All the world loves a lover?

15 Comments

All the world loves a lover, according to an essay on love by the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson; but he died long before today’s bleakly unromantic killjoys got to work on “underage” love. A classic case of the misery merchants’ baleful influence was to be seen in the British courts recently, when maths teacher Jeremy Forrest was sentenced to five and a half years in prison after his relationship with a 15-year-old girl pupil seemed near to discovery and the pair escaped to France.

She went willingly; but the authorities called it abduction, a view supported by the law – which, as everyone knows, is an ass. In this case its asininity is demonstrated by the fact that it is an offence in Britain, regardless of the child’s own views or best interests, to remove a child under 16 “from the lawful control of any person having lawful control of the child” (Child Abduction Act 1984, Section 2). This offence was enough to put the teacher into the same legal category as those who kidnap kids for purposes of ransom, rape, slavery and murder. The girl was an ardent participant in the pair’s sexual life too (up to eight times a night, the jury were told!), and in the country to which they fled their love-making would not even have been illegal: the age of consent in France is 15. But that did not prevent Forrest’s conviction for “sexual activity with a child”, as well as abduction, after the couple returned voluntarily to England.

As for what the girl’s best interests might have been, had anyone bothered to give them due weight before a monstrously unfair and ill-judged prosecution was launched, they would have discovered remarkable elements of positivity in the relationship. She was from a difficult home background, leading to significant emotional problems including depression and self-harming. Jeremy Forrest helped her slay those demons at a time when no one else was helping. His influence inspired her to take an interest in schoolwork: her grades and attendance records improved significantly under his tutelage. For legal reasons her identity can no longer be revealed. More importantly for our understanding of the case, though, her opinions can no longer be hidden: she has emerged as a young lady with a mind and will of her own, not as the mere puppet of an allegedly “manipulative” adult, as the dogmatists insist must always be the case with adult-child sexual liaisons, regardless of the facts.

These ultimately undeniable facts, facing off competitively against the dogmatists’ version of events, have resulted in a strikingly split narrative across the British media lately, especially in recent post-trial days.

The prosecution version, faithfully echoed across much of the media, was so comprehensively and viciously distorted as to be all but indistinguishable from malicious lies. Forrest was callously chain-sawed in an attack that had all the integrity of illegal logging in Amazonia. His lover was a physically mature 15 but that did not stop him being “a paedophile”; and just in case there is anyone alive who fails to get the message that being a paedo is a bad thing, prosecutor Richard Barton called Forrest a “coward” – not the most convincing insult to hurl against a guy who had the balls to defy the most potent taboo of our times. But that wasn’t all: Forrest had “groomed” the teenager to “satisfy his own carnal lusts” – an outrageous claim that brutally bulldozed out of sight the girl’s active and willing part in the relationship.

After the trial, this pattern of distortion was reinforced by the usual suspects in the usual clichéd way. Dr Michael Hymans, an educational psychologist, said “The crucial thing here is that this took place in a setting in which the adult was in a position of power. He carried all the trump cards.” The NSPCC, meanwhile, was telling the media what to think and say: “the media must be careful of presenting relationship between teacher and pupil as love story”, said a spokesperson . In other words, it was indeed a love story (otherwise why mention such an angle?) but the NSPCC felt this reality should be suppressed.

Fortunately, not all of the media were ready to swallow the in-denial approach taken by an increasingly vituperative abuse industry, whose rhetoric in Britain is now so hysterical it begins to resemble the worst excesses of the “culture wars” in America. In sharp contrast to the unlovely anti-love lobby, several tabloids rejected the NSPCC’s advice: the Romeo and Juliet angle caught their imagination when, after the trial, the couple were still defiantly sticking together: Forrest had blown a kiss at his girlfriend in court before he was taken to jail, mouthing “I love you”. They have marriage plans. The girl’s father approves. He has been quoted as saying he would like to shake the teacher’s hand and thank him for protecting his daughter, adding “I’d be proud to walk her down the aisle.”

It was the girl’s mother, not her father, who had given her a tough time. The youngster went into the witness box and testified that she got little attention at home. Her mother was divorcing her stepfather and was pregnant with her new boyfriend’s child, her fifth. Forrest was the only person who could deal with her mood swings, she said. He was the first person to show an interest in her problems and she took great comfort in being able to confide in him about her troubled relationship with her mother, her depression, self harming and an eating disorder. She said she felt safer with Jeremy than with anyone.

None of this counted for much in the eyes of Judge Michael Lawson QC, who implied that her statement did not reflect her real views, saying she had been coached as to what to say – an allegation totally belied by the couple’s declared intention to marry.

Another excellent riposte to this and other denunciations of the relationship came in a superb article by another woman who, as a child, had been in a relationship with a teacher. This was Don’t tell me my affair with a teacher was abusive – I’ll be the judge of that, in The Guardian. This piece is so good I can do no better than urge everyone to read it. Among a host of interesting points, the author is very clear on the need for professional rules governing teacher-pupil relationships. Jeremy Forrest broke those sensible rules and should be held to account for that.

But the issue of good professional conduct is a hugely different matter to criminal sanctions. It might be pointed out, briefly, that even in a university setting, where the students are all adults, affairs between students and academic staff are generally frowned upon, and with good reason: if a student is given high grades by a professor she is sleeping with, it can often lead to suspicions of favouritism and indeed the reality of corruption: the victims in such cases are not the student in the sexual or romantic relationship, but all the other students who are not in bed with the prof and not lucky enough to benefit from special treatment! So perhaps there should be a rule that if a teacher has sex with one of his pupils he must, in fairness, then offer similar opportunities to the rest if the class!

A small personal footnote: I see that Jeremy Forrest has been sent to Lewes Prison, where I served time in 1981 for an offence of “conspiracy to corrupt public morals”. I can’t say I recommend the place, but it should be better than the London prisons where I served the greater part of my sentence, HMP Wormwood Scrubs and HMP Wandsworth: in those far off days they were hell holes. Jeremy should also have an easier time than I did when he emerges as a free man: while not everyone loves a lover of young(ish) girls, they do love a love story that ends in marriage.

Remember the American teacher Mary Kay Letourneau? The one who had an affair with a 13-year-old boy pupil? They married after she had done her time inside, and the couple won over many hearts. They co-authored a book about their relationship, which was published in France as Only One Crime, Love (French: Un seul crime, l’amour). It has never been published in the United States. However, Letourneau’s story is recounted in the 2000 TV movie All-American Girl: The Mary Kay Letourneau Story.

Street grooming: a nut to be cracked?

6 Comments

Street grooming is a hot “child sex abuse” topic in Britain right now. Many months of celebrity scandal in the wake of the Jimmy Savile allegations have seen numerous big names going under or else left in a legal limbo of unresolved court cases – a time of stomach-churning suspense for those caught up in the net, but not exciting enough to sate the public’s voracious appetite for fresh sources of disgust and outrage.

So there has been a ready market for “grooming” stories. Grooming  is itself a relatively recent concept, dating from a 1985 report in the Chicago Tribune, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and “street grooming” is newer still, so perhaps I should say at once that is nothing to do with combing one’s hair in public or picking up litter – although pick-ups of a different kind do feature strongly.

At one time, not so long ago, grooming was a word in search of a meaning, an essentially empty propaganda concept. It was just a way of talking about a pleasant thing – spending time with a child you like and finding they enjoy your company too, with a growing bond of mutual affection and trust – and making it sound nasty, reducing it to a cynically exploitative exercise. Nevertheless, empty or not, it was enshrined in British law by the 2003 Sexual Offences Act, which introduced “meeting a child following sexual grooming” as a criminal offence, to combat the perceived new threat of “virtual” adult-child friendships made online.

But, as the name implies, street grooming is face-to-face rather than virtual. And news coverage of recent high-profile trials has revealed nothing virtuous about it either, nor does it seem merely empty propaganda. Cases centred on the post-industrial northern towns of Rochdale and Rotherham, and more recently a place with a much more cultured image, the historic university city of Oxford, have disclosed an unsavoury scenario in which mainly underaged teenaged girls have been taken up by an initially pleasant “boyfriend” only to be violently bullied at a later stage into having sex with many men, and sometimes trafficked as prostitutes to distant parts of the country.

