We have to counter the anti-sex, anti-choice spin before it's too late

A vocal minority is attempting to influence the political mandate on sexual health.

I had hoped my first blog post for the New Statesman might be about my experience of sexism in the film industry (short version: it’s like 1950); that I think we should have a Good Sex instead of a Bad Sex literary award (why not celebrate decent, provocative writing?); or perhaps just a few lines on how underappreciated the naked male form is (and wanting this exhibition to come to the UK), but, instead, I am having to pen a piece about the way in which politicians are screwing us (no pun intended) over sex.

When it comes to sexual health, we seem to be seeing a subtle change in policy-makers’ decisions, with the vocal minority becoming more determined to influence the political mandate. Last year, I wrote this about Nadine Dorries MP, because her repeated attacks on abortion and sex education needed to be confronted. While it is nice to breathe a sigh of relief now, and know that her political objectives have been ridiculed (not least with her appearing on TV’s I’m A Celebrity), the fight for women’s rights over their own bodies still continues.

There is an undercurrent in UK politics, with, at its heart, an anti-sex, anti-women agenda. Bit by bit, the goal posts are being shifted and with each step pandering to the religious, anti-science, anti-choice ideologues, our rights, our ability to access healthcare, our freedom to make safe choices about our lives, get chipped away.

It’s incredible that we have a health minister, Jeremy Hunt, who wants the time limit for abortions to be halved, without any medical reason for doing so, and who fundamentally misunderstands that abortions are provided as healthcare for women – we shouldn’t need tragic cases like Savita Halappanavar to be reminded of this. But he sees this as a moral issue: he believes that personal opinions are the basis upon which to make medical decisions, not scientific facts. And he is in charge of women’s health. Great.

We also have a women’s minister and home secretary both pushing for four-week reductions. Besides ignoring their own parliamentary review (pdf) in 2006, which clearly states that there is no justifiable reason to decrease the 24-week limit because very, very, few foetuses are viable before then, these politicians press ahead with their ignorant opinions, arguing that “people’s views” should help form a pronouncement of women’s healthcare.

As well as the attacks on abortion rights, the coalition government is undermining sex and relationships education in schools and specialist services for young people due to their cuts in funding. If we don’t provide young people with comprehensive, age-appropriate sex and relationship education, which includes teaching about all forms of contraception, their sexual – and emotional – health will suffer. Brook, the sexual health charity for whom I am an ambassador, regularly asks young people what they want when it comes to learning about sex and relationships – and what they want is unbiased, balanced, knowledgeable sex education. Without this, they cannot make informed decisions about the sex and relationships they choose to have.

Simon Blake OBE, Brook’s Chief Executive, says:

“Most young people under the age of 16 are not having sex. Evidence shows that high quality sex and relationships education, provided by parents and at school, combined with access to free, confidential sexual health services helps delay the age young people first have sex and increases the likelihood they will use contraception when they do.”

If we don't fight against the encroaching attacks on access to abortion we will see a further deterioration of women's reproductive rights, and more women’s health will be at risk. And if we don't fight on behalf of young people and the sex education they are entitled to, then the impact on their lives, their relationships, and their sexual health, will be felt for generations to come.

In January, I'm running an event called Sex Appeal on behalf of Brook, to get people to openly challenge those who spread misinformation about sex, sexuality and sex education. We need to counter the spin that these anti-sex, anti-choice apologists are spreading – before it is too late.

Women’s minister Maria Miller has backed a four-week reduction in the limit for abortions. Photograph: Getty Images

Zoe Margolis is a journalist and writer, famed for writing the Girl With A One-Track Mind blog. You can find more information about her work, including on sexual health, at her website. She's on Twitter as @girlonetrack.

Getty
Show Hide image

To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage