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Each month we celebrate an Australian debut release of fiction or non-fiction in the Kill Your Darlings First Book Club. For September that debut is Legitimate Sexpectations by Katrina Marson (Scribe)—a book that blends extensive research and fictionalised scenarios to explore the limits of the criminal justice system and the fault lines in our society when it comes to sex, sexuality, and relationships. Ellen Cregan spoke to Katrina in an Instagram Live conversation earlier this month. 

Editor’s note: This interview contains generalised discussion of sexual violence and negative sexual experiences.

For the people who haven’t had a chance to read the book yet, can you give a brief summary of Legitimate Sexpectations?

It’s an exploration of the protective power of comprehensive relationships and sexuality education (RSE), to safeguard sexual wellbeing and protect against sexual violence. And it looks at all different aspects of sex ed—so the implementation of it, the fact that we need to start young, the way that we need to talk about body parts and puberty, queer issues, those sorts of things from quite a young age—and the benefits of that for young people. And it does that from a dual perspective that I have: one as a sexual offences prosecutor, where I see the end of the spectrum where the damage is already done when it comes to sexual violence; and my research perspective of looking at sex ed as that protective power. And it weaves the two of those together through fictionalised vignettes—none of which are based on any individual case that I’ve worked on, they are entirely a product of my imagination, but obviously draw on my experience in dealing with sexual violence and in the sex ed space as well, hearing a lot of stories about what people have experienced, my own experience. So I guess the compelling thing about those vignettes in one sense is how universal they feel—and the sad thing about that, I guess, is the consistency of some of the things that drive sexual violence or negative sexual experiences more broadly. So the vignettes are used to explore some of these issues and how they actually play out moment by moment. And then I use those to talk about sex ed, and how they might have gone a bit differently if the characters had had better sex ed, or been better equipped to confront those situations they found themselves in.

So you’ve researched in this area quite a lot—Can you tell me about how your research came to be published in the form of this book?

My research in the space of sex ed started ten years ago or more, when I was at university and I did an Honours thesis comparing the ability of the criminal justice system to prevent sexual violence with primary prevention measures like education. And it was a very academic piece, it was looking at the literature, the research, and it came down very much in favour of preventative measures, rather than the reactive criminal justice system. And then I graduated and went into practice as a criminal lawyer, and I came back to the subject in 2019 on my Churchill Fellowship, which was a much more in-depth and practical research opportunity, because I went to all these places where they implement sex ed better and more consistently than we do here. And I got to learn about what it was that made it possible for these communities to do that, and what we don’t do here that means that we can’t guarantee young Australians that they’ll access comprehensive RSE. So the Churchill Fellowship really informs the research in the book, the people I spoke to, the things they told me—and of course, I draw in other research and subsequent conversations I’ve had with people here in Australia about the Australian experience, too.

It’s been an interesting experience weaving the fictional voice and the non fictional, more research-based voice. But that was, to my mind, what makes the book a bit more interesting. Because it’s not just me presenting my research like the way I did in my Churchill Fellowship report, which is really policy language—I don’t think it’s dry, but it doesn’t have that emotional connection that the book obviously tries to form with the reader.

You open most of the chapters with those vignettes, so as the reader turns the page, that’s how they start. And then you do come back to them a few times in the chapter to illustrate points. Why was it important to you that that was the opening of most of the chapters?

I think it gives the book a rhythm, and an energy to it in terms of keeping the interest. But it was really important to me to tell stories—because we can talk about ideas like consent in very legalistic and abstract terms, but until you start to see how that plays out in real life, in such a wide range of experiences and all the different nuances and all the different forces that bear down on people in these situations, I don’t think we can fully appreciate all the different factors that people bring with them to these sexual encounters. And we certainly can’t appreciate how all of us, as members of the broader community, contribute to these things. So the storytelling is really important—I think it’s the backbone of the book, because that allows us to interrogate some of these things and see how they played out for individuals in these moments. And because they’re fictional as well, it also meant that I could make the points I wanted to make by manipulating the characters and their histories.

‘It was really important to me to tell stories…to bring the readers along in that journey, rather than me just telling people what to think.’

So I could write into their histories what sex ed they did or didn’t have, or the kinds of sex ed they’d experienced, or their own interactions with the adults in their lives, whether that’s their parents, their teachers—there’s one character who has an interaction with a neighbour. So I could write that into it to illustrate the point about all of those aspects of sex ed that I needed to cover, but also particularly the way we all contribute to the attitudes and drivers of sexual violence and negative sexual experiences.

And we can see what leads the characters to saying yes when they really mean no—all the different factors, a lot of them are cultural, and then those experiences and you can see that so in depth with those vignettes and like it happens all throughout.

