Stopping the panic over Britain's paedophiles

Michael Cook
11 Jul 2014
Reproduced with Permission

Britain is in the grip of a moral panic about child sex abuse. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, has just announced two public inquiries into "these disgusting crimes" whose scope is incredible. It seems that her government is planning to trawl through all of public life to ferret out hidden paedophiles.

The public is stewing in panic over revelations of past and present wickedness. And the danger comes from a fifth column which has infiltrated the institutions one should trust most. British children are unsafe at school, unsafe at church, unsafe with the police, unsafe with social workers, unsafe on the streets and unsafe with celebrities. (At least this is what one reads in the newspapers.)

May's first inquiry will tackle allegations about a paedophile ring among powerful members of parliament and about whether the government had really funded a paedophile lobby group in the 1980s. The second will investigate whether public and private organisations have been effective in protecting children from abuse. These include the BBC, police, social services, schools and churches.

The public is seething with anger over sex abuse after several high-profile entertainers were found guilty of abusing children. Jimmy Savile, an eccentric but much-loved figure on the BBC, was exposed as the abuser of literally hundreds of children and adults. The unmasking of the ghastly Savile caused a moral earthquake and the aftershocks have toppled other celebrities.

Earlier this month 84-year-old Rolf Harris , a British-Australian, was sentenced for sexually assaulting girls decades ago. This follows the convictions of 71-year-old TV and radio personality Stuart Hall and 84-year-old publicist Max Clifford .

Now Theresa May has promised the outraged public that "we will make sure that wherever individuals and institutions have failed to protect children from harm, we will expose these failures and learn the lessons."

But my prediction is that there will be a lot of exposing and not much learning. Like nearly everywhere else in the Western world, Britain's media and government can spot players who run out of bounds, but they're not very good at setting the goal posts. The current moral consensus on paedophilia is so inconsistent and incoherent that Theresa May's inquiries are more likely to end in lurid headlines, massive reports, and failure than in cleansing the Augean stables.

Here are the four internal contradictions in that consensus.

(1) Children are uniquely vulnerable. Everyone agrees that children need special protection. They cannot defend themselves against aggression; they don't have the emotional maturity to respond freely to sexual advances; and they are intellectually inexperienced. They need a safe environment where they can be shielded from untoward eroticism.

But at the same time society is also creating more and more vulnerable children by placing the emotional needs of adults above children's. The safest place for kids to grow up is an intact biological marriage with a devoted mother and father. Instead of shamelessly promoting the traditional family, the government is letting it wither away. Children are the losers. The more who live in de facto, single-mother, divorced, or same-sex households, the more there are who are at risk of abuse. We need to keep children from becoming vulnerable, not just lamenting failures after they have happened.

(2) Provided that no one is harmed, sexual experimentation is healthy. This is the message conveyed by the media and increasingly by schools. Having sex is natural; repressing sexual impulses and curiosity is at best naïve, at worst repressive. Sexperts like America's Dan Savage hand out advice like "The right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness means that each of us is free to go our own way, even if the ways some of us may choose to go seem sinful or shocking to our fellow citizens."

But as a result, the children in our hyper-sexualised society are being transformed into sexual objects. Contemporary phenomena like sexting among teenagers, girls' obsession with body image and pornography are creating a generation of abused and abusers. In Australia last year education departments reported 940 incidents of sexual abuse among children, ranging from sexting and groping to oral sex among six-year-olds. As Joe Tucci of the Australian Childhood Foundation commented , "if these kids aren't supported when they're young, then the behaviour just becomes more entrenched and they do end up being those adults who offend against children."

A generation of adults which keeps moving the goalposts on sexual behaviour is grooming a generation of children who thinks that there is none at all.

(3) Paedophilia is abhorrent. In a morally chaotic society, this the one principle on which there is complete unanimity. Paedophiles are regarded as psychologically and morally twisted monsters. Their impulses are unreasonable and indefensible.

But there is no consensus on why paedophilia is wrong. Will a society which permits be capable of articulating convincing moral arguments against it? Attitudes could change unless there is rock-ribbed reasoning, not merely kneejerk repugnance.

In fact, not long ago paedophilia had a respectable place in 20th Century culture. Even though Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris are being demonised for abusing 12-year-old girls, the late Vladimir Nabokov is still esteemed for his erotic "classic" Lolita, a novel which described an academic's obsession with his sexually precocious 12-year-old step-daughter.

Lolita was Number 1 on the New York Times best-seller list in 1959, a sign that the best and brightest in America did not find paedophilia abhorrent. It was even included on Time's List of the 100 Best Novels in English-language from 1923 to 2005. And it ranked 4 out of 100 on the Modern Library's 1998 list of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th century.

Paedophilia still has academic guns for hire. Earlier this month the London Telegraph reported that some speakers at a conference at Cambridge University were arguing that paedophilia is ""natural and normal" for many males and that "'childhood' itself is not a biological given but an historically produced social object."

In the US and Canada there are respected academics who argue that paedophilia is a sexual orientation which is an unchangeable as homosexuality. An American support group for "minor-attracted people", B4U-ACT , uses the same arguments to gain sympathy as homosexual groups do: the pain of stigma, suicides among young paedophiles, and a need for openness.

(4) Informed consent is the fundamental principle of all morality. Consensual participation has become the only criterion for sexual behaviour, no matter how bizarre. S&M, traditional marriage, gay promiscuity, or de facto relationships are roughly equivalent morally speaking, even if they don't have the same social cachet. Children are locked out of the party because they cannot give informed consent.

But the notion of informed consent is increasingly incoherent. Other developments are pushing the age of informed consent lower and lower. In some jurisdictions, 16-year-olds are voting. Twelve-year-olds can ask for sex reassignment. The most interesting development is in Belgium, where seven-year-olds have been given the right to euthanasia. The doctors and politicians who backed this move claimed that some children are far more mature than adults and can give informed consent to their own death. If this is the case, why can't precocious Lolitas give consent to uncoerced sexual activity as well?

If the purpose of Theresa May's inquiries is political grandstanding, they may well succeed. But if they are supposed to lead to greater understanding of Britain's oversexed public life, they are going to fail. Only by building a different moral ecosystem can we eliminate the scourge of paedophilia.