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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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle