My sex education, like many of my peers, was limited. Conversations were hushed, lessons were focused on contraception and how to prevent pregnancy, and there was little discussion about sexuality, gender and the importance of giving consent.
Natalie Fiennes provides a daring and radical, if at times somewhat jumbled, overview of how sex education is “outdated and ripe for transformation”, confirming what many have said for too long.
Behind Closed Doors attempts to shine a light on the contradictions and control that government policy, social perspectives and capitalism have over the way we view sex, sexuality and our more intimate relationships.
It comes at a time when the debate on sex education is heated. Next year will mark the mandatory teaching of Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) to primary and secondary state school students. This is positive — the last guidance was written nearly 20 years ago — but it has also sparked divisions about the teaching of LGBTQ+ lessons.
At the beginning of 2019, parent protests in Birmingham saw a primary school drop LGBTQ+ lessons.
Fiennes spends chapter 9 exploring the history of Stonewall, as well as how the UK government detains many who identify as LGBTQ+. In fact, over a two-year period, two-thirds of the asylum claims related to sexuality were rejected. This is a poignant chapter because it affirms that we must “fight for the commemoration of LGBTQ+ history” in order to challenge the intolerance that still pervades society today.
The book offers a clear and detailed outline of what we must address in RSE. It considers a number of radical ideas, such as gender as a construct, the need for trans rights, sex as a positive act and how toxic masculinity from demagogues such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro only continues to entrench rigid ideas that will divide us.
Fiennes opens up conversations about a more radical and open-minded outlook on RSE by deploying first-hand experiences from individuals she has interviewed, and historical references from a socialist perspective. However, she lacks a thread that ties her various comments together.
She does not mention what education unions have done to counteract the restrictions that governments place on RSE. But if we are to see a change in the way in which RSE is taught and considered, it must come from working with teachers and students in order to produce a sex education that empowers our young generations.
If Fiennes could connect with what the unions have done to counteract the restrictions that governments have placed on sex education, as well as what individual educators have done to develop radical ideas, then I believe this would cement her progressive ideas into something that would empower all and open up the discussion about what should be required in school curriculums.
The idea of sex is very much controlled and warped by the capitalist system we live in.
Fiennes’s historical overview and youthful radical thought help us to consider how, with unity between educators and students, we can create an RSE curriculum that considers our relationships with each other, our communities and our planet, and the collective action required to implement an inclusive, socialist education for all ages.