Balloons on the route of San Francisco's Gay Pride parade, 30 June 2013. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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

Show Hide image

How “cli-fi” novels humanise the science of climate change

The paradox is that the harder climate-fiction novels try, the less effective they are.

When the Paris UN Climate Change Conference begins at the end of November, the world’s leaders will review the climate framework agreed in Rio in 1992. For well over 20 years, the world has not just been thinking and talking about climate change, it has also been writing and reading about it, in blogs, newspapers, magazines – and in novels.

Climate change fiction is now a recognisable literary phenomenon replete with its own nickname: “cli-fi”. The term was coined in 2007 by Taiwan-based blogger Dan Bloom. Since then, its use has spread: it was even tweeted by Margaret Atwood in 2013:

It is not a genre in the accepted scholarly sense, since it lacks the plot formulas or stylistic conventions that tend to define genres (such as science fiction or the western). However, it does name a remarkable recent literary and publishing trend.

A 21st-century phenomenon?

Putting a number to this phenomenon depends, partly, on how one defines cli-fi. How much of a novel has to be devoted to climate change before it is considered cli-fi? Should we restrict the term to novels about man-made global warming? (If we don’t, we should remember that narratives about global climatic change are as old as The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Biblical story of the flood.) If we define cli-fi as fictional treatments of climate change caused by human activity in terms of setting, theme or plot – and accept there will be grey areas in the extent of this treatment – a conservative estimate would put the all-time number of cli-fi novels at 150 and growing. This is the figure put forward by Adam Trexler, who has worked with me to survey the development of cli-fi.

This definition also gives us a start date for cli-fi’s history. While planetary climatic change occurs in much 20th-century science fiction, it is only after growing scientific awareness of specifically man-made, carbon-induced climate change in the 1960s and 1970s that novels on this subject emerged. The first is Arthur Herzog’s Heat in 1976, followed by George Turner’s The Sun and the Summer (published in the US as Drowning Towers) in 1987.

At the turn of this century, Maggie Gee and TC Boyle were among the first mainstream authors to publish climate change novels. In this century, we can count Atwood, Michael Crichton, Barbara Kingsolver, Ian McEwan, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ilija Trojanow and Jeanette Winterson as major authors who have written about climate change. The past five years have given us notable examples of cli-fi by emerging authors, such as Steven Amsterdam, Edan Lepucki, Jane Rawson, Nathaniel Rich and Antti Tuomainen.

Creative challenges

Cli-fi is all the more noteworthy considering the creative challenge posed by climate change. First, there is the problem of scale – spatial and temporal. Climate change affects the entire planet and all its species – and concerns the end of this planet as we know it. Novels, by contrast, conventionally concern the actions of individual protagonists and/or, sometimes, small communities.

Added to this is the networked nature of climate change: in physical terms, the climate is a large, complex system whose effects are difficult to model. In socio-cultural terms, solutions require intergovernmental agreement – just what COP21 intends – and various top-down and bottom-up transformations. Finally, there exists the difficulty of translating scientific information, with all its predictive uncertainty, into something both accurate and interesting to the average reader.

Still, cli-fi writers have adopted a range of strategies to engage their readers. Many cli-fi novels could be classified as dystopian, post-apocalyptic or, indeed, both – depicting nightmarish societies triggered by sometimes catastrophic climate events. A future world is one effective way of narrating the planetary condition of climate change.

Some novelists are also careful to underpin their scenarios with rigorous climatic predictions and, in this way, translate science fact into a fictional setting. Kingsolver, who trained as an ecologist, is the best example of this – and Atwood and Robinson are also known for their attempts at making their speculations scientifically plausible. Also, cli-fi novels, particularly those set in the present day or very near future rather than in a dystopian future, tend to show the political or psychological dimensions of living with climate change. Readers can identify with protagonists. To some extent, the global community is represented in fictional everymen or everywomen. Or, often, it is through such characters that science is humanised and its role in combating climate change better understood.

Can cli-fi lead to change?

Could cli-fi affect how we think and act on climate change? The paradox is that the harder cli-fi tries, the less effective it is. Many writers want to inspire change, not insist on it: the line between literature and propaganda is one that most novelists respect. Literature invites us to inhabit other worlds and live other lives. Cli-fi at its best lets us travel to climate-changed worlds, to strive there alongside others and then to return armed with that experience.

In Paris, the UN will seek a global agreement on climate action for the first time in more than 20 years. There is plenty of climate change fiction out there to help provide the mental and psychological space to consider that action.

The Conversation

Adeline Johns-Putra, Reader in English Literature, University of Surrey

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.