Heretic TOC has read (so you don’t have to!) the House of Commons home affairs committee’s report this month on Child sexual exploitation and the response to localized grooming. It’s grim stuff. A number of men were given long sentences for a range of sexual offences including trafficking and there are grounds for believing the judges’ tough approach was right: some of the girls were given a very hard time, including a lifestyle of controlled sexual coercion amounting to serial rape. A key question for us heretics arising out of this is what we should think about girls who might initially give sexual consent to a “nice” boyfriend who then find themselves drawn gradually out of their depth into coerced submission to acts of prostitution – acts which they may mistakenly believe they consented to because they did not actively refuse.

At one level it is easy: acts done under duress, with the possibility of violence as the price of refusal, are non-consensual. A crime has been committed and the criminal can have no complaint if a long prison sentence is handed down. But a trickier question arises out of this: how can we avoid such exploitation? Easy answers aplenty are to be found in the parliamentary home affairs committee’s recommendations: more vigilant policing, more surveillance, more “proactive” intervention by teachers and social workers, etc., etc. What all this amounts to is a massive intensification of social control that cracks down not only on “the bad guys” but also on young people’s sexuality and their life choices more generally.

Scores of such reports have played to this agenda in recent years, generating ever more restrictive laws and official policies. Essentially, it is the Social Purity movement of Victorian England all over again. It is worth remembering that a child prostitution scandal of those times gave decisive political clout to those who wanted to raise the age of consent from 13 to 16 for all girls, even though only a tiny percentage of them would be at risk of falling under the control of a violent pimp, or of being involved in any form of commercial sex. It was a sledgehammer policy to crack a nut.

So are the more draconian measures proposed against so-called street grooming, more formally described as localized grooming. This “grooming” can lead to a multitude of things, many of which are about children’s self-expression and sexuality as well as those of adults: anyone who strikes up an acquaintance with a youngster in a public place could be considered a groomer if he ends up in a sexual encounter with the minor, even though there was no sexual intent at first, and even if the relationship only became sexual after months of friendship and at the urging of the younger party. Also, the image of the reluctant child who is bribed or cajoled into sex by an adult does not fit at all well with the evidence presented to the home affairs committee as typical of the girls. While there was undoubtedly exploitation by some of the men given long sentences in the recent trials, the youngsters they encountered – mostly young women rather than children – were far from being sexually naïve, and out of the scores of minors investigated in connection with the police operations behind the trials, we hear little of the ones who resented official interference with their personal lives: their stories inconveniently fail to fit the authorized narrative of victimhood and accordingly are ignored.

Hints of that resentment do come across indirectly though. The home affairs committee’s report takes teachers and social workers to task for doing too little to prevent young people from escaping adult supervision. The suppressed part of this message is that there are teenagers who, for whatever reason, are unhappy with their lives and feel a need to escape. Very often they are girls from residential “care homes” whose “care” they clearly don’t much care for, or from dysfunctional and abusive families they are likewise eager to flee. They are girls, in other words, who are making active choices that they would prefer to be out on the town, in the company of an older boyfriend, than chafing under the oppressive yoke of a disagreeable home life. Yes, the boyfriend may turn out to be less than benign, but to present the girls as merely passive puppets on a string, controlled by a devious and scheming adult, is simply dishonest propaganda. We can be certain of this from some of the evidence the committee discusses: some of the front-line workers dealing daily with these girls candidly admit they were “making their own choices” and even sexually “asking for it”.

There is, as has been admitted above, a problem. Girls out on the street at night are much more likely to get into heavy drug addiction, dangerous drinking, and dependency on violently abusive men. It may be quite a tough nut of a problem, but that does not mean a sledgehammer of repressive policies is needed to crack it.

