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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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The problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt