Friday, May 10, 2013

Why have an age of consent at all?

Because children need extra protection.  We know this: many children have been manipulated into dangerous behaviour by paedophiles. They lack experience and often lack confidence.  There’s an imbalance of power and authority between children and adults and a tendency of children – partly instilled by adults – to trust authority. Why is the age of consent (in the UK) 16?  Well, it’s fairly arbitrary, I guess, but there has to be an age and until someone can think of a way to empirically demonstrate that another age would be better, I find it difficult to argue with 16.

Some children under the age of consent are capable of making good decisions about sex but the point of a consent age is that adults are not qualified to make that judgement and – of course – do not always have the well-being of children in mind.

Nevertheless, Barbara Hewson - a prominent barrister specialising in reproductive rights – believes that the age of consent should be lowered to 13 to end the persecution of old men.  She writes:

I do not support the persecution of old men. The manipulation of the rule of law by the Savile Inquisition – otherwise known as Operation Yewtree – and its attendant zealots poses a far graver threat to society than anything Jimmy Savile ever did.

Hm. Whoever said that Savile was a threat to society?  I think the point is rather that he was a threat to children. Besides, I’m no fancy barrister, but it seems to me that if there are problems with the Yewtree investigation then we ought to deal with those issues directly rather than to make it easier for people to abuse children. Isn’t that just magicing the problem away?

Now even a deputy speaker of the House of Commons is accused of male rape. This is an unfortunate consequence of the present mania for policing all aspects of personal life under the mantra of ‘child protection’.

Unless it’s an unfortunate consequence of his having raped someone.  And what’s with the ‘even’? Are deputy speakers supposed to be immune from accusations?

By contrast, the goings-on at the BBC in past decades are not a patch on what Stead exposed. Taking girls to one’s dressing room, bottom pinching and groping in cars hardly rank in the annals of depravity with flogging and rape in padded rooms.

Certainly not. Neither is burglary, but we still punish the perpetrators.  The fact that things could have been worse don’t mean that the victims haven’t been hurt. I know a few victims of relatively mild (if there is such a thing) sexual abuse. It hurt them. It hurt them like bullying hurts people: they felt powerless, used and worthless, decades after the event. One was terrified both when the abuse happened and in the periods between abuses. One victim finds it difficult to trust people, decades after the abuse ended. 

Anecdotes to be sure, but my point is that for the victims of supposedly mild abuse, these events are not necessarily trivial. And furthermore, Hewson knows perfectly well that many of the allegations of abuse are much more serious. Many involve sex with children, for example, rather than ‘bottom-pinching’. Trivialising the alleged offenses catalogued by Operation Yewtree is profoundly dishonest.

Hewson then describes charities including the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) as ‘moral crusaders’ and ‘pressure groups’. She says they have a “vested interest in universalising the notion of abuse.” I have no idea what this means, let alone what interest in such things organisations like the NSPCC could possibly have.  They are a charity. Established and run to prevent cruelty to children. The clue is right there in the name. The NSPCC does vast amounts of excellent work at protecting children and I have no reason to suspect that they want to do anything other than protect children. Neither, I suspect, has Hewson.

The problem with this approach is that it makes abuse banal, and reduces the sympathy that we should feel for victims of really serious assaults

If that’s the case (and I’m not at all certain it is (to be fair, Hewson provides a reference which I haven’t read. But to be fair to me I can’t do that easily. It’s a book which is not in our library)) then it still doesn’t mean we should ignore lesser offences. If Hewson recommended that we keep things in perspective and treat more serious offenses more seriously, I’d agree. But she’s actually saying that certain types of abuse not be treated as abuse at all.

This is a theme with Hewson. For example:

Touching a 17-year-old’s breast, kissing a 13-year-old, or putting one’s hand up a 16-year-old’s skirt, are not remotely comparable to the horrors of the Ealing Vicarage assaults and gang rape, or the Fordingbridge gang rape and murders, both dating from 1986. Anyone suggesting otherwise has lost touch with reality.

Again, so what? The fact that there are worse things does not mean that a bad thing has not been done.

It’s interesting that two complainants who waived anonymity have told how they rebuffed Hall’s advances. That is, they dealt with it at the time. Re-framing such experiences, as one solicitor did, as a ‘horrible personal tragedy’ is ironic, given that tragoidia means the fall of an honourable, worthy and important protagonist.

This is a worrying thing indeed for a lawyer to say.  The fact that they ‘dealt with it at the time’ doesn’t mean that (Stuart) Hall wasn’t a danger to other children.  It doesn’t mean that he didn’t commit offences – possibly serious – against other children. His ‘fall’ is not about what he failed to do, but about what he got away with and what he obviously would have done if he had the chance, assuming for the moment that he’s guilty. If he is guilty, then he is quite obviously not honourable (!) or worthy (of what?)  I’m all for the assumption of innocence, but Hewson takes this to an obsessive extreme by apparently assuming the allegations are either false or not worth caring about.  She seems to think that the soft spot a few aging people like me might have held in our hearts for him (personally, I couldn’t stand It’s a Knockout) is more important than any harm he might have done to his alleged victims.

Hewson finishes in extraordinary and baffling fashion:

It’s time to end this prurient charade, which has nothing to do with justice or the public interest. Adults and law-enforcement agencies must stop fetishising victimhood. Instead, we should focus on arming today’s youngsters with the savoir-faire and social skills to avoid drifting into compromising situations, and prosecute modern crime. As for law reform, now regrettably necessary, my recommendations are: remove complainant anonymity; introduce a strict statute of limitations for criminal prosecutions and civil actions; and reduce the age of consent to 13.

One of the most important and basic skills a skeptic can cultivate is to notice when someone makes it seem as though societies can only do one thing at a time. That’s Daily Mail thinking.  We can have laws that protect children and teach children to protect themselves. In fact, isn’t that what we urgently need to be doing?

But there’s another monkey-wrench of the skeptical toolkit hidden in there too.  Be skeptical whenever anyone says that education is a magical cure for any particular ill. Education is crucial and more is more, but it doesn’t solve every problem.  Unwanted teenage pregnancies and STIs still exist, despite (in some places) education. When I was a kid in the 70s there were lots of public service adverts about not getting into cars with strangers, but people still did. I keep telling my cat why scratching the sofa to shreds hurts everyone, but she doesn’t seem to listen.

Education is crucial, but it doesn’t seem right to punish people who flunk. Those kids who got in people’s cars would be the first to say they made a mistake but I think they were punished enough.

So, to Hewson’s recommendations. What would they achieve? In the context of Operation Yewtree, they might make a few celebrities sweat less. But I can’t see how they would prevent abuse of law and I sure as shit can’t see how they would protect children.

I have some worries about the media focus on this investigation. There certainly is an element of hysteria in the way some of these allegations are reported. There might be a problem with the operation itself, I don’t know.  But bad men did bad things. Changing the law so bad things are no longer illegal is an astonishing response, especially for a lawyer.

Changing the law so there are better checks and balances might get something done without throwing children under any busses.

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