For one thing, the worst excesses of the recent cases have been very culturally specific in their origin, which owe a great deal to the iniquities of religion. Yes, religion. British readers will probably know what I mean, but Heretic TOC is read worldwide, so I should explain. And I should explain carefully, as otherwise I will be misunderstood as promoting religious and racial bigotry, which is absolutely not the intention. The point I will be making is that when the regulation of sexual conduct is expressed through religious beliefs it often tends to be absolutist and harsh – God’s word calls for obedience, without ifs or buts, and judgments against the disobedient can be tough. There are cultural factors too: in the mainstream of British society the modern interpretation of all the great religions tends to be much more subtle and less “fundamentalist” than of old – but there are some significant cultural exceptions, especially those associated with recent immigration.

As many British readers will know, the recent trials were strongly characterized by Muslim men of Pakistani origin whose victims (properly so called in view of the real abuses endured) were mainly white non-Muslim girls. The men appeared to believe the girls were immoral: their willingness to have sex outside marriage was in their eyes such an offence against religion that treating them badly was justified. It was a hypocritical double-standard, of course: the men were also having sex outside marriage; but in their cultural background it was always the women who were most honour-bound to be “pure”.

When I say the problem is culture-specific, I mean really specific. Ann Cryer, a former Member of Parliament for Keighley (another northern town), raised concerns about localised grooming in her constituency as long ago as 2003. She insisted that most of the offenders came from the Mirpur district of Kashmir. The home affairs committee report says she still stands by that, adding that Kris Hopkins, the current MP for the same constituency, has backed Cryer’s understanding of the facts. Because the problem is so culturally specific, it is highly likely that the process of immigrant assimilation to the host culture will see it disappear within a generation, not least because the wider Muslim community is deeply embarrassed by it and keen to promote countervailing education.

As for the more difficult problem of kids more generally being allowed to “run wild” and fall into “bad company”, I can understand and sympathize with the view of good parents who would be horrified by the thought of their own children being out all hours, at the mercy of street-corner drug dealers and pimps: children, they would argue, often need protecting from themselves. They are not wise. Their choices are not always good ones.

It is a strong argument, but perhaps the most interesting aspect of it is that the children of loving, reliable parents in general appreciate them. They will even accept parental firmness. They might protest, giving mum and dad a hard time as they strain towards independence in adolescence, but deep down they will sense that their seniors know a thing or two and are worth listening to.

What parents should bear in mind, though, is that not all kids are so lucky. There will be those whose home lives, whether under state supervision or in dysfunctional families, are so bleak that breaking free and taking their chances in the wider world actually becomes a rational choice. This problem – how to improve those lives – is indeed a tough nut to crack, although at this point we may find the metaphor has outlived its usefulness. To the hammer, it is said, every problem looks like a nail – something to be hit on the head, hard. And if you are a powerful state in possession of a surveillance and law-enforcement sledgehammer, it is all too easy for every problem to look like a candidate for heavy-handed crack-downs.

Perhaps we should think, instead, of gently solving, or dissolving, the problem rather than cracking it. One such gentler solution would be to think positively: how can we enrich the lives of “wild” kids other than by strategies of control? There have been hints of an alternative approach with boys: mentorship schemes, for instance, drawing in well-meaning adult volunteers. Where such schemes fail is their timidity: the bold approach would be to see minor-attracted people of the better kind as a currently underused resource, not as a threat.

The consequences of consequentialism

19 Comments

A big thank you to everyone – and I do mean everyone – who has commented on Why children may want to keep a secret. This has been an exceptionally lively debate, now amounting to well over 11,000 words and it ain’t necessarily over yet. Inevitably, some words of real wisdom in all this will be overlooked, failing to make the impression they deserve.

The ones I most strongly feel need to be rescued from oblivion came in a contribution by T. Rivas, when he talked about the development of society over decades or centuries. In his view, “the development of human and ‘even’ animal rights since the period of Enlightenment is part of an inevitable progress in civilization and leaving behind barbarity”. After a certain point, he says, “the moral and emancipatory progress cannot be undone anymore, because it has become an intrinsic part of rational moral progress. This point has been reached with women’s and gay rights in many parts of the Western world and more and more people are realizing that animal rights are simply another strictly logical consequence of respect for the individual. One day, the same will happen with erotic and relational rights of children and pedophiles.”

