Hardly a day passes in the modern mainstream British media without a peadophilia-themed scandal, whether it be police discovering hundreds or thousands of child porn images on some poor soul's hard drive, a young woman's revelation about her parents' role in childhood sexual abuse, a high-ranking official or celebrity using his (or her) credit card to view child porn, a young female teacher seducing a 13 year old boy, a 13 year old girl, claiming to be 18, being groomed by a 50 year old male, claiming to be just 24. At times the hysteria reaches such extremes that one wonders why we don't just arrest every adult preventively on suspicion of child abuse?
Many others have commented on and indeed satirised the media's preoccuption with rampant paedophilia. It seems literally that one is hiding under every child's bed. Such is the hysteria that anyone ringing alarm bells at the Draconian legislation passed to combat this phenomenon (e-mail snooping, telephone tapping, psychiatric screening and the maintenance of extensive databases with confidential information) is soon accused of downplaying the paedophile threat, tacitly condoning the activities of sex fiends or even conniving with these social outcasts in the abuse of vulnerable minors.
Some of us seem to have short memories. As media stories about sexual abuse in religious and state institutions in 1970s and 80s abound, one wonders why we heard so little about it then. Was it because, as some might rather naively assume, few were prepared to speak out against this social taboo for fear of upsetting respected institutions such as the Church, the Scouts or social services, and only now in more enlightened times can we protect our kids from domestic and institutional sexual abuse. I would be the last one to downplay the effects of any form of physical and/or sexual abuse on children in key stages of their emotional development.
As the long-term effects of sexual abuse are mainly psychological, if we leave aside extreme cases with significant physical harm, early sexualisation promoted by the media and peer pressure tends to create an enviroment in which atomised children can easily make themselves vulnerable to atomised and sexually repressed adults. Indeed the whole notion of sexual repression is yet another misunderstood concept. Most of us maintain a considerable degree of sexual restraint, mediated by societal norms and expectations. We may view a person's sexuality from multiple perspectives. I may appreciate the sexy physique of my teenage daughter or younger half sister, and indirectly consider their suitability as a lucky man's girlfriend or spouse when the time is right. Indeed deep in the subconscience of any heterosexual male is the sexual desirability of any young girl. When you contemplate the beauty of your three year daughter, you consider her potential adult physique. We could think of children as adults in waiting or in the making, rather than mini-adults attempting to emulate the behaviour of their parents and media role models. The current emphasis on genetic psychiatrics leads us the mistaken conclusion that paedophiles (and I take the media's usual modern definition of this word) are somehow a subspecies. We simply need to identify, isolate, rehabilitate and/or chemically castrate them. But as all men are potential rapists, I submit that all sexually interested adults are potential child molesters. There has always been a sexual underclass, those who for physical or psychological reasons find it harder to satisfy their biological needs through consensual relationships with age-appropriate partners. On a personal note I've experienced both periods of frequent intercourse and period of relative abstinence, yet it has never dawned on me to exploit a vulnerable person, always seeking to establish an emotional bond and mutual understanding of the role of sex in the relationship. Certainly I've witnessed rival males, in the crude terminology of sexual competition, score with minimal effort. I've learned to take a philosophical approach, but understand some other males in a sexually obsessed society feel an urge to pursue every possible avenue for sexual fulfilment.
Whatever the media tells you, there are surprisingly few cases of loners lurking behind the bushes by playgrounds waiting for the right moment snatch and rape a child. In the vast majority of cases of childhood sexual abuse, children fall victim to adults who have won their confidence. Indeed in an alarming number of cases they are not fully aware of the consequences of their actions. Such is the hysteria surrounding paedophilia that there have been more cases of teachers falsely accused of sexual abuse than teachers who have actually sexually assualted a child. In the narrowest definition of the term, sexual assault of children by teachers is statistically a very rare occurrence, but age-inappropriate sexual liaison has thanks to early sexualisation become increasingly common. A number of cases have emerged of false accusations lodged against unpopular teachers, especially those that students consider uncool or too strict, while some female teachers have seduced teenage male students. In modern Britain most children over ten are not only aware of the birds and bees, but also of numerous sexual practices (fellatio, cunnilings, anal intercourse etc.) and orientations and with mounting media and peer pressure to go out and score with an alpha male or hot babe. That certainly was not true in the relatively carefree 1960s and 70s. At the tender age of ten I showed zilch interest in porn and on reaching puberty limited myself to private exploration of my sexuality until I met a consenting partner. Although we had some sex education at school, we learned most through gradual discovery of sexuality, mainly from older friends and relatives (ideally cousins and uncles rather than siblings or parents) or perhaps through books available at the local library or in the family bookcase. Around 1978 (at the tender age of 14) I learned an awful lot about sexual positions from the Sunday Times supplement complete with sketches. I can cite a couple of unfortunate experiences, a male seven years my elder, who forcibly penetrated me with my reluctant consent (considering myself at the time bisexual and theoretically open to experimentation) and a one night stand where my female partner was simply too inebriated to reciprocate, an occurrence that, I suppose, is all too common for today's partying youth. Yet despite times of considerable emotional instability, I had a clear view of the bounds of acceptable behaviour, whatever my wildest fantasies might have been. I became aware of non heterosexual orientations mainly through school taunting, a few media allegations about public figures and later involvement with fringe neo-Trotskyite groupings. In all honesty the concept of paedophilia completely escaped my attention before my mid teens and continued to play an exceedingly peripheral role until the great paedo-scare raised its ugly head in the mid 1990s. Did my father secretly abuse in the bath at the age of seven? To the best of recollections, the only fear I had was the prospect of shampoo seeping into my sensitive eyes for sex in any form meant absolutely nothing to me. Shame of the human body and prudishness are learned and thus culturally mediated behaviours for reasons of social control.
To put it bluntly, the paedophile scare is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more we obsess about it, the more we warn children of insidious adults harbouring paedophile tendencies, the more it becomes a problem that needs be addressed by all conceivable means. Childhood innocence is a treasured time in our lives when we need not worry the huge emotional wranglings that erotic desire and sexual competition unleash. Why should a seven year old girl, often encouraged by her cool parents, want to dress in a sexy manner? Why can't she just be a cute girl, completely oblivious to her potential eroticising powers? Rather than protect vulnerable children, which thanks to a large increase in the numbers of single parents abound in this country, the paedo scare empowers institutions to regulate family units. Consider the outgoing Home Secretary's latest proposals to combat the paedo danger. Not only will some paedophiles be offered drugs, yet another boon for big pharma and the psychiatric lobby, but a mother will be able to find out if her new partner is in the sex offenders' database. In what kind of society do we need to rely on the police or social services to ascertain the moral integrity of our partners, friends and family? The term police state springs to mind. Just imagine the scenario:
Enquirer: Hello, my name is Freda Blogga, ID card number AB 2334543892 HU. I have a new partner I met at the new casino in Manchester last week. We had such a good time and I'd like him to come and live with me and my 13 year old daughter, but I'd just like to check he's a safe pair of hands. His name is Fred Bloggs, ID card number XY 6789400 HY.
Police helpline assistant: Thank you, madam. I'm just bringing up his data on my computer. Apparently we can identify your new partner, the sixth one you've had in the last 2 years according to our records, as low risk on our standard paedophilia risk assessment criteria. We have no records of any paedophile-related behaviour. Over the last five years he has spent only 4.7% of his online time, as monitored by AOL, accessing adult sites, all of which are certified, 27.6% accessing first-person shooter gaming sites and 54.3% playing poker and backgammon, again as far as we can ascertain all via certified service providers. I can also reveal that in 1999 he received a diagnosis of ADHD, which if unmedicated may statistically represent a risk factor. He seems like a typical fun-loving guy, although he did once visit a conspiracy theory site, a little out of character I suppose.