Yeah. And I think the other thing is I really wanted to connect with the readers. It’s very didactic if I just present my research and say, ‘this is what I learned and this is what we should do’. I think situating it in stories that people can relate to—so many people have said they see their own experiences, my experiences are in practically all of them in some way or another—that was really important to me, to bring the readers along in that journey, rather than me just telling people what to think.

So with your work and research history, you’re working, I’d imagine, largely in a really particular style of writing. But this is really clear and accessible prose and narrative prose as well. What was it like shifting from that more academic writing style to something that is going to be in bookshops?

I write across a few different areas—I do write opinion pieces sometimes, and I do write in a legal setting. But I think I got the chance to tap into an old creative part of me that I perhaps forgot was there. And I stumbled across this idea of the way it was written because the original idea for the book was more just non-fiction, trying to bring in my work experience, and the pitch didn’t really land—it didn’t fit for me, it didn’t fit for other people. And then I had the idea to create these stories in a way that—like that climate change doco, 2040, which looks at how we could do better, and this is the way we could reimagine a future, and it presented that in a meaningful way that viewers could see. And I wanted to do something like that, or like a Sliding Doors thing, where we could look at the ways these things could have happened differently.

And so because of that, I just had to write these made-up stories and I got to tap into this—I suppose I used to write stories when I was younger, in primary school, so maybe I was tapping into that. I don’t know. It’s not something that I’ve spent any time doing before this. And they were my favourite bits of the book to write—I wrote all of them first, basically, and that’s all I really wanted to do. And the non-fiction bits were a bit harder.

One of the central lessons the books wants to share is that it takes a village to raise a young person who has a healthy, respectful and safe attitude towards sex and sexual relationships. Who in our current Australian landscape do you see as the biggest helpers towards this?

I mean, there are a lot of people who have been working in this space for decades in Australia. This is the thing—we’ve had some of the best research about the importance of relationships and sex ed, what it should look like, what it can do, what it potentially is, the fact that young people want it—we’ve had all of that research for a really long time, but we’ve always fallen down at the implementation stage. And that’s what I wanted to go overseas and learn. There are so many experts in Australia, there are academics, there are frontline service providers, teachers, young people. But the point the book tries to make is that none of us is exempt from the responsibility we hold to young people, to do them the justice of giving them the education and information they need, and that they deserve, and that they ask for.

‘None of us is exempt from the responsibility we hold to young people, to do them the justice of giving them the education and information they need, and that they deserve.’

So it’s not just parents, it’s not just teachers, it’s not just young people—I’m none of those things, and yet I see myself as having a responsibility in this space. All of us do. The hope is that the book makes people feel empowered to actually contribute to that conversation and that change.

And as well as the helpers, who you do write about a lot in the book, you do write a little bit about the people who aren’t so helpful. Is it your feeling that these kinds of hinderers can have their minds changed?

Yes. Not all—it depends on the motivation for people to be opposing sex ed. So there will always be opponents to comprehensive RSE and there will be different motivations for that, depending who they are and depending, I guess, what their agenda is. It’s often a political dog whistle, so there are people who will not have their minds changed, because I don’t think they’re coming to the issue in good faith. But there are plenty of people who are concerned, and they don’t necessarily understand, and it’s our job to explain that. Because we’ve grown up in a society that is so silent, so shameful about sex and talking about sex and sexuality, and relationships, and bodies, and puberty and all this stuff—we’ve been so silent about it, it’s such a taboo. So the idea of talking about it openly to young people, of course that’s going to be frightening for some, or confusing, or just be a real 180 from what we’ve been used to. So we need to meet those concerns, we need to address them, not run away from them.

And that’s what I saw overseas, that’s what’s really useful about the overseas examples—it’s not like they were these utopias where everyone was like, ‘great, sex ed, we love it’, from day one. They also had opposition in their community, in their politics—they’re just better at meeting that opposition, whereas we tend to run away from it, as we saw with things like Safe Schools, for example.

Someone overseas said to me that people say to her, ‘you can’t teach 13-year-olds about consent,’ and she says, ‘that’s right, I can’t, because it’s ten years too late’. And we know that for this to be effective, we have to start really young. We can’t just dip in when young people are approaching the age that they’re going to be sexually active, and give them a couple of lessons about condoms on bananas and hope that that’s enough. It’s plainly not. So I say it’s like algebra—we don’t teach algebra to young kids when they’re in preschool or kindergarten, we start with basic numbers and arithmetic, and then we get to the more complicated, more nuanced stuff once they have those foundational skills, and as they get to the age and stage that it’s appropriate. It’s exactly the same thing.

