There’s a low hum of anticipation inside the Palace Verona cinema when I’m there on Monday night, but it’s offset by these notes of wariness. We’re not sure exactly how to feel as we file in and take our seats. All we know is we’re here to see the first episode of Asking For It, a three-part documentary series produced by SBS and Northern Pictures, that will take us inside one of Australia’s most contentious and complex issues; consent.
This is the second collaboration between fierce filmmaker Tosca Looby and award-winning journalist Jess Hill who first came together on the gut-wrenching series See What You Made Me Do that explored domestic violence and gave SBS its highest ever audience for a factual program. After the hour of television I watched unfold, I’m sure this series will spark similar numbers.
When the lights came back up, and the incredible panel discussion between Tosca, Jess, consent educator extraordinaire Lauren French and fearless survivor advocate Saxon Adair (who had just watched us watch her as she lay her trauma out bare on a big ol’ cinema screen) was done, I knew two things:
1) Every person I know needed to watch this.
2) I wanted to talk to the people who made it.
So, that’s what I did. Here’s my chat with director Tosca Looby (this interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity).
Hannah Diviney (HD): Let’s start with the obvious question - why did you decide to make Asking For It?
Tosca Looby (TL): We had done, ‘See What You Made Me Do’ (SWYMMD)in 2021, which is a series about domestic abuse. And I honestly thought it wouldn't get much of an audience, I thought the content would be too hard. And instead, it did really, really well on SBS. And we also got an amazing response from people who talked about what an impact the series had had on their lives and how it kind of opened their eyes to certain aspects of behaviour that they saw around them or with friends and family.
And it convinced us that there was a template to do it again. And at that time, consent was an issue that was really getting a lot of airplay. The whole Bruce Lehrmann case was going through Parliament. All the victim survivors and advocates who were speaking out at that time, were really being heard. And then numbers just kept increasing.
But more than that, it seemed like consent was an issue that people didn't necessarily understand, it wasn't necessarily an easy topic to understand. And maybe what we especially didn't understand is why society has so much trouble with the concept of consent. So, to us, it seemed that there was plenty of space there to create another series.
Missing Perspectives would like to take a moment to acknowledge the incredible work of several survivors and advocates who were instrumental in driving the ‘airplay’ that consent was getting at this time including Dhanya Mani, Brittany Higgins, Grace Tame Saxon Mullins, Noelle Martin, Chanel Contos, Angelique Wan and Dr. Joyce Yu among others.
HD: But obviously consent is a huge issue with a hell of a lot of nuances involved. So how did you, Jess, and the team decide what the roadmap for the series would look like?
TL: So really early on, we started looking at how we were going to flesh this out. And that's always a process of elimination. You start by looking at the many different voices who could inform and speak to this topic. It’s actually a really broad range of people across sectors, across sexualities across all sorts of intersectionalities. And, then you kind of work in on the basis of who is able to talk about it, and who will tell these stories.
So we started with a whole lot of topics that we wanted to touch on. And one of those was the legal system. We knew we wanted that to be a really big part of the series. So, we had to start finding the people whose stories could serve that purpose for us.
And ultimately, there's always people who, I still think, oh, I wish that story had come through. Because, for me, television is a limited vehicle, you know, scripts are actually very short, in the number of words versus a book so there's a lot that you don't have in there. You’re forever thinking how is this speaking as broadly as possible to people with so many different experiences? But obviously, we have all these issues that we're trying to wrap up in three hours of television, and that's never a completely successful art ever.
HD: So, you’ve spent a year or more dealing with these stories. And obviously, that pales in comparison to the trauma that survivors are carrying. But how did you make sure that you guys were safe, that the survivors were safe, that everyone felt able to continue to show up for this project? Because it's a marathon not a sprint…
TL: Yeah, well, thank you for asking that question. Because it's always really nice. When people do think about what that must be like. And it's true, it's a marathon. And this time, in particular really hit all of us quite hard. I think rape is really hard to talk about and there's, not many people who don't have a really close connection to it in some shape, or form. So, I think that was really an issue for everyone.
