Comment: Sex and politics – the new populism?

Whenever sex enters mainstream political debate its always due to a populist outrage. Is it feminism's fault, or is the right-wing press to blame?

By Jane Fae

It seems only last week that I was writing for on what I then described as New Labour prudery, and the state of general funk that UK politicians get into when discussing sex and sexuality.

In fact it was almost a year ago to the day. The home secretary, then a woman, is now a (different) man: and I, writing at that time as a man, have now grasped the nettle of my own gender issues and am well on the way to becoming a woman. When it comes to sex and politics, however, not much else has changed.

The tabloids stirred themselves briefly when it turned out that one of the Lib Dem candidates – Anna Arrowsmith, formerly Anna Span – is also a maker of porn films for women. Similarly, there was a momentary flutter when Ukip discovered that Roger Ager, a leading light in their Liverpool organisation, also made porn films.

The fact that both individuals did so for serious purposes and had received some general acclaim as competent film-makers did little to erase the press cliché of smut in politics, or to deter retiring Tory MP Anne Widdecombe from expressing the view that it is "entirely inappropriate that someone involved in that sort of business should be a candidate".

This contrasts sharply with an absence of criticism of Phillippa Stroud, Tory candidate for Sutton and Cheam, who was alleged to advocate prayer sessions as a means to 'cure' homosexuals.

So is it all just the Daily Mail tendency writ large? Senior politicians in all parties have told me – off the record, of course – how they cross the Mail at their peril: that when it comes to sex and sexuality, speaking out is a fast route to political suicide. Not that politicians appear slow to speak out when appealing to a narrow reactionary minority.

Asked about rights for the transgendered in the equality bill, one Labour MP is reported as saying he didn't see why "men who like to wear frocks occasionally" should receive special protection. The Tories were less polite about it, allegedly interrupting debate on the topic with witty comments such as "heaven preserve us" and "filthy perverts".

Its not simply that some politicians don't like talking about sex: some really just don't like any sort of sex that breaks the heteronormative consensus. About the only way that individuals and groups gain sexual acceptance in the UK seems to be through playing the 'more normal than thou' card. That's what did it for gay rights and what appears now to be succeeding for transsexuals – although interestingly, not for transvestites.

Otherwise, though, the approach to sex is prudish, nay-saying and restrictive.

As I argued recently in 'Beyond the Circle', a radical review of discrimination on the grounds of sexuality in the UK, the population and the tabloids are fascinated by sexuality in all its manifestations, but the thrust of policy-making remains negative and moralistic.

This is the sex-plus rule. Sex on its own is at least ambivalent, probably bad: added to ordinary things, sex makes badness even more manifest. So we obsess about sexual material, whilst allowing far freer rein to violence – presumably on the grounds that someone copycatting serious sex, followed by serious ecstasy, is far likelier to cause public harm than someone copycatting extreme violence. We censor.

Over the last decade we have introduced special rules for lap-dancing, pole-dancing and burlesque. We have clamped down on trafficking – despite a marked lack of evidence, and the fact that the worst documented outcome for trafficking appears to befall cockle-picking illegal immigrants, as opposed to those allegedly coerced into sex slavery.

In vain do those who provide sexual services argue that government action to protect sex workers is having precisely the opposite effect, making their lives more dangerous: increasing the likelihood that individuals will be killed or seriously hurt.

We have started to vet almost half the adult population and store their details on a national database because a few of us just might be sexual predators. We are allowing the police to gather and disseminate hearsay accusations about us, once more, on grounds of protecting us from the statistically rare sexual bogeyman.

Over and over again, we are asking questions about sex – and coming up with answers that seem to take for granted that it is an area of concern, requiring safeguards and protections, rather than than a place for pleasure, deserving of celebration and enablement.

Clair Lewis, convenor of Consenting Adult Action Network puts the issue in a nutshell: "We have no equal right to freely express ourselves on sexual matters due to state-sanctioned discrimination, exclusion and promotion of prejudice against anyone who does not conform to government-approved relationship, or sex, styles."

But why? And why so little debate of such significant issues in the current election campaign?

Dr Jo Phoenix, reader in the School of Applied Social Sciences at Durham is scathing of the current approach. "Why are politicians so pathetic?" she asks – and answers: "Because the 'tide' of popular discourse is a deeply authoritarian, highly regulated tide which gains its legitimacy from populism."

Much of the running on this issue has been made by politicians popularly associated with one particularly sex-negative brand of feminism: step forward Harriet Harman, who has led the way in campaigning on pornography, sex work and trafficking. An easy analysis is to suggest that what is happening in UK politics is a re-grouping of the puritans from all areas of political life: from the right, from religion, from feminism.

This would be caricature and a serious mis-reading of cause and effect. There is some evidence that middle-of-the-road male voices are heard less often on sexual issues than might be expected: evidence, too, of publishers, editors and others down-grading the male input into this debate.

Pornography is seen as something men do to women: prostitution may be debated – frequently – with little or no reference to male prostitutes; kinky sex described in terms of the abusive male sadist, with the female dominatrix air-brushed out of the picture. The dread effect of politicised 'wimmin', once more?

Perhaps not. Rather, as debate focuses on the negatives, it gets transposed into talk about victims and oppressors. Women are more often victims. What would be the point of asking the abusers to give their views on the topic? As well to ask a fox his views on chicken rearing.

In reality it's about risk. As Dr Phoenix says: "Sex and sexuality have been thrown into this mixture of regulating populations through controlling risk – STI's, paedophilia, sexual violence, sexual abuse, trafficking etc., etc.

"I'm not sure that sex and sexuality is so much a 'women's issue'. I suppose in terms of anything 'sex positive', it is seen as being the stuff of women's Sunday supplements. But the c**p that is written in the tabloids – it is all sex as risk, sex as danger."

Academic, and convenor to national campaigning organisation Backlash, Alex Dymock is equally firm in rejecting the suggestion that this is caused by feminism.

Acknowledging the lack of literature on sexuality in general by straight men, she says: "I think this has far more to do with traditional, outmoded concepts of masculinity, however, than any desire to achieve 'political correctness'. A better gender balance at Westminster would, I think, do something to alleviate this."

She could have a point. In looking for insight into this question, it is clear that there are dozens of women writing and talking intelligently, radically, insightfully about sex and sexuality. Some start from a traditional feminist viewpoint: many more do not. Women are debating sex: men are not.

In the end, therefore, the whole Daily Mail thing may just be convenient excuse. As measure after reactionary measure gets nodded through by a parliament in moral panic it is all too easy for male politicians to claim expediency as reason for their silence.

In fact, little stops them from speaking out, but it is easier not to do so. And it is easier to blame women (and Harriet Harman) – who clearly control all the bad that emanates from Westminster – for the fear-mongering and poor legislation that follows.

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Jane Fae is an independent writer with a strong interest in topics of political and sexual liberty. She has been a Liberal parliamentary candidate, IT and marketing consultant, and founder and editor of two academic journals on the use and analysis of personal data.