Sex and politics – always such a winning combination. And politicians can’t win. If they have an extramarital affair, they are pilloried. But if they advocate abstinence, they are barbecued. Seems the only option for a politician is to shut up about sex (but make sure they have a stable marriage). Tony Abbott, Federal Opposition leader, found that out this week. For those not in the know, Abbott recently gave an interview with the Women’s Weekly in which he said the following:

I would say to my daughters, if they were to ask me this question, I would say … it is the greatest gift that you can give someone, the ultimate gift of giving and don’t give it to someone lightly, that is what I would say.

The slapdown from the media and in the political arena was fairly rapid. Julia Gillard: “These comments will confirm the worst fears of Australian women about Tony Abbott”. Gabriella Coslovich in The Age: “If I were one of Abbott’s daughters I would be furious to have my value reduced to the state of my hymen”. Most of the responses centred on the desirability of bonking whoever you like without criticism.

Tony Abbott was trapped by the fact that politicians, like every public figure these days, must engage on a personal level as well as a political level. To challenge Labor, he must be liked by the Australian people, as well as having attractive policies. Hence the Women’s Weekly interview. However, Abbott’s insistence that the piece was a ‘personal’ and ‘not political’ doesn’t stand up either because the only reason we care is because he is a politician. Most of the hysteria whipped up on his comments is simply fluff that we can safely ignore. Many commentators simply don’t like Tony. Abbott is an abrasive politician, and those opposed to him will take any opportunity to denigrate him. This is to be expected, and Abbott shouldn’t be surprised. But there are a couple of interesting issues touched on in this episode.

The first is Is it valid for politicians to comment on so-called ‘private’ matters? I argue that not only is it valid, it should be positively encouraged. I want to know what my political representatives actually think, not just rely on carefully controlled media releases. One of the attractive things about Tony Abbott (bar budgie smugglers) is the unscripted nature of his public appearances. That could be spin too, but I prefer it to the airbrushed image that Rudd conveys. Added to this is the artificial separation between private and public issues. Rudd referred to this in his response to Abbott, opining that governments should focus on health, climate change and war-mongering, and leave the ‘private’ issues to individuals. I assume he means that sex is a private issue. That didn’t stop him writing a long essay on his religious faith before the election.

These issues are ‘personal’ but they are not ‘private’ in the sense of having no public interest. All relationships, including sexual ones, have to deal with the public dimension, even if it extends only to excluding the public. In fact, our definition of what is ‘private’ and therefore off-limits to politicians, god-botherers and in-laws, is quite fluid. For some, our voting choices are strictly private (though regulated by government), for others it’s our bank balance (though regulated by government), for others it’s our eating habits (though regulated by government). For others it’s our choice of school (though regulated by government). All our supposedly private choices are regulated to some degree by government. Even, yes, sex is regulated by government.

So, to get down the root of it all, the real issue is not whether politicians should comment on ‘private’ issues, but Should government regulate relationships? And how should they be regulated? And, for the god-botherers like me, is there any validity in trying to persuade such regulation on the basis of my religiously-grounded beliefs?…stay tuned