Heretic TOC will not here be concerned with whether Rivas is right or wrong as to the inevitability of moral progress, except to say that brilliant minds have argued the point at least since the great burgeoning of rationalist optimism in the 18th century Enlightenment to which he refers. The political philosopher John Gray, for example, insists in his book Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, that “the old Adam” will out: human moral frailty is always with us; the perfectibility of man is an illusion; our selfishness, arrogance and shortsightedness render us vulnerable to all sorts of disaster, such as man-made climate change apocalypse. Psychologist Steven Pinker, on the other hand, argues in his recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature, that we are gradually becoming less violent.  He suggests that moral progress, although not inevitable, is likely to continue thanks to factors which have already proved beneficial, such as increased education, mutual interdependence through trade, and the spread of democracy.

Among those impressed by Pinker’s analysis is moral philosopher Peter Singer, a name particularly relevant here in view of Rivas’s reference to animals, concern for whom was pioneered by Singer in his 1976 book Animal Liberation. When Rivas speaks of “people…realizing that animal rights are simply another strictly logical consequence of respect for the individual”, he appears to be invoking something like historian W.H. Lecky’s concept, developed by Singer, of human concern as an expanding circle which begins with the individual, then embraces the family, then ever wider social groups up to nations, and eventually all humanity and even beyond, with animals included.

There is a long tradition, subscribed to in their very different ways by Hobbes, Kant, Rousseau and numerous other such luminaries, that the needs and interests of individuals might be given consideration if they are rational beings capable of thrashing out between themselves what the rules of good conduct should be. Having agreed on the rules (which find some approximation in law and government) and come to a sort of social contract, social justice is then expressed primarily in terms of individuals’ rights and responsibilities. As non-rational creatures, so the reasoning went, children and animals (and women!) might be owed a duty of care by their “owners” but if they had no responsibilities they could have no rights.

Jeremy Bentham bypassed all that contractual thinking. Regarding animals, he said the key question was not “Can they reason?” but “Can they suffer?” His so-called Utilitarian (a ghastly word which fails to capture the majestic power of the concept) philosophy focused on the amount of happiness or unhappiness we experience, which translates in crude but very important terms to pleasure versus pain. We all know about pain, in particular, whether physical or emotional, and the tremendous imperative to avoid it, especially as regards extreme suffering.

Singer’s approach, like Bentham’s, is Utilitarian. This has enabled him to focus our thinking on making choices that maximize the amount of pleasure we all experience and minimize the pain. The former might sound a bit trivial and hedonistic, but the latter is definitely not, especially when it comes to concerning ourselves with such questions as the horrors and degradation of keeping slaves or exploiting workers in dangerous sweatshops – or the suffering of battery chickens and laboratory animals. What he asks us to do, rather than legalistically concerning ourselves with rational capacity (which includes, incidentally, the concept of “informed consent” as applied to children), and rights tied to responsibilities, is to focus instead on the consequences of our actions when measured against a very clear ethical principle: will our actions tend to increase or decrease the sum total of suffering?

Used properly, this approach can be very illuminating: see for instance the way Singer uses it to test the mettle of our moral beliefs in his essay The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle.  Lesser thinkers than Singer, however, have invalidly seized upon very well known and obvious limitations of “consequentialist” thinking (e.g. the impossibility of predicting the consequences of one’s actions with certainly), in an effort to trash it entirely. I encountered a classic example myself only recently, when a certain person who shall remain nameless sought to consign my review of Margaux Fragoso’s Tiger, Tiger memoir to the garbage can on the basis that it is “wrapped up in consequentialist morality”, as though that automatically invalidated it.  My interlocutor appeared to believe that consequentialism can be used to justify anything, such as slavery. And so it can, if it is misapplied, and all the other major systems of ethics can be misapplied too: “virtue” ethics, for example, can be used lazily to make a virtue of anything that is traditionally approved of, no matter how dubious – “virtuous” paedophiles please note! For instance, even a “proper” philosopher, such as Roger Scruton, manages to conclude that cruelty to animals can be justified as the legitimate pursuit of a virtuous man when it happens to be the traditional pursuit of respected people, such as the fox-hunting English gentry. Ironically, after bad-mouthing consequentialist reasoning, my critic then proceeded to deploy it himself in a way which might be worth examining in a future blog.

