Books

Cover of book: Legitimate Sexpectations: The Power of Sex-ed

Katrina Marson
Legitimate Sexpectations: The Power of Sex-ed

Almost one in five Australian women – and one in 20 Australian men – will experience sexual violence after the age of 15.

These bleak statistics open Katrina Marson’s Legitimate Sexpectations, a measured yet impassioned call for comprehensive relationships and sexuality education (RSE) for young Australians to help safeguard them against these realities. Simply put, comprehensive RSE is sex ed “built on a framework of rights”. It’s an approach that teaches young people to enjoy their physical and emotional sexualities in a context of bodily autonomy, holistic wellbeing and personal rights.

Marson is a criminal lawyer who undertook a Churchill Fellowship to research the implementation of comprehensive RSE in Europe and North America. The findings from her conversations and research anchor this earnest exploration of the power of RSE and the limits of Australian sex education, which focuses on risk-based warnings on pregnancy, sexually transmissable infections and rape.

In each chapter, Marson introduces a fictional scenario to illustrate how comprehensive RSE might have helped to mitigate a moment of sexual violence. There are stories of college date rape, unwanted unprotected sex and non-consensual sex acts. Each scenario is connected to current RSE programs that instil awareness about bodily autonomy, consent and sexual wellbeing – knowledge that could have changed the outcomes of these troubling stories.

The political and public conversations around RSE can be fraught. But, Marson argues, we must resist cultural backlash. The foundations for sex ed reform can be found in “strong government commitments, formal policies, and even legislative mandates [which] are vital for schools and teachers in insulating RSE programs from opposition”. The stories of implementing RSE in parts of Canada and Ireland then prove to be reassuring reading.

This isn’t a guide to reform. Rather, it’s a thoughtful cultural probe in which Marson draws on her own legal experience. There are times when Marson’s flourishes – especially her overuse of rhetorical questions, as if she is arguing in a courtroom – can hamper a compelling point.

Push beyond these stylistic trappings and Marson’s project is a redemptive and noble exercise. At a time when society has only recently begun to seek justice for those sexually violated by powerful men, Legitimate Sexpectations is a welcome – and, importantly, local – reminder of the need for wholesale sex education reform here. As she argues, it’s only by breaking down social scripts and advocating sexual wellbeing that lasting generational change may be possible.

Scribe Publications, 272pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 6, 2022 as "Legitimate Sexpectations: The Power of Sex-ed, Katrina Marson".

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Nathan Smith is a freelance writer.

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