Outspoken: JJ Bola & Natalie Fiennes, Pages of Hackney: ‘Sex education and masculinity treated with grace and humour’

Authors Natalie Fiennes and JJ Bola. Photograph: courtesy Pages of Hackney

Outspoken is a new series of books published by Pluto Press addressing contemporary political issues such as sex education, masculinity, mental health, class and more. 

An event comprising readings from, and discussion of, Mask Off by JJ Bola and Behind Closed Doors by Natalie Fiennes, books pertaining to masculinity and sex education respectively, was held at the Pages of Hackney bookstore on 28 November with great success. 

The setting was intimate and cosy, evoking the warmth of feeling when one loses oneself in a rare and absorbing book. The staff were welcoming and helpful, and the distribution of red or white wine served to amplify the sense of intimacy. 

Such an atmosphere was further aided by the genuine rapport established between authors and the audience. 

Natalie Fiennes read an excerpt from the introduction of her book Behind Closed Doors, taking the audience through a brief history of sex education. In establishing the historical context of her subject, Fiennes also laid the foundations for her discussion of, and arguments for, a new and transformative approach to the sexual education of young people.

Framing our current conceptions of sex and sexual equality within the cultural and historical parameters of European colonialism and the globalisation of Christian morality, Fiennes identifies the very limitations from which sex education must escape. 

Further, through this historical analysis Fiennes has connected the progress in the development of sex education programmes with the cultural and political shifts of each era.

In terms of the contemporary cultural and political climate, Fiennes identified the MeToo movement and the remnants of history as positive and negative factors behind the current state of sex education. 

The MeToo movement and the shared outrage it precipitated has enabled young people to speak more freely and without shame about sexual issues. It has informed and driven debate on such topics as consent, and much of the conversation has filtered through to classrooms, to positive effect. 

However, ‘the burden of history’, as Fiennes called it, still maintains a grip on our conceptions of sex. Sexual equality is not yet achieved and this can be blamed on lingering shame originating in patriarchal and religious systems that still hold sway today.

JJ Bola’s reading from Mask Off was of a more personal perspective. He recounted a story from his past about his love for basketball and the connections and lifelong friendships he forged with teammates through a shared love of sports.

But Bola’s interest in basketball was greatly affected by a severe episode of depression. As his feelings of emptiness increased his passion for basketball waned, and soon the sport became like ‘a stranger’ to him. 

Male mental ill health is one of the topics covered in Bola’s book. The predominant reasons for male mental ill health, according to Bola, are the expectations and issues arising from patriarchal social structures.

When males are expected to behave in certain ways, perhaps their falling short of such standards can lead to mental illness?

Male suicide is a huge problem. It is the leading cause of death in men under the age of 45. Seventy-five per cent of all suicide deaths are male. 4,903 male suicides were recorded in 2018.

One wonders if such statistics are indicative of a much more multifaceted and nuanced narrative than merely that of patriarchy. 

Nonetheless, patriarchy and capitalism are on top of both Fiennes’ and Bola’s agendas when speaking of primary driving forces for the social ills addressed at the event.