But again, we have to do that work of explaining it to people, parents, community—this is what sex ed actually is, this is what it looks like, this is what it’s important for. It’s not encouraging young people to go off and have sex—the evidence shows that the more you teach young people about RSE, the later they have their first sexual experiences, the less likely they are to have negative sexual experiences. But there are people who, like I said, they’re not coming at it in good faith. So it’s not that they don’t understand, it’s that I think they see a political advantage to weaponising it. Or it might be about, no matter how much you can explain it, the concerns are around stepping into private values, personal values, cultural values, those sorts of things. So there are so many layers to it that we need to be mindful of, and I think we just can’t afford to keep putting it in the too-hard basket.

‘The book is dedicated to our younger selves—it’s trying to speak to young people now and the young people that all of us have been in the past.’

Watching Law and Order: SVU in lockdown, I’ve seen over that span from the early 2000s to now, how the attitudes towards sexual assault and the way they represent it has changed. Do you think contemporary portrayals of sex and consent in media and pop culture are making a positive impact on the way that we think about sexual assault, and the way young people go out into the world and the knowledge that they have? Or maybe you think it does the opposite?

I have to confess to maybe watching one or two episodes of SVU in my life, sorry, but I’ll take your word for it that it’s changed, that doesn’t surprise me. I think we are seeing a bit of a shift in representation of these things. It’s still definitely there, though, and the unspoken assumptions about sex and sexuality and relationships that drive sexual violence and negative sexual experiences are so strong, and so deeply embedded, that they’re in places that we might not even recognise. That said, yeah, I think we’re seeing a bit of a change. But there’s so far to go. Consent Labs have started a campaign very recently about classifying consent, so actually pointing out when there’s some kind of non-consensual sexual activity that happens in some film or TV media, so that people are actually aware of it, rather than just letting it go unspoken and as though that’s normal.

And that’s the problem, when these assumptions stay unspoken and unnamed, they become the norm, because we’ve got nowhere else to look. But there are great programs now—I love Sex Education, for example, and the way that it deals with these issues and the representative nature of it. So we’re doing better, but we could always do more.

Who is your ideal audience for the book—Parents, educators, young people themselves, lawmakers, anyone else?

Everyone, basically. I tried to write it for a really broad audience. I wanted everyone who read it to come away from it feeling empowered. And that was partly born of the way that my Churchill Fellowship research unfolded, and what it revealed was all of these different strands and these stakeholder groups are so equally important. We have a tendency to be like, ‘we’ll stick it in the curriculum’, or ‘we’ll train some teachers’, ‘we’ll talk to some parents about it’. We actually need to work on all of those parts at the same time. And I know that’s not as attractive politically, because it’s not expedient, it’s not cheap, it’s complicated, all of those things—but it’s not going to work if we don’t engage all of those different pillars. So with that in mind, having learnt that on my fellowship, I wanted to reach out to all of those different stakeholder groups, if you like, as the audience of the book, but also to acknowledge that no matter what role we play, we’re all a part of the community, the village that raises young people.

So in a way, it matters, and it doesn’t matter at the same time, where we sit or what role we might play, formally or professionally or otherwise when it comes to sex ed, because we all have a part to play. The book is dedicated to our younger selves, so it’s trying to speak to young people now and the young people that all of us have been in the past and reach out to those young hearts, I guess. From an emotional sense, I think that’s who it’s for.

What’s next for you as a writer? Have you thought about writing a novel exploring these themes?

No, I haven’t thought about writing a novel exploring these things. I feel like this is my first and possibly only book. I feel like I have said everything that I have to say. This is my passion, this work—and as I say, I feel like it’s everything that I have to say about it. I guess I wouldn’t close the door to it, but I don’t see myself as a writer. I see myself more as a lawyer and advocate, and this was a really important and privileged opportunity to put that advocacy into a different format, and one that spoke to a creative part of me. I don’t know about what’s next for me as a writer—maybe I do need to consider that, but I haven’t really thought about it properly yet.

Well, I hope we’ve planted the seed of that tonight, because I think you definitely are a writer—and I think there’s something that the creative parts of this book communicate on a deeper level that I can imagine going out over a longer work.

That’s interesting, because since writing the book, a lot of the questions I get in the media or the publicity are about the practical, ‘how do we implement sex ed’ things. And I find the vignettes the most interesting part of it, like I was saying before. So I’m really enjoying this conversation, talking about that side of things, and the use of a creative medium to persuade people or advocate for this issue in a way that is less didactic. So, yeah, maybe you’re right—maybe given I enjoyed writing those so much, I need to actually spend more time in that space, tap back into that part of myself.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. To watch the full conversation, visit KYD’s Instagram profile.

Legitimate Sexpectations is available now from your local independent bookseller.

1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) offers confidential information, counselling and support services and is open 24 hours to support people impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence and abuse.