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“Jump into bed together”, “quickie divorce”, “getting to second base”, “jilted” – no, I haven’t been flicking through the relationship advice columns, these are all phrases I’ve heard recently in discussions about politics.  Earlier in the year I kept hearing the US primary described in terms of voters “dating” candidates or “playing the field” before “settling down” with the nominee, and the current British coalition government was launched a couple of years ago to a storm of smirking references to the political “marriage” involved, whether it was a “civil partnership” and how many factions were happy being “under the duvet” with each other[1].

This rhetoric really bothers me, and I think it’s something we should have a think about.  Partly it’s a knee-jerk irritation that so many things which have nothing to do with sex are phrased in terms of intimate relationships, so that even a pen at a bank has to somehow seduce the customers.  Aside from being irksome because it’s inane, this implies that every human interaction is modelled on sexual activity, which sounds too much like giving ground to evopsych to me.  Some things – many things – are not like sex, and when they’re troped as sexual it makes me look around suspiciously to find what agenda that trope is serving, even unintentionally.  The assertion that the most basic and overriding fact about us is our sexuality has not always been a massive force for good over the last hundred years.

More precisely, though, this continual use of dating and sex metaphors in political discourse matters because metaphors have weight.  As I’ve written before on Quite Irregular, they don’t simply extract the most relevant comparisons between two things and hold them up next to each other, they impose a framework on the way we understand the items being compared.  Describing politics in terms of sexual relationships exerts a pressure in the other direction as well: it frames sexual relationships as a bit like politics.  It encourages the idea that sex and power are roughly interchangeable, that all sexual relationships are about the attempt to amass and exert power.  When voters are said to be “flirting with” candidates before “settling down”, it presents the relationship as one person making promises they may not intend to keep, in order to persuade the other person to surrender control over their life.

It may be coincidental that the person gaining political control is usually of a particular gender, but it once again reinforces an image of how relationships work.  When we see a rich white male being handed an enormous amount of power and instinctively compare it to marriage, I think we should ponder what that says about our culture’s assumptions.  I really admire Emily Bazelon’s commentary on legal affairs over at Slate, but I slightly cringed this week when she kept describing how her continuing engagement with the Supreme Court’s deliberations on the Affordable Care Act made her feel like a “jilted girlfriend”.  Not because she doesn’t have the right to talk about the law any way she pleases, but because of how easily everyone else took up that metaphor, and the way it positioned the “girlfriend” as someone waiting desperately for an authority figure to hand down a decision about their life.  I’m not criticising Bazelon or her co-hosts, but can we imagine a male legal scholar saying the Court made him feel like its boyfriend?  The fact that we can’t suggests the metaphor is remarkably gendered – and in accepting it as a model to talk about the situation we risk reinforcing the idea that “girlfriend” means anxious, dependent and powerless.

In each individual case it’s possible that I’m over-reading these metaphors, that marriage and dating is just an easy analogy with which to describe the situation.  But the way they repeatedly mix power up with sex, and the very gendered pattern which emerges in their use, suggest that these are metaphors we could really do without.

[1] The commentary on the coalition agreement was particularly troublesome, because it had a real homophobic undercurrent to it at times, an implication that the idea of the two male party leaders being involved in a marriage was inherently funny and contemptible.  I don’t really know enough to go into this in depth, but I’d appreciate any comments on this aspect from people better informed than me.