For now, though, I’ll just give another prize example – this time used against Singer – of what we might dub “consequentialism abuse”. Perhaps we need a law against it.  Victims such as Singer and myself might then get lots of sympathetic media coverage and be able to claim compensation! This time the villain is one Moshe Averick, who was ordained as a rabbi but became a theology teacher rather than a priest. Unsurprisingly, the rabbi dislikes atheism, and he wrote:

…the logical and philosophical consequences of atheists’ belief systems are inescapable. When asked by journalist William Crawley if he thought that pedophilia was “just wrong”, Professor Peter Singer of Princeton University – a world-famous philosopher of “ethics” – responded as follows:

“I don’t have intrinsic moral taboos. My view is not that anything is just wrong…You’re trying to put words in my mouth.”

Singer went on to explain that he is a “consequentialist.” For the benefit of the philosophically challenged let me explain “consequentialism” in a nutshell: If you like the consequences it’s ethical, if you don’t like the consequences it’s unethical. Thus, if you enjoy child pornography and having sex with children it’s ethical, if you dislike child pornography and having sex with children it’s unethical. In an article entitled Heavy Petting, Singer likewise gave his stamp of approval to bestiality. As a reward for producing such pearls of wisdom, he has been granted the privilege of teaching our children “ethics” at an Ivy League university.

Apart from making it clear via this satirically outrageous misrepresentation why the rabbi does not teach at an Ivy League university, this little extract from his snappily titled article A Plea to Atheists: Pedophilia Is Next On the Slippery Slope; Let Us Turn Back Before It Is Too Late usefully alerts us to matters of rather greater interest than himself. One is the claim that Singer supports “bestiality”, despite the fact that his fame was built on a radical insistence animals should be treated well, with respect and dignity. Another is the hint that Singer may not necessarily be against paedophilia either. But is any of this true?

Let’s take “bestiality” first, as this is easy to check out. The article in question, Heavy Petting, is a review of a book by Dutch biologist Midas Dekkers called Dearest Pet: On Bestiality, which I have read and highly recommend. Singer is careful to say that sexually violent acts towards animals are clearly wrong, but that is not the whole story. He says:

But sex with animals does not always involve cruelty. Who has not been at a social occasion disrupted by the household dog gripping the legs of a visitor and vigorously rubbing its penis against them? The host usually discourages such activities, but in private not everyone objects to being used by her or his dog in this way, and occasionally mutually satisfying activities may develop.

As for paedophilia, Singer has understandably been less forthcoming: he has an Ivy League job, after all, and presumably wants to keep it. So he did not allow journalist William Crawley to put words into his mouth, nor did he rise to the bait, so far as I am aware, when another journalist, William Saletan, in a Slate article none too subtly titled Shag the dog, tried to hook him with this challenge:

What about Singer? He has often compared the mental ability of higher animals to that of children. Does he think this level of comprehension is sufficient to give consent to sex? If the answer is no, isn’t zoophilia wrong? If the answer is yes, isn’t pedophilia OK?

Singer’s fellow philosopher Tom Regan, himself a supporter of animal rights, agrees with the implication from Saletan: the argument that favours “bestiality” could be used to justify having sex with children. Regan writes that Singer’s position is a consequence of his adopting a consequentialist approach to the moral status of animals rather than a strictly rights-based one, and he argues that a rights-based position distances itself from non-consensual sex.

Regan’s position is logical, I think, but that does not mean Singer is wrong; indeed, it would be fascinating to hear what the latter might say about paedophilia were he free to do so without suffering serious consequences. Unfortunately, though, that is a “consequentialist” consideration Singer is unlikely to overlook!

%d bloggers like this: