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Laurie Penny on Rick Santorum and the sexual counter-revolution

Anglo-American culture has never had a problem with sex - as long as it is carefully managed.

To call this a culture war would be to imply that more than one side is fighting.

Almost a century ago this month, women's rights activist Emma Goldman was arrested in New York for distributing "obscene, lewd, or lascivious articles". What she was doing was handing out pamphlets about birth control, with the aim of freeing women sexually and socially from the burden of unwanted pregnancy, and she got a spell in a prison workhouse for her trouble.

Walk around Lower Manhattan today, as I did this morning, and you'd think that history had vindicated Goldman's long campaign for sexual freedom.

Pop songs promising a catalogue of horizontal delights pump out of the doorways of shops selling dildos and cheap knickers in the early mornings. Men hold hands with their husbands in SoHo. Wall Street workers in skirt suits jostle on the subway with excited teenagers in tiny shorts defying their parents and the winter chill.

Everywhere, on billboards and bus-stops and hoardings a hundred feet high, images of female sexual availability bulge and shine and flutter their perfect airbrushed eyelashes. Thighs glisten, legs spread and giant red lips open wetly for the latest low-calorie yoghurt. Surely, you'd think, this is a sweaty shangri-la of erotic liberty. Surely this is one place where the sexual revolution of the 1960s was allowed to reach its logical conclusion.

Step into any coffee shop or diner that carries the rolling news, however, and you'll find that in the land of the free not everything is as free as it seems. Over the past few weeks, right-wing politicians have launched an all-out assault on women's sexual and reproductive freedom and LGBT rights, attacking not just gay marriage and abortion but contraception, too.

In 2012, the morality of hormonal birth control is now a serious hot-button issue in the Republican presidential race. Last week, not a single woman was allowed to testify before a Washington hearing on reproductive rights and "religious freedom" -- which includes allowing bosses to deny their female employees contraceptive health coverage on moral grounds.

Meanwhile, the state of Virginia debated whether or not to force every women seeking an abortion to submit to vaginal probing with an ultrasound device, a policy that campaigners called "state-sponsored rape" -- one state representative commented that he couldn't see what the problem was, as these women had already consented to being penetrated when they got pregnant.

As panels of terrifying old men gather on national television to debate whether and how far women should be punished for having sex outside marriage one could be forgiven for thinking that American politics had temporarily been scripted by Margaret Atwood. As the recession crunches down, the country is awash with anti-erotic, anti-queer, anti-woman rhetoric that goes beyond 'culture war' into the territory of sexual counter- revolution.

The Republicans know that contraception in particular is a losing issue for them - a New York Times poll found that two thirds of voters, including 67 per cent of Catholics, support requiring employee health care plans to cover the cost of birth control, and Obama is up ten points with women from August- but they can't help themselves. One whiff of an uncontrolled pudenda and they start scrapping like housedogs who have been sprayed with pheromones, which makes for such classic TV moments as candidate Newt Gingrich, currently America's most famous serial adulterer, seriously participating in a debate about sexual continence.

To call this backlash a culture war would be to imply that more than one side is fighting.

This is far from the case. Compared to pageant of homophobic and misogynist pants-wetting going on on the American right, all the Democrats need to do to make themselves look like a sane and useful political outfit is to sit back and watch the Republicans engage in auto-erotic asphyxiation.

Americans have short memories, particularly in election years, and most seem to have forgotten that it is barely two months since President Obama stepped in to restrict the sale of the morning-after-pill- to girls under 17 -- move seemingly designed to reassure the increasingly suspicious, sexist American centre-right that he hates sexual freedom a little bit, too. Just not as much as those crazy Republicans.

Curiously enough, precisely the same arguments seem to be at play when British conservatives attack abortion rights and sexual health - they might be gradually reintroducing fear of female sexuality into mainstream public life, but at least they're not as bad as those crazy Americans. Meanwhile, the public conversation about women's rights and sexual freedom is creeps back, inch by inch, towards conservative censoriousness.

This new sexual counter-revolution is bigger than America. The rhetoric of god, marriage, morality and little girls learning to keep their legs closed has crossed the pond with all the tooth-aching tenacity of a Katy Perry song. Last week, we had Baroness Warsi going to the Vatican to announce that Europe needs to be more 'confident in its Christianity'.

This week, it's a campaign by the Telegraph to remind women, their doctors and the government that abortions are not available 'on demand', a move that follows two years of attacks on sex education and the legal right to choose in parliament. Just like in the United States, the effect of this mission creep of legislative misogyny is to chip away at public support for women's right to control our bodies and our destinies.

