Abbott's sexual conservatism

February 6, 2010

When, after destroying Malcolm Turnbull, the Liberal Party took a surprise turn and embraced Tony Abbott as leader, there were those on the left who greeted the news with combined incredulity and glee.

Surely the Tories were done now! Not only were they bitterly divided, they were marching to the next election behind a leader who seemed half crazed — a low-rent Mel Gibson, given to weird outbursts about arcane Catholic social dogma.

The combination had "fail" written all over it. Didn't it?

Well, Abbott's interview with the Australian Women's Weekly — or, more exactly, the response to it — illustrates what's wrong with that perspective.

It remains to be seen whether Abbott can actually lead the Libs to victory in an election, but he's ahead insofar as he has pushed an already conservative cultural climate further to the right.

It's already happening. Katharine Murphy's piece in the January 28 Age is one of a number of liberal defences of Abbott's thoughts on virginity. Murphy writes: "Leaving aside the Opposition Leader's hackneyed 'gift' metaphor — an idea possibly lifted from a Mills and Boon romance novel where the hero's name is Rock or Brutus — what is Abbott saying?

"He's saying don't bang the first randy, pimple-faced adolescent you smooch at the school disco just because he insists he loves you. He's saying think about it.

"Isn't this what many parents would advise their growing kids?

"Think. (Please.) The motivation for such advice could range from public health concerns, to religious beliefs, or a desire to hold on to kids who defy their soft-hearted parents by casting off their childhood.

"I'm a secular feminist and this is more or less what I would advise my kids and I don't think hasten slowly represents a compromising flight from modernity. On my calculation — again, a personal one, much like Abbott's — such advice could help plot a pathway towards settled and confident sexual selfhood."

It's odd that a self-described "secular feminist" doesn't address the obvious point: that, if Abbott had sons rather than daughters, there'd be no lectures about the great gift of their boyish virginity. Indeed, the question would never have been raised, either by the interviewer or the subject.

Prince William has just adorned our shores. He's a young man who is held up as moral exemplar. He's not married. So is he a virgin? Does anyone know? Does anyone care?

Have a look at Murphy's formulation again. "[Abbott's] saying don't bang the first randy, pimple-faced adolescent you smooch ... Isn't this what many parents would advise their growing kids?"

Well, no, it's not — actually, boys are almost never told that. Your virginity is a gift? In what parallel universe is that a standard Australian father-son talk?

In fact, while Abbott's views are steeped in Catholic dogma, the sexuality of teenage girls is a point of particular interest to the Christian right. In the US, for instance, evangelicals host "purity balls", events at which dads and daughters join together to dance and to obsess about virginity (the daughters', not the dads', naturally).

Here's a description from Time magazine:

"Kylie Miraldi has come from California to celebrate her 18th birthday tonight. She'll be going to San Jose State on a volleyball scholarship next year. Her father, who looks a little like Superman, is on the dance floor with one of her sisters; he turns out to be Dean Miraldi, a former offensive lineman with the Philadelphia Eagles.

"When Kylie was 13, her parents took her on a hike in Lake Tahoe, Calif. 'We discussed what it means to be a teenager in today's world,' she says. They gave her a charm for her bracelet — a lock in the shape of a heart. Her father has the key. 'On my wedding day, he'll give it to my husband,' she explains. 'It's a symbol of my father giving up the covering of my heart, protecting me, since it means my husband is now the protector. He becomes like the shield to my heart, to love me as I'm supposed to be loved.'"

To appreciate the full creepiness of these events, you really need to see the YouTube clips of young girls in ball gowns waltzing around with their fathers.

Strangely, there's no equivalent event for boys, no prom night at which young lads stare into the eyes of their mothers and make promises about what they intend to do with their genitals.

Abbott might not be at quite the level of ickiness as the purity ball people — but he's heading in the same direction.

Even to discuss the opposition leader's remarks in terms of double standards, however, obscures the rightward shift taking place. When did it become taken for granted that we must warn kids about sex?

Whether we're talking about boys or girls, wouldn't it make more sense to reassure kids that sex is an ordinary part of life? That it's not a transaction or an exchange of presents, but an activity that, like anything else, gets better with practice.

Yes, sexual health is important. Yes, we should help young people be safe. But aren't the kids more likely to be both healthy and happy if they're not loaded with an expectation that their first sexual experience will be some transcendental moment?

There's a great Onion piece which illustrates that the fetishisation of virginity can do some damage. It's titled "Horribly Awkward First Sexual Encounter 'Worth the Wait' for Christian Newlyweds". It's funny because, sadly, it's true.

Today, however, even supposed liberals frame their discussions of sex with socially conservative assumptions. In that context, someone like Abbott can win ground by seeming to actually believe in something — in contrast to shamefaced secularists.

He knows, in other words, what he's doing with this stuff. The virginity comments did not, after all, emerge at an impromptu doorstop interview, nor were they the result of Abbott speaking off-the-cuff about how things were done in his family. Abbott agreed to be the subject of a Women's Weekly profile and to focus attention on his domestic affairs.

He could quite easily — quite properly, in fact — have told the interviewer that his daughters' sex lives were no one else's business. He went on the record — presumably because he recognised the value of social conservatism to political conservatism.

As "Deborah" at points out, in some respects, the most remarkable moment in the Women's Weekly interview is when Abbott is asked about the difference between male and female pay rates: "On the problem of businesses paying women on average 16 per cent less than they pay men in the same jobs, Tony is unaware there is still a problem."

Now, industrial relations "reform" has been central to Abbott's career. Yet somehow this statistic has entirely escaped him.

The early women's movement campaigned simultaneously against sexual double standards and for equal pay. In a different context, Abbott's apparent indifference to ongoing sexism of the workforce might have itself made the news.

But in the context of his thoughts on virginity, his ignorance about the reality of unequal pay barely registered. And why would it? If you can normalise a view of sexual roles from the 1950s — well, back then, no one expected women to work, did they?

Abbott might not win the next election but he sure is scoring runs. With his rise to opposition leader, he's shifting Australian political debate to the right — and back several decades.

[Reprinted from New Matilda.]

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