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.

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

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