It's worth reminding ourselves what birth control and abortion actually mean in political terms. The hormonal birth control pill was the first step in a technological revolution that, within living memory, liberated one half of the human race from functional dependency on the other. With legal abortion as the other side of the equation should birth control fail, women can finally be the mistresses of our own reproductive systems, rather than the slaves of it.

We can choose when, if and how many children we want, we can be sexually active without fear of pregnancy, and we can participate, at least in theory, in every area of public and professional life- we can have, in short, all the advantages that men have always enjoyed through accident of biology.

Pro-choice campaigners speak of a woman's right to "control her own body", rather than have it controlled for her by her husband, the church or the state, as if that right were a social given rather than something that our mothers and grandmothers fought and went to prison to win.

When conservative head-bangers like Rick Santorum complain that birth control encourages women and girls to have sex outside marriage, the appropriate response should be "yes, and?". Of course we want to have sex outside marriage without fear of social or economic punishment. Of course we want to control our fertility and, with it, our future.

These are precisely the technological advances that make real equality a possibility, and they are precisely the advances that players in the big boys' throwback club of modern politics wish to curtail when they complain of "moral decline" in public life.

The sexual counter-revolution is all about control. It's about control of women, control of desire, and control of political space at a time when elected representatives have nothing to offer voters beyond sops to our most fearful prejudices. As for those dirty billboards, they are part of the equation. A culture of objectification is part of managing and monetising the social fact of desire.

Anglo-American culture has never had a problem with sex as long as it is carefully managed -- as long as it is enjoyed only by straight men and endured by women, guiltily,in the dark.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Pablo via Creative Commons
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Is Lithuania still homophobic? My girlfriend and I held hands to find out

The Lonely Planet guide warned that for gay and lesbian travelers, "small displays of public affection can provoke some nasty responses".

It’s midnight somewhere on the greyish outskirts of Vilnius, and my girlfriend has just burst out laughing. Our Uber driver starts laughing too. Nonplussed, I scan the oppressively functional Soviet-era architecture we’re driving past for literally anything funny.

Then I see them. A series of panels above the stairway to a basement bar; photos of topless blonde men with glistening six packs. This is – as is usually the case – either a tribute to the most homoerotic scenes in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, or something deliberately gay. And 99 out of 100 it’s the latter, this being no exception.

Soho Club is the most out-of-context gay venue I’ve ever seen. It sits on a poorly lit street on the edge of Lithuania’s capital, almost as if it’s been plucked out of the city centre and dumped there.

Given the staunchly Catholic and formerly communist Baltic state’s uneasy relationship with its LGBTQ community, this wouldn’t be particularly surprising.

According to the Lonely Planet guide to the Baltic States for gay and lesbian travelers, "small displays of public affection can provoke some nasty responses".

Homosexuality was only decriminalised here in 1993. And, any legislative victories aside, a 2009 poll found that attitudes amongst the population were much the same as the pre-1993 days. Eight in ten respondents considered homosexuality to be anywhere between a perversion and a disease. 

Such a gay-hostile place probably seems like an odd choice for a romantic getaway with my girlfriend, on my birthday weekend. Then again an itinerary like ours, which includes a visit to the both the Museum of the Victims of Genocide, and the Holocaust exhibition at the Jewish museum, is hardly "gondola ride in Venice" or "Eiffel Tower at sunset". This is a stark, ex-Soviet, mostly-raining introduction to being gay outside of the liberal London bubble. Which is to say: dreamy.

Having said that, Vilnius’s cobbled old town is beautiful and, compared to other more mainstream Eastern European capitals, decidedly less stag night-y. Same-sex couples, it turns out, can be drawn to a city for features other than its queer nightlife. 

On the short walk from Vilnius’s central train station to our Airbnb, we passed a mural of Donald Trump smoking a spliff and giving Vladimir Putin blowback. A definite tribute to the gay kiss between the USSR's Brezhnev and East Germany's Honecker depicted on the Berlin Wall.

It was hard to tell what this said about the area’s attitude towards queers, but it was on the side of a bar that’s blasting out Black Lips and full of Lithuanian hipsters in their twenties. Say what you like about hipsters, they are not known for gay-hate. It was difficult to imagine anyone in there giving much of a shit about our sexuality.

At the Airbnb, we were greeted by one such Lithuanian hipster. She was about 20 and seemed a little nervous speaking to us, even though her English was near fluent.

The flat – an immaculate new build – was decked out in Ikea classics. Like the bar with the homoerotic Trump/Putin mural, anywhere with a Malm just seems to radiate gay-friendliness. It’s both sterile and PC. Like the Lib Dems, or a free sachet of lube.