I think, for our participants, it was obviously especially hard to talk about. Even when talking to survivors of domestic abuse for you're not actually necessarily having to talk so specifically about what happened to you. Whereas when you're talking about sexual assault, it is so specific, it is so personal. There's no shying away from that.
You have to lay out the details. And those details are really hard to hear. They're really hard to tell. Yeah. And so there was a lot of stuff that we didn't include in this series, because we had to make decisions about when we'd hit that point for an audience to say that is as much as they need to know about this, anything more is going to tip them over the edge. And so you're forever trying to find that balance of not trying to sanitise things, but certainly trying to make it something that people can continue with and not turn off and think actually, I might just watch some reality television.
HD: You mentioned the other night on the panel that you had a psychologist on set and that it was really important for you guys to have check ins with all of the advocates. How much pressure or weight did you feel being trusted with these stories and then having to take them and turn them into something that people can watch?
TL: Yeah, look it's funny when I was talking about that on the panel, the other night, I thought, I really don't want to burst into tears at this point. But I really was about to because I think I was just starting to feel like it was gonna be okay. And I think for a year, I especially carried the weight of all those people who you're asking to do something which is really risky for them. You know, it's very risky to make a decision to be involved in something like this. And you carry that responsibility. And so this psychologist is fantastic for me, especially because she's able to have a separate conversation where she's checking in with these people and they're reporting back to me.
That process is just so vital. And so helpful. The other thing I do that's so important is show the edits to the participants before we lock them in. And, that gives them a chance to think through what it is that they've said to kind of just prepare themselves to watch it maybe with other supporters, or family or whoever they feel is going to be able to kind of hold them through that process.
HD: Well, the number one feeling that both my mum and I had when we left was, how do we make sure that the maximum number of people watch this because this feels like one of the most important pieces of television that might ever be made here in Australia?
TL: It's funny, because people have said to me a few times, who's this for? And I have to say, it's for everyone.
HD: I think so, too. I think it's for young people. I think it's for parents, I think it's for teachers, I think it's for politicians, I think it's for the lawyers and other people in the legal system, it's literally for everybody because consent affects all of us. But, in saying that, what do you want people to get out of the series?
TL: I want people to be having those conversations. I think all of us have so much mythology around our attitudes to consent. The questions we ask are focused on the victim and their behaviour. And we have to just stop focusing on victim behaviour and start looking at why people do this. Why do people have sex without consent? And that is addressed in the series, for example, because of porn, you know, so much porn is advertising a form of sex that's is about non-consensual sex, and that's meant to be a turn-on. And if that's what kids are watching from such a young age, and that's how they're learning about sex, and that's how it's being demonstrated to them, then of course, that's what they think.
HD: I think the need to reframe a victim or survivor's experience will ring particularly true at the moment. We all saw what Brittany [Higgins] went through, we've just seen what the woman at the centre of the Jarryd Hayne case has had to go through for the third time just to get him in jail. Hopefully, there'll be people watching this, who actively have the power to change the way that the system treats survivors.
I also really want to bring in young men and boys to this conversation, I think that is absolutely vital that they aren't left out of this conversation. It can't be about them. It's got to be with them. And until we do that, we're just kind of speaking in a vacuum.
HD: I think that was one of the most interesting parts of the panel - talking about the experiences of young men and the way that oftentimes, at the moment, they're talked down to or they're made to feel like they've done something wrong before they've even had the conversation. In fact, I'll be interested to see, particularly with the focus on Lauren French's incredible work that you guys have what that does, for the way that the education system talks about consent to young men.
TL: I think the good work that's going on out there is great work. And then I think there's a lot of consent work that is just box ticking. So I think the more we can get people like Lauren French explaining what she does, the better it'll be. Because it won't take audiences long to realise these boys are wanting to have this conversation. and, if they can do that, without feeling that they're gonna get in trouble for saying what they really think or what they are looking at, or what they're believing about sex, then, you know, the better it is for them. And if they're the ones who are most, I guess, consuming, you know, mainstream porn, which sort of seems to be the case, at least compared to girls the same age, then, that is a conversation that vitally needs to be had.
