After Jimmy Savile, Cyril Smith: paedophilia and moral panic

As the nation continues to be in the grip of lurid headlines and deafened by the sound of erstwhile heroes crashing spectacularly from their pedestals, I, probably foolishly, attempt to become the Blondin of the blogosphere. For to talk or write about the sexual exploitation or abuse of children and young people in terms other than vituperative outrage, blanket condemnation, or one-dimensional simplification, is to walk a tightrope strung perilously above the roaring Niagara of public opinion in full flood. It seems that any attempt to look at the issues analytically, or with any degree of nuance, risks falling into the churning waters below, smashed on the rocks of the accusation that one is trying in some kind of way to offer an apologia for an aspect of human nature and behaviour that is only fit to be comprehensively and uncompromisingly denounced and excoriated. That indeed it isn’t an aspect of human behaviour at all: such perpetrators are always and self-evidently sub-human, and worthy only of the epithets “beast” or “monster”. That, at least, surely cannot be true: the very fact that so many acts of paedophilia are coming to light, that so many victims are finding their voice, and that so many high-profile people are being exposed as perpetrators, must give the lie to any notion that this behaviour is either uncommon or not a real and present aspect of human nature.

I want to suggest that, however difficult, repugnant even, it may be to look at paedophilia as a spectrum of behaviours which extends from the most bafflingly depraved to acts that are only marginally outside the bounds of acceptability, this is an analysis that we have to undertake. In current debate this is virtually impossible, and the very term paedophilia is being applied in a completely indiscriminate way to everything from Jimmy Savile’s hand uncomfortably high on a young girl’s thigh, to a psychopath that abducts a small child, and then brutally rapes and dismembers it. It should, surely, be possible to say that the latter is not only not the same as the former, but also very much worse, without being open to accusation that you are proposing that the former is of no consequence, or merely quaint.

Perhaps many would follow me thus far. But I think there’s further to go, and my tightrope walk is not over yet. I’m not at all convinced that the same act is always and everywhere morally equivalent. I’ve written before on the uneasy and complex relationship between morality and legality. A great deal of the current unease about paedophilia is focused on the way the law has been seen to fail the victims. In the Cyril Smith case in particular, when it is now revealed that the police on two separate occasions produced detailed dossiers on his behaviour and sent them to the prosecuting authorities, and yet it was decided to do nothing, it’s hardly surprising that serious questions should be raised. However, I think that looking at all this merely through the prism of the law is not always very helpful. The law often rests on just the sort of either or, black or white, binary thinking that leads to the notion that all paedophilia is the same, and all equally morally culpable. To give an example from elsewhere in the criminal code on sexuality, an over 16’s sexual relations with a 15yr old girl are rape by definition (statutory rape) even though everyone knows that many such relationships are consensual, and not rape at all in the usual sense. Sexual relations between an over 16 man and a, say, 15 year old boy, are in a similar way child sexual abuse by definition, regardless of circumstance, consent, or anything else. I remember as a 14 year old in the late 1960s a notorious incident at my boys-only minor public school, in which a teacher was suddenly spirited away after he was found with one of my fellow pupils in the toilets. I have no idea whether the teacher was turned over to the police, nor was I close enough to the boy in question to know exactly what was going on in those toilets. But I do know that the boy did not see himself as a victim of sexual abuse, but rather as a victim of interference of a different kind: he loved that teacher, and was distraught at his own loss, and at the likely consequences for his adult lover.

The point I’m making here is not that such a relationship is perfectly all right: apart from anything else I don’t know enough about it to know whether this toilet activity was a French kiss, or full-blown sodomy. Does that even matter? Personally, I think it does. The boy also left the school shortly afterwards, and I’ve hardly given the incident a second thought until this latest publicity. For all I know his attitude may have completely changed since his immediate response as an unhappy lover. He may have been psychologically scarred ever since. Were he now to have the opportunity to see that teacher prosecuted, he might grab it with both hands. I’d be surprised, but that’s hardly the point.

What is the point, I believe, is this. The latest, and by any standards spectacular, revelations have brought paedophilia back to the top of the nation’s consciousness. On my Facebook timeline yesterday was a drawing of a scaffold, with the caption calling for “paedophiles to be hung – prison’s too good for them”. I was shocked to think that someone that I am Facebook friends with (all people personally known to me, and to whom I have chosen to grant that status) should think that paedophilia justifies the return of capital punishment. Perhaps, even worse, was their assumption that all right-thinking people would agree with them.

Well, for the record, I don’t. And that’s largely because I realise that, whether we like it or not, paedophiles are neither uncommon nor non-human. And further, that not every act, in every set of circumstances, that might meet the legal definition of child abuse is equally heinous, or in the same moral ball-park.

And that sound, by the way, is of this blogger plunging headlong into the seething waters of the Niagara falls…