Our host gave us a brief lesson in how to work the flat, before saying a polite goodbye. We’d just started unpacking when there was a knock on the door. It turned out the host had done a 180.

"One last thing," she said, "Do you need an extra duvet, or are you… sharing the bed?"

OH GOD, I thought. This is it. This is the kind of shit you read about. You never do read about anything good.

"Yeah, we’re sharing," I said, feeling both – I hate to say – embarrassed about being in a same-sex relationship, and embarrassed about being embarrassed about being in a same-sex relationship.

"OK, cool. No questions!" said the host, before disappearing into the afternoon at the speed of sound.

"No questions," I repeated, "Hmm."

Just to be clear, no, this wasn’t exactly a hate crime. I’m also reluctant to judge a 20-year-old from a very religious country for – well – judging us. And anyway, maybe "no questions" meant "no judgment". Who am I to… judge?

We’d been in Lithuania for about an hour before my girlfriend and I decided to really test the water and hold hands in the street. Mostly, we were starting to wonder if we were being xenophobic by assuming Lithuanians were probably homophobic.

This, I suppose, is the point at which bigotry really starts to eat itself. Unfortunately though, almost the moment we held hands, a group of...shaven headed individuals, who wouldn’t look out of place in a modern day pogrom, walked past, staring us down as if we’d stopped there for a spot of mid-street fisting.

I made brief eye contact with one of them as I let go of my girlfriend’s hand as fast as a bottle of water at airport security.

"Oh," I said to her, when – as far as we knew – Vilnius’s only out homophobes were at a safe distance. "Yeah…" she said.

There are parts of the world – Uganda, Russia and, most recently, Chechnya –  where both socially and legislatively speaking, things are actually getting worse for queer people. But, the overarching narrative is "it gets better". Visiting anywhere with less good attitudes towards The Gays than I’m used to feels like a step back in time.

I wonder, in terms of acceptance of, say, two women holding hands, which decade in London is reflected in 2017 Vilnius. The 80s? The 70s? I’ve only been gay in London since 1989. And back then – as far as I know – I wasn’t a particularly dykey baby. 

So began a weekend-long game of political PDA. We walked through the cobbled streets of the old town, admiring baroque churches and wondering if we were allowed to be a couple near them.

Without a strict set of rules, every stranger’s glance is open to interpretation. My interpretation being, "Let’s just not make a scene, OK?", my girlfriend’s interpretation being, "Stop being paranoid and xenophobic. No one cares."

In the evening, as we sat in a busy restaurant eating zeppelins (remarkably dense Lithuanian potato dumplings, not airships) we spotted – lo and behold – what we (homophobically?) thought might be another gay couple.

Two men in their twenties stood waiting for a table. They had professionally shaped eyebrows. One of them had earrings. In Nineties terms, they were gay as fuck. At a dumpling joint in Vilnius, at ten at night, who the hell knows? And, more to the point, why the hell should they care? Well, when your relationship has been reduced – via queer invisibility – to a handholding battle, you’re kind of desperate to find another same-sex couple.

"Are they…" I said.

"They must be," she said.

"Should we…?"

"NO."

I’m not even too sure what I was asking we "should" do (speak to them? Buy them drinks? Demand a gay tour of Vilnius?), or why I was shut down without finishing my sentence. Whatever we should or shouldn’t have done, we didn’t.

But back to Soho Club. The car stops and we leave behind our bewildered and slightly too amused Uber driver. Tentatively, as if approaching an ancient Egyptian tomb by lamplight, we walk down the stairs past the muscle man panels.

The complete silence – not even interrupted by passing traffic – doesn’t exactly say "buzzing" or… "Soho". Inevitably, almost, the bar is closed. In fact, it’s arguably the most closed bar I’ve ever seen. We’ve turned up, ready to party with Lithuania’s finest gays, at a giant lead box. What’s more, we look around us and realise we’ve strayed into Murder Town.

On our way to the nearest bus stop, we pass a life-size fiberglass cow devoid of any explanation, and a lit-up poster that looks startlingly like an ad for dead babies. The streets get wider and desolate-er until we’re at a petrol station, holding hands out of pure fear. On my part at least. If this is Vilnius’s gay scene, I’d like to give it some kudos at least for quite strongly resembling a David Lynch film.

Having somehow not been sawn into pieces and turned into outsider art, we find ourselves back at Vilnius airport the next day. While idly internetting on her phone, my girlfriend notices our Airbnb host has reviewed us as guests.

"Leonore and her friend are very friendly people!" she wrote.

In all fairness, I have shared beds in Airbnbs with friends. And whether or not someone is tiptoeing around my sexuality like a puddle of something that may or may not be wee, it’s always nice to be considered friendly. And to have "friends".

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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