Too much of a God thing

Should American politicians revisit their assumption that God is necessarily a vote-winner?

After a political season dominated by questions of religion to an extent unusual even in the United States, it appears that Americans may finally have had enough. Polling data released yesterday by the Pew Foundation points to a huge increase in the number of US citizens who complain that their politicians are too eager to talk God.

In 2001, a mere 12 per cent were turned off by politicians doing God. It's now 38 per cent, and rising. As you might expect, the feeling is especially strong among Democrat voters. Fifty two per cent agreed with the statement that there are "too many" expressions of religious faith and prayer by political leaders. President Obama has, after all, been the target of much faith-based criticism from the leading Republican candidates, whether it's Mitt Romney damning his "secular agenda" or Rick Santorum muttering darkly about his "phony theology". But a significant minority of Republican sympathisers feel the same way -- 27 per cent. The feeling is stronger among Romney supporters, a third of whom would welcome less religious talk from politicians.

On the other hand, 40 per cent of Republicans apparently believe that politicians should talk even more about religion. It's hard to know what would satisfy them; unless, of course, they were just joining in with the Santorum line on Obama. A clear majority -- 55 per cent -- of his supporters are in the "too little" camp, as opposed to under a quarter of Romney-ites. This looks like further evidence that Santorum appeals to a very particular (and committed) subset of the electorate: enough to make him look a serious challenger to a Romney nomination but unlikely to be much help to him if he wants to win the all-important centre ground.

Among mainstream (as opposed to Evangelical) Protestants, white Catholics and (less surprisingly) the religiously unaffiliated, there has been a noticeable increase in the past year in the proportion saying that there has been too much discussion of religion by political leaders. This looks like a reaction to the way in which the campaign has played out so far.

An even more striking finding is that almost two-thirds of Democrat voters and almost half of Republicans (but including 57 per cent of Romney supporters) think that churches should as much as possible keep out of politics. The poll was carried out earlier this month, coinciding with the Catholic Church's campaign against the administration's proposed requirement for all insurance schemes to provide birth control.

The Church has sought to base its arguments on the constitutional principle of freedom of religion rather than on its longstanding opposition to contraception per se, a manoeuvre that has not convinced everybody. (Democrat Congressional leader Nancy Pelosi called it "an excuse".) Another recent poll, by the Public Religion Research Institute, found that most Americans did not believe that there was a threat to religious liberty in the country (although significant majorities of Evangelical Protestants and Tea Party members did). There continue to be majorities in favour of forcing religiously-affiliated hospitals and colleges to provide contraceptive coverage for their employees, including a majority of Catholics. The Church leadership's campaign may well have alienated as many people as it has won over.

Another interesting finding of the PRR poll is that a majority of Americans favour legalising same-sex marriage, including 59 per cent of Catholics (a higher proportion than in the population as a whole).

Taken together, these findings suggest that the picture of America that increasingly comes across on the campaign trail, as a devout nation ever-more demanding of public displays of religiosity from its political leaders, may be significantly wide of the mark. It may be a long time before an avowed atheist stands much chance of being elected President. But most Americans see the value of the constitutional separation of church and state, and any politician -- or, for that matter, church leader -- tramples on it at their peril.

Too much of a God thing. Photo: Getty Images
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Ann Summers can’t claim to empower women when it is teaming up with Pornhub

This is not about mutual sexual fulfilment, it is about eroticising women’s pain. 

I can’t understand why erotic retailers like Ann Summers have persisted into the twenty-first century. The store claims to be “sexy, daring, provocative and naughty”, and somewhat predictably positions itself as empowering for women. As a feminist of the unfashionable type, I can’t help but be suspicious of any form of sexual liberation that can be bought or sold.

And yet, I’d never really thought of Ann Summers as being particularly threatening to the rights of women, more just a faintly depressing reflection of heteronormativity. This changed when I saw they’d teamed-up with Pornhub. The website is reputedly the largest purveyor of online pornography in the world. Pornhub guidelines state that content flagged as  “illegal, unlawful, harassing, harmful, offensive” will be removed. Nonetheless, the site still contains simulated incest and rape with some of the more easily published film titles including “Exploited Teen Asia” (236 million views) and “How to sexually harass your secretary properly” (10.5 million views.)  With campaigns such as #metoo and #timesup are sweeping social media, it seems bizarre that a high street brand would not consider Pornhub merchandise as toxic.

Society is still bound by taboos: our hyper-sexual society glossy magazines like Teen Vogue offer girls tips on receiving anal sex, while advice on pleasuring women is notably rare. As an unabashed wanker, I find it baffling that in the year that largely female audiences queued to watch Fifty Shades Darker, a survey revealed that 20 per cent of U.S. women have never masturbated. It is an odd truth that in our apparently open society, any criticism of pornography or sexual practices is shut down as illiberal. 

Guardian-reading men who wring their hands about Fair Trade coffee will passionately defend the right to view women being abused on film. Conservative men who make claims about morals and marriage are aroused by images that in any other setting would be considered abuse. Pornography is not only misogynistic, but the tropes and language are often also racist. In what other context would racist slurs and scenarios be acceptable?

I have no doubt that some reading this will be burning to point out that feminist pornography exists. In name of course it does, but then again, Theresa May calls herself a feminist when it suits. Whether you believe feminist pornography is either possible or desirable, it is worth remembering that what is marketed as such comprises a tiny portion of the market. This won’t make me popular, but it is worth remembering feminism is not about celebrating every choice a woman makes – it is about analysing the social context in which choices are made. Furthermore, that some women also watch porn is evidence of how patriarchy shapes our desire, not that pornography is woman-friendly.  

Ann Summers parts the net curtains of nation’s suburban bedrooms and offers a glimpse into our peccadillos and preferences. That a mainstream high street retailer blithely offers guidance on hair-pulling, whipping and clamps, as well as a full range of Pornhub branded products is disturbing. This is not about women’s empowerment or mutual sexual fulfilment, it is about eroticising women’s pain. 

We are living in a world saturated with images of women and girls suffering; to pretend that there is no connection between pornography and the four-in-ten teenage girls who say they have been coerced into sex acts is naive in the extreme. For too long the state claimed that violence in the home was a domestic matter. Women and girls are now facing an epidemic of sexual violence behind bedroom doors and it is not a private matter. We need to ask ourselves which matters more: the sexual rights of men or the human rights of women?