls’ schools as well as pressure to be sexually active among male students.
“The private schools have the resources to address these injustices,” Contos told Guardian Australia from London. “They have every resource to make sure it can’t happen.
“There needs to be a holistic approach, and single-sex schools need to incorporate factors specific to their students. This means addressing slut-shaming in girls’ schools, and addressing locker room talk in boys’ schools, because that’s the foundation for this culture.”
While the testimonies are anonymous, Contos had discussed her own experiences of non-consensual sexual experiences during her time in high school with her friends, who themselves had similar stories.
She launched the petition after initially raising the issue with her friends in an Instagram poll, which revealed that 72% of 300 of her friends who responded said they or someone they are close to had experienced sexual assault from a students from an all-boys’ school.
Another poll targeting students of all-boys’ schools found that 55% thought their friends had sexually assaulted someone at some point.
However, Contos, who is currently studying a masters in gender and education in London, has been overwhelmed at how many women have come forward with their claims of rape.
“Testimonies are coming in quicker than I can count,” she said. “I expected this many girls had been assaulted, but I didn’t think there would be this many women brave enough to come forward with their stories, and for this to be getting so much traction beyond my immediate following is so powerful.”
While Contos believes issues around consent and rape extend across Australian society, she hopes her petition will draw attention to “the prevalence of rape culture in this very specific bubble within Sydney private schools”.
Contos is also thankful of her own education at Kambala, which she said “set the foundation for so many of my feminist values”, but that “there was just this one thing missing”.
“Kambala provided me with life-changing education on consent for the first time in year 10,” Contos wrote in her petition. “However, it happened too late and came with the tough realisation that amongst my friends, almost half of us had already been raped or sexually assaulted by boys from neighbouring schools.”
Scots College, Cranbrook, Sydney Grammar, Waverley College, Kambala, Kincoppal-Rose Bay, Monte Sant Angelo and Pymble Ladies College have been asked for comment.