Paul Eluard and Andre Breton’s old maxim has been resurrected on the streets of Athens in crisis, amidst furious slogans, cries of desperation and harsh stencils. Despite its apparently apolitical character, it was declared the most popular piece of graffiti and inspired a wealth of articles and works of artistic expression. Perhaps because in the ‘nothing’ of high unemployment, job insecurity, shuttered businesses, empty streets and sudden impoverishment, love continues to offer a way out and a sense of meaning, a ’truth procedure’ as the French philosopher Alain Badiou described it, “a Construction of life that is being made, no longer from the perspective of One but from the perspective of Two.”
“When I first saw that slogan on the streets of Athens I was transfixed. I wondered if love, if relationships, if sex can provide shelter during difficult times,” says BBC journalist Paul Mason although he is quick to bring us abruptly back to earth: “But the crisis will find you wherever you hide.” The truth is that the economic crisis is all-encompassing, it doesn’t have only financial dimensions. It upends life plans and norms, it alters routines and even infiltrates one’s love life.
“I have never seen Athens so depressing at night. Even the traditional trips to the brothels by young men are becoming rarer. We live in an anti-erotic age, desire is curtailed just as everything else. Young people who are not political are becoming conservative. Many of my friends want to leave; if you are young and gay, you drown here. Deprivation dominates every element of our lives.” So said the gay-rights activist Paola Revenioti. Statistics back her up. Sex has not escaped the cut-backs. According to available data for the first quarter of 2013, 61% of the men polled stated that the crisis had had a negative impact on their relationships. The same answer was given by 55% of women. 66% of men and 54% of women stated that the dire financial situation had negatively affected their sex lives. 57% of men said they were having less sex, while only 9% said that the amount of sex they were having had increased. One can conclude that the sex life of one out of every two citizens has been impacted and sexual disorders are on the rise. Men tend to suffer from impotence and premature ejaculation (⅓) whereas women tend to experience loss of sexual desire and inability to reach orgasm. High stress and insecurity brought on by harsh austerity measures clash with the norms of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ bringing about a loss of identity that affects erotic relationships.
Our age essentially favours isolation and restricts relationships in two ways: by reducing relationships to bland marital agreements resembling insurance contracts and by causing sexual behaviour within limits without any claim to passion. Reflecting the rise of the far-right and the increasingly conservative political scene, there is a clear regression to a tighter moral framework under generalised fear. Regression to the traditional family is a basic symptom with contradictory consequences. On the one hand it provides a substitute for elements of the social state that are disappearing, yet on the other it sabotages individuals’ capacity for independence and self-determination. It is not, however, a static situation. A recent survey on the collapse of Lehman Brothers showed that financiers restricted their sexual contact with their long-term partners on the one hand, yet at the same time increased their sexual activity with non-partners. The desire for extra-marital affairs is also on the rise in Greece. According to research conducted by the Organisation for the Study of Human Sexuality (EMAS) levels of infidelity are approaching 48% (35% have occasional affairs and 13% have a permanent extramarital relationship). Marital relationships traditionally associated with conditions of plenty and fertility, now become associated with difficulty and hardship; the tendency for infidelity increases as part of a greater questioning of institutions and principles. The increase in STDs is also a symptom of the economic crisis. On the one hand there is the increasing inaccessibility of health services for the marginalised. On the other a collapse in ambitions and long-term plans leads to transient and risky sexual behaviours.
If we imagine sexuality as a sea, we can see that it is not mathematically defined, there are paradoxes. In a crisis of institutions we become more conservative or seek to escape the restrictions of institutions. Love, however remains the antidote to death which can slay the beast that is fear.
Under these conditions the basic building block of Greek society, the nuclear family, the last informal safety net yet also a fundamental part of its ideology, is subject to intense transformations. For the new generation destined to unemployment and emigration, the prospect of marriage and family seems a distant and unfamiliar scenario. The proportion of marriages per 1000 citizens fell, from 9% in 1950, to 7.3% in 1980; today it stands at 5.3%. The high cost of a traditional religious wedding has boosted civil unions. Divorces, however, are also very costly - not so much as bureaucratic procedures as the prospect of independent (financial) living. The number of divorces from 1,579 in 2006 dropped to 1,149 in 2010.
On the other hand all those who find themselves in an unhappy marital relationship no longer sustained by consumerism are having trouble escaping this bond and facing the unknown. A consequence of this situation, in concert with the intensification of sexism, is the increase in domestic violence with an increase in incidents between partners but also the victimization of the underage. Sexual, physical and verbal violence has increased over the past 2 years to 47%, reaching the not-so-european statistic of one in every three women reporting having been the victim of physical abuse.
The crisis literally eats its children. The 1929 crash was linked to a major drop in births, a phenomenon that was repeated during the 1973-73 oil crisis, during the Asian economic crisis of the 90s and in the former Soviet republics. In Greece from 2009 onwards there has been a 10.13% drop in births and a corresponding 21.1% increase in stillbirths, a development which international epidemiological research has linked to an increase in unemployment among women. TV often panders tear-drenched stories of couples or single-parent families that unable to raise their children. At the same time medieval voices are slowly making themselves heard again, questioning the right to abortion, enthralled by a far-right fundamentalism.
“Death,” Hegel wrote, “lives a human life.” This assertion fits perfectly with a Greece of shock, in a world that has lost its magic. Psychoanalysis would tell us that individuals withdraw their libidinal investments from the world of external objects and retreat easily to conservative frameworks that promise concrete identities. The unsolved oedipal, original wound of the parental bond makes you look questioningly at your mother. This same threatening environment of instability, however, favours a more ephemeral look at human journeys and may lead to desire free from the mediation of material goods. The disinvestment from transient objects may amount to an exit route from the crisis: without the need for our erotic investments to material, objectified or preconditioned, it may be possible for us to rediscover the joy of human relationships in and of themselves, in the faith that there is another person our trust in whom can be the foundation for the acceptance of new erotic investments.
In such extreme circumstances, we return to our basic needs: love, the need to be reflected in the eyes of another. We live in an age where physical contact is penalized, and physical contact is difficult. A country without love, aside from being poor, is also boring, dancing under a slow and uninspired requiem. Love can be the intersection point between the personal and political, the subversion of the past by the birth of the new. But in the end it is the awakening of this erotic gaze that precisely shapes the prospect of salvation: the writing on the wall that reads “no matter how many clothes you buy, I’ll always see you naked.”