Morality, criminality and illegality have long been nuanced concepts. Illegality clearly refers to infringements of the law as it is applied in your local jurisdiction. Duplicating copyrighted music is technically illegal, but apart from denying musicians and record companies of revenue it hardly infringes anyone's basic human rights. Running a licensed casino in modern Britain is technically legal, but many (myself included) would argue its activities are immoral, a giant scam designed to strip people of their hard-earned income while raising their material and emotional expectations. As discussed elsewhere the higher our hedonistic expectations, the greater the disappointment when we fail to attain them. Criminality may comprise either acts infringing basic human rights or acts defying the law of the land. Thus the legality of bombing civilians in another land is simply a technical issue with little bearing on the act's morality or indeed its criminality if we apply the juridical interpretation of the word.
So where does paedophilia stand in moral stakes? In a society obsessed with virtual murder and revenge killings, the whole theme of the Kill Bill, it appears homocide is a lesser crime than child molestation. Certainly many Sun readers have been conditioned to consider the murder of a convicted paedophile a lesser crime than paedophilia itself. While first person shooter addicts and marketers alike have perfected the argument that no gamers would ever dream of reenacting their fantasies, the same argument does not hold true in establishment circles for occasional viewers of child porn, however defined. Personally I think both extreme child porn (i.e. depicting penetrative intercourse rather than certain body parts or mere poses) and virtual violence (i.e. glorifying and justifying mass murder) affect a person's behaviour, just like any other experience, whether first-hand or simulated, but someone cannot be convicted because of a mere fantasy or obsession until they act on it. The real answer to the moral equalivalency issue all depends on the severity of the acts performed. Does it refer simply to viewing images and fantacising underage sex (or perhaps fantacising oneself engaging in such acts as a child)? Is it confined to cases of overt intimate contact with aroused sexual organs? May it comprise fondling whose sexuality may not be obvious at all to immature and sexually naive children? Unfortunately the witch hunt mentality of the media lets us make few of these distinctions. A person may, in their eyes, either be a sex fiend or not. As a result many parents, teachers, close relatives and family friends now habitually avoid all comforting physical contact with younger children, something hardly anyone in the pre-paedo-scare era associated with sex. Just consider that in much of the world nobody bats eyelid about children sleeping their parents' bed, often into their early teens and in crammed living quarters a logistical as well as emotional necessity. Pre-school children sleeping in the matrimonial bed is the norm not just in Iran or Zambia, but in Italy and Spain. Your average 7 year old feels more secure tucked up in bed hugging mum or dad, than partitioned in a cubicle replete with technological wizardry. Yet surprisingly few young Italian adults take their parents to court over alleged child abuse. In the vast majority of cases it was the child, not the parents, who wanted to snuggle in with Mum and Dad. Then what about having a bath unclothed with your five year son. Again this was pretty normal behaviour until recently. Now the paedophile smear is at the back of every parent's or even every adult's mind. I've noticed some pretty odd behaviour in public toilets, with grown men sneaking into cubicles to avoid the embarrassment of temporarily exposing themselves in the presence of young boys, as if the boys minded, and actually inconveniencing others who might actually need a cubicle to dispose of solid waste. Certainly at the age of seven I was totally unconcerned about older men pulling out their willies to urinate. It was just the norm. To become offensive or abusive, an organ or act has to acquire a sexual value and the victim has to be intimately aware of abuse. Certainly any penetrative or otherwise painful acts could not escape the attention of any young child, however aware he or she might be of sexuality. These acts are indeed an extreme perversion, but most societies have successfully marginalised such activities by channelling sexual expression into meaningful consenting relationship between adults, however defined, all without the help of an all-powerful state overseeing every aspect of personal conduct.
To combat the very real dangers of emotional and physical abuse, we should first address the real causes, social instability and atomisation, rather than spreading fear in an already terrorised populace and turning us all into suspects.