Marson, Katrina. Legitimate Sexpectations: the power of sex-ed. Melbourne: Scribe, 2022. RRP: $32.99, 272pp, ISBN: 9781922585516.
In the hands of a lesser writer-researcher, a book that relies on fictionalised sex scenes to illustrate failure to consent could have been a failure in itself. In Legitimate Sexpectations: The power of sex-ed, author Katina Marson immerses us in the complex emotional and physical choreography of fictitious sexual encounters as a counter narrative to her research on sex education, and manages not to fall into a Delta of Venus flytrap. This book offers a sustained argument for a national curriculum of comprehensive relationships and sexuality education (RSE) informed by Marson’s experience as a criminal lawyer dealing with family violence and sexual assault matters, as well as by her international fieldwork as a Churchill Fellow.
What comes across in Marson’s vignettes and critical writing is the nuance that’s often lacking when we talk about ‘unwanted sex’. While rape, sexual violence and harassment are criminal matters whose implications are clearer post-#MeToo, Marson highlights scenes of ‘unwanted sex’, where a person goes along with sexual activities they are not comfortable with, for example, to please a partner or because of peer pressure. Many of us have bought into the myth that discussing boundaries, likes and dislikes during sex somehow breaks the mood and Marson emphasises how this is perpetuated by films where ‘characters understand each other’s lust and enthusiasm with no more than a look’ (34).
Legitimate Sexpectations takes its place on the shelf alongside a growing slate of works that seek to dismantle gendered and intimate partner violence. In See What You Made Me Do, Jess Hill traces male violence—because 95% of sexual assault perpetrators are male (ABS)—to the terrorising force of humiliated fury that emerges when a man’s desire for intimacy rubs up against overwhelming feelings of shame. Hill writes, ‘When men feel powerless and ashamed, it’s their entitlement to power that fuels their humiliated fury, and drives them to commit twisted, violent acts’ (140). Dr Jessica Taylor’s Why Women Are Blamed for Everything dismantles the rape myth which demands that victims should fight back, when the most common response to sexual trauma is the freeze response. And yet, how are we to know what a healthy sexual response looks like when the general messaging around sex is ‘don’t do it’?
Jess Hill’s essay ‘How #MeToo Is Changing Australia’ strengthens Marson’s plea regarding RSE, as Hill unpacks the Australian government’s consent education package, called ‘The Good Society’. This dropped in April 2021 and was filled with ‘tortured metaphors about milkshakes, tacos and shark-infested waters’ (101). Where discussions of sex typically invoke bad humour or shushing and shaming, what fills the vacuum of silence is a multiplicity of competing and contradictory desires. We have been taught that ‘no means no’, but how does one recognise and interpret the spectrum of desire—how one’s passion is not a barometer of someone else’s, how it’s okay to change one’s mind—when the prohibition model of sex ed teaches us that ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘privileges entitlement to sexual pleasure for some but not others’ (Marson 9)? ‘Didn’t she have the right to be asked?’ writes Marson. ‘The right to want or not to want? To expect that everyone she encountered would recognise and respect her autonomy as a person, not just as a vessel for someone else’s pursuit of sexual gratification?’ (39)
Marson argues that sexual violence is sustained by unconscious attitudes that we as a society hold around sexual behaviour, violence and power. This echoes Amia Srinivasan’s assertion that sexual entitlement is ‘a paradigm of how politics shapes sexual desire’ (95). Jacqueline Rose cites sexual violence as ‘a sign that the mind has brutally blocked itself’ (174). Rose believes the remedy will involve reckoning with our mind’s extraordinary complexities, without replicating violence and harassment in our denouncement of it. Marson writes into this space of possibility, where the goal is not to blame or shame, but to understand the circumstances which might lead to unfortunate sex.