HD: Are there things that you want people watching this documentary, to go and do? Are there actions that people can tangibly take to help move this conversation forward? And to make sure that like 10 years from now, we're not seeing another documentary series on consent?
TL: If people can start talking to each other about the kinds of behaviours they see around them, and saying, what makes them feel uncomfortable, and what makes them feel comfortable, and what version of sex is great, that would be wonderful. I mean, I do find in this conversation, we're constantly talking about sex as a kind of dangerous negative thing. Obviously, that is not what sex is meant to be.
Sex is often the most fantastic thing. And if kids especially can, walk into that, understanding that the best kind of sex is consensual sex, and that that's what they all go looking for, and that that's what they expect from each other, then that's a really good kind of launching point for a whole generation. And then in terms of their parents, you know, also understanding that these kids aren't choosing to be sexually assaulted, they're not putting themselves in a position, which means they're asking for it.
You know, I think that is so important that we need to stop right through not just in our own families, but within our legal systems within our political systems. We so have to stop questioning the behaviour of victims.
HD: Yeah, absolutely. And I actually think Saxon Adair made some incredible points about that on Monday night because she basically said, we tell survivors and victims that to do it properly, they should report it to the police and go to court but then if they do that, the likelihood and the intensity of like retraumatization or not being believed, or is so intense that it makes it almost the harder option. And I think as well, people will see when they watch, Saxon very importantly frames what happened to her and 'letting' it happen as thinking that was the safest course of action because the alternative had her in fear of her life.
TL: When we listen to that story, we think, yeah, you know, this is kind of the freeze response. And it's a really common response. And again, victims get blamed for it because people say, "But why didn't you run away? Why did you stay there? Why did you agree to do it without even saying no." And we don't understand all these psychological responses, where people are thinking, for me, this seems like the safest thing to do because resistance seems more dangerous.
HD: Yeah. I feel like if we scrutinised perpetrators, half as much as we scrutinise victims and survivors, we'd be in a much better situation personally.
TL: Exactly. I mean, how many times has Saxon answered those questions versus how many times has the man who allegedly assaulted her been asked these questions? Why did he want to have sex with someone he'd met four minutes ago, in a back lane when she wasn't wanting to do it? You know, they're pretty important questions.
HD: They are. And I think, like, if we go back to the, the audience question for one second. Lauren French made a really good point the other night, because she said that every time she does a consent workshop, she knows she's in front of both survivors and perpetrators at exactly the same time. And obviously, like we've talked about the audience so far in terms of being fairly neutral, but how does it make you feel that like, survivors are going to see this? And potentially people who haven't ever disclosed that this has happened to them, but also that, there could be a world in which perpetrators are watching it, too.
TL: I mean, guaranteed, perpetrators will be watching it too. And, you know, with all these things, it's always nerve wracking, that people are watching this, and you want them to be watching it safely, and to have a support network and to be able to contact people afterwards, if they're feeling triggered, and many people will be. And that's not something that we can control. And so that's always a really nerve wracking thing. But the whole series is designed so that people will feel they can have those conversations. And I know that already.
Participants have said that even when the promotions are going out at the moment on SBS, friends are suddenly disclosing to them. And so we know there will be a wave of disclosures. And I guess that was also what happened when Chanel collected her testimonies. And when Grace Tame comes out and says it is time for us to speak. And that is both wonderful and terrible, because we realise how many people out there have stories, how many been holding them for such a long time. How fearful they've been about telling them but letting these stories out is bringing relief to them, is making them feel less isolated, and is loosening that shame.
There. is nothing to be ashamed of. We believe you. We love you. If this story has raised anything for you, please call 1800Respect. For those who can, please keep talking about Asking For It, Thursday nights 8:30pm on SBS and SBS On Demand.