Balloons on the route of San Francisco's Gay Pride parade, 30 June 2013. Photograph: Getty Images
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Laurie Penny tax breaks for marriage: why should I subsidise other people’s weird lifestyle choices?

There’s no reason anyone should be herded into an archaic arrangement that does not work for everybody.

The right might have lost the battle on gay marriage but its war on sexual freedom isn’t over. In the US, this year’s Pride celebrations have been particularly jubilant as legislation “defending” marriage from those pesky queers was struck down. In Britain, “traditionalists” are furious about David Cameron’s attempt to drag the Conservative Party into the 20th century just as the rest of us leave it behind – so much so, that tax breaks for married couples have been wrestled back on to the policy table.

The world is changing but large numbers of unaccountably powerful people still seem to believe it should be run like a fantasy version of 1950s bourgeois suburbia, all picket fences and patriarchy. The tax allowance being proposed will not benefit every married couple – it is specifically designed to reward and give an incentive to those in which one partner either does no work outside the home or earns very little.

The policy is, in effect, a subsidy for stay-at-home mums. Mothers who have the gall to be unmarried, by contrast, have just had their state support cut still further in the latest Spending Review because this government is more interested in making moral statements than in keeping children out of poverty.

For many traditionalists, marriage isn’t really about love – it’s about money, property and social control. The reason the right to equal marriage for same-sex couples has been so bitterly opposed by these traditionalists is that homosexuals threaten the “sanctity” of the marriage contract and “family values”. The obvious retort – that love between two people of whatever genital arrangement should pose no problems for an institution supposedly grounded on that notion – misunderstands what marriage means to many of the old guard. The idea that it should be based on love, attraction and shared life goals, rather than on principles of property management and hammering people into statesanctioned heterosexual breeding pairs, is a huge threat to the entire set-up.

Traditional marriage of the type that David Cameron now wants to promote has little to do with love and it’s certainly not about sex. Indeed, one thing that may have turned the tide of moderate opinion in favour of allowing homosexual couples to wed might have been the prospect of reducing the amount of gay sex actually taking place.

I’ve heard precisely no sensible arguments against gay marriage from anyone who is serious about treating LGBT people as equal members of society, but, now that we’re agreed on that point, it would be a relief if we could all stop treating marriage as a social panacea. Instead, we should treat it as what it is – a lifestyle choice, just like every other arrangement that diehard defenders of marriage call perversion.

Marriage is now a minority lifestyle choice, which is perhaps a reason why the only social group that has been consistently enthusiastic and tolerant about the practice in the past decade has been LGBT people.

In Britain, as singles and lone parents continue to rise in number, only 47 per cent of households are headed by a married couple and half of those arrangements will end in divorce. Giving tax breaks to married couples amounts to getting the rest of us hard-working singletons, swingers and livers-in-sin to subsidise these people with their strange habits.

There’s nothing wrong with funding minority cultural practices. Clearly, some people enjoy marriage and some of these people are able to make it work as a permanent arrangement, although it sounds exhausting and involves a lot of intimidating specialist equipment. I only ask that subsidies be distributed fairly. We can chip in for their floral arrangements and bathroom sets, they can pay for our three-person dildos and car-park orgies – and maybe then we can all agree to stump up some proper cash for housing and childcare so no parent finds himself or, more frequently, herself making any sort of sexual bargain in exchange for security.

Like any other fringe sexual practice, marriage is best approached with a full and frank understanding of the dangers involved. Because, unlike with such relatively benign perversions as sadomasochism, there are clear risks, particularly for women, and those risks are borne out by some chilling statistics. Every week, two women are killed by an intimate partner. Making it harder for people to leave such arrangements by financially penalising unmarried individuals – even as domestic violence shelters are closing across the country – is no sane policy.

It’s not that I’m prejudiced. The heart wants what it wants, as do the nether regions, and I’m happy for the many couples I know who enjoy the married lifestyle, just as I am happy for the lizard fetishists and leather queens I have met, all of whom have been perfectly lovely people.

I understand that, for some people, the apex of socio-sexual fulfilment is putting on a far-out frock and promising to love, honour and obey one other person for ever and ever. To me, that sounds like a really kinky set-up with dubious roots in historical sexism and the relegation of women and children to the status of property, but if it works for you, hey, let your freak flag fly. All I ask is that that sort of decadence shouldn’t be enforced or made a condition of financial security, because impressionable young people might get ideas.

Just as there’s no reason why any couple should be denied the right to marry, there’s no reason anyone should be herded into an archaic arrangement that does not work for everybody. My greatest hope for equal marriage is that those who were so worried that it would threaten “traditional family values” will turn out to be absolutely right. In the world, there are many different ways to arrange love between human beings in this world and all of them are of value.

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.