While consent education is a deficit model of sex-ed that garners political approval and is ‘less likely to make anyone’s “skin curl”’ (63), Marson cites RSE as taking a broader approach to human sexuality through its focus on sexual health and wellbeing, gender equity, diversity, healthy relationships and interpersonal violence. Where liberal media backlash would have parents fear that children will learn to become sex-crazed deviants, positive outcomes for RSE include delayed sexual onset, reduced risk of teenage pregnancy and better use of contraception (Ramírez-Villalobos et al.). Marson asks us to recall the misinformation campaign against the Safe Schools program, falsely labelled a ‘sexual indoctrination program’ by Miranda Devine, despite its key aims of reducing transphobic and homophobic bullying in schools (150).
We would do well to remember that, far from being a call to put on Marvin Gaye and get it on,
sexual wellbeing includes freedom from sexual violence and harassment, or unwanted sexual experiences. It is freedom from shame, guilt, and distress about your own sexuality, your own body. It is a feeling of confidence, safety, and autonomy with respect to your body and your choices and your lifestyle. (171)
This holistic wellness described by Marson is what I wish for everyone. In fact, Katherine Angel wrote an entire book on consent and desire, which argues that instead of placing too high an ethical burden on consent, it’s our social responsibility to formulate an ethics of sex that acknowledges the uncertainty of desire, allowing for ‘obscurity, for opacity and for not-knowing’ (40).
As Marson reports back on sexual health and education from Europe and North America, she recognises the book’s gap in research in light of the need to decolonise sex-ed, given that ‘sex and sexuality, or hetero- and cis-normativity, are colonial and patriarchal concepts’ (16). While being careful not to speak for marginalised communities, Marson asserts the necessity of sex-ed for disabled and neurodivergent youth who are often failed by a system inclined to deny them agency or accessibility. Marson depicts unwanted sex from male, female and non-binary perspectives, and although her vignettes do not aim to universalise any group’s particular experience, as a whole they provide a compelling argument for instituting a curriculum of sexual wellbeing.
As a survivor of sexual assault and a carrier of shame, I turned to Legitimate Sexpectations for advice on teaching my son how not to perpetuate violence and how not to fall victim to coercive or unwanted sex. Even though the book is more of an illustrative and researched argument for RSE than a how-to guide for sex-ed, I was still able to take away these key themes to focus on: ‘bodily autonomy, setting and observing limits, paying attention to feelings, getting help, differentiating between good and bad secrets, and gender roles and their diversity’ (18).
One book cannot be all things to all people, but I credit this book for continuing the conversation around human rights and sexuality and the right to a life free from violence. In the aftermath of sexual assault Chanel Miller wrote, ‘Gone is the luxury of growing up slowly. So begins the brutal awakening’ (6). What is at risk here is everything.
ABS. Recorded Crime—Offenders, 2019–20. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2021.
Angel, Katherine. Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: women and desire in the age of consent. Verso, 2021.
Hill, Jess. ‘How #MeToo Is Changing Australia’. Quarterly Essay, no. 84, 2021, pp. 1–131.
——. See What You Made Me Do: power control and domestic abuse. Black Inc., 2019.
Miller, Chanel. Know My Name. Viking, 2019.
Ramírez-Villalobos, Dolores, et al. ‘Delaying Sexual Onset: Outcome of a Comprehensive Sexuality Education Initiative for Adolescents in Public Schools’. BMC Public Health, vol. 21, no. 1, 2021, pp. 1–1439, https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-021-11388-2.
Rose, Jacqueline. On Violence and On Violence Against Women. Faber, 2021.
Srinivasan, Amia. The Right to Sex. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021.
Taylor, Dr Jessica. Why Women Are Blamed for Everything: exposing the culture of victim-blaming. Constable, 2020.
Jenny Hedley’s writing appears in Overland, Archer Magazine, Cordite Poetry Review, Diagram, Mascara Literary Review, TEXT, Verity La, Admissions: voices within Mental Health and elsewhere. She lives on unceded Boon Wurrung land with her son. website: jennyhedley.github.io/