In these days of orgasmic bliss for all, it's a relief to discover a healthy disgust of bodily fluids

Helen doesn't like saliva. Whenever we accidentally meet in the basement room of Broadcasting House, which the BBC reserves for smokers, she somehow brings the conversation around to the way in which her love life has always been marred by her refusal to bestow anything more meaningful upon her would-be lovers than a dry, tight-lipped kiss. From time to time I've tried to reassure her with allusions to literary figures who've displayed a similar disgust of bodily emanations, but her horror is too distinctive, too specific, to be squeezed into any ready-made categories. "I don't like the way it bubbles. Look at anyone who has drops of spit on their lips. It doesn't just stay there. You can see it spluttering. Like lava. I don't want any of that horrible stuff getting in my mouth."

I don't take any prurient pleasure from these revelations. I've never leant forward and asked whether she's horrified by other lubricious possibilities. First things first. Until something can be done about her saliva fixation there's little point in considering how she might react to the average male insistence that true love depends upon her being the happy recipient of enough spluttering fluid to fill a small test-tube.

You don't need to have led a particularly gregarious life to know that Helen's aversion to saliva is only one of the many concerns which arise among men and women when the talk turns to body coupling.

After a few pints, my best friend Dave would rather shamefacedly admit he loathed any form of oral sex because of the cultural requirement never to comment upon the odours it aroused. "Nobody ever tells you what to expect. You're simply supposed to ignore all those molecules buzzing round your bodies. And it's the women I feel sorry for. Men smell absolutely awful after orgasm. Like the shallow end of a municipal swimming pool." Neither was Dave the only man I knew who regularly treated the pub crowd to some or other version of Joseph Heller's insistence that, like coal-mining, cunnilingus was dark and dangerous work but someone had to do it.

Most standard texts on love-making treat such examples of physical disgust as evidence of personal repression. Brad MacCauley, in Adding Zest to Your Sex Life, insists that "many people can feel hesitant about tasting and smelling and touching every part of their loved one's body, but these aversions, so often the result of inhibitions induced in childhood, must be overcome if one is to know the all-consuming delight of being completely at one with your partner". There is then a long paragraph on how a subtle use of oils and deodorants can gradually help one towards "a complete and healthy acceptance of every aspect of the other person's body".

I don't think such prescriptions will do anything for Helen, and in a perverse way I hope they never will. When we're routinely propelled by so many bland normative prescriptions of how to find orgasmic bliss in our sex lives (whether our passion is for mere heterosexual coupling or the full sado-masochistic monty), it's a relief to encounter an impenetrable lump of thoroughgoing disgust, an emotion which cannot be smoothed or diluted by the blandishments of advertisers, the percentage results from nationally conducted focus groups or the gentle reassurances of friends and lovers. Disgust is splendidly singular.

I once asked Helen if she hoped that some day she'd meet someone who felt as she did about other people's saliva, who'd talk with an identical precision about how it bubbled and spluttered on their lips. "Oh God," she exclaimed, "now that would be disgusting."

This article first appeared in the 13 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Why gays become politicians

Show Hide image

Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.