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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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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.