A not-so-funny thing on the way to the Forum

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I am relieved and delighted by the overwhelmingly supportive response to Why I am talking to the terrorists. Many thanks to everyone for submitting such thoughtful comments.

Your remarks included quite a few requests for further information. You asked for a link to the ATSA article itself, and happily I can now give one because the ATSA Forum editor has kindly indicated he has no objections. So here goes: What to do with the entrenched client.

You asked to be told about any feedback from the article, and follow-up developments. ATSA Forum does not run a comments/letters section, but the editor, Dr Robin Wilson, commented very positively on the piece in his own Editorial Note, which can be accessed from the URL above. Also, he forwarded to me an email he had received from a reader who is a practising clinical psychologist. I’d better not give his name without permission, but he wrote:

… I thought it was great that you included the O’Carroll piece. I found it very interesting as we seldom get the opportunity to hear such a detailed overview of the client’s experience. The first PO [probation officer] clearly was on the more productive path and reminds us how much more important it is to understand who the person is who has the ‘disorder’ rather than the other way around.

I take it that by “the other way around”, he means a narrow focus on diagnosing and treating what “disorder” the person has, assuming there is one – and his quote marks suggest a welcome degree of open-mindedness on that score. The “first PO” in question is the probation officer I was initially assigned to when released on licence.

Otto asked:

One would like to think that there are some therapists currently within the system with whom deep and meaningful discussion can be had, but I rather doubt that that is the case (did you ever come across one?).

Yes, I did: this “first PO” was the perfect case in point, although undoubtedly she was very exceptional. A highly intellectual type, she had simultaneously gained first class honours degrees in both psychology and sociology. Even better, she engaged me in lengthy discussions about Foucault rather than imposing a course of CBT, although she was well versed in the latter.

Otto also asked how the opportunity arose to have a piece published in ATSA Forum. I believe the answer to this question reveals a great deal about the difficulties of getting a word in edgeways once you have a conviction, or indeed if you try to write from a MAP perspective at all. So I do think it will be worthwhile to answer Otto here in some detail. It is quite a saga, though, and will not interest everyone. If your time is limited you might want to skip the rest of this blog and just read the ATSA Forum piece. Either way, it’s a long read, though, so if you’d rather go for a beer or head for the beach that’s fine by me!

My article, or rather its precursor, was initially submitted to Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment (SAJRT). This academic journal had announced a Call for Papers, as they were planning a Special Issue on “Change among High-Risk Sex Offenders”. This announcement landed unbidden in my email inbox, which is the sort of thing that happens when you are known to have academic interests. As I was, and remain, officially classified as just such an offender, I saw this as an opportunity, especially in view of the fact that I was already on surprisingly good terms with Michael Seto, who was to be one of the two joint editors of the Special Issue, with Kevin Nunes. Dr Seto, as many here will be aware, is a leading expert on paedophilia – and there is no need for sceptical quote marks around “expert”: his knowledge and understanding of the scientific literature in the field are second to none.

I was already known to Seto because we are both members of Northwestern University’s online Sexnet forum, which is an email list-serve discussion group for an invited membership. It is a multi-disciplinary forum focused not on arranging orgies, as the name might suggest, but on all academic sexual matters, especially research into the psychology of sex, and including genetics, neurophysiology, endocrinology, etc. I was invited to apply for membership some years ago by psychiatrist Richard Green, founder president of the International Academy of Sex Research.

By the time the Special Issue came up, Seto had been exposed to my (numerous!) posts on Sexnet for about a couple of years. Not everyone liked my radically outspoken views on paedophilia, as may be imagined, but Seto very kindly praised my contributions in one of his own posts to the forum. Being armed with the knowledge that I had made a good impression, I was emboldened to email him, asking whether an article from me would be in order. I knew he could not make the ultimate decision as SAJRT is peer-reviewed. Any article would need to be approved on a doubly anonymous basis: the reviewers would not know my name nor I theirs. Seto emailed back saying he had consulted with Nunes, and also with James Cantor, Editor-in-Chief of SAJRT. All three, I was told, agreed a submission would be welcome and would go through the usual review process.

So, I set about the tough task of researching and writing my first truly academic article. It took much longer than I imagined, and much midnight oil was expended as the final submission date loomed: 1 September 2012. I managed to get a thoroughly-researched and tolerably well-written piece done and submitted by the deadline, albeit I had run out of time to edit it down to something more crisp and concise: the draft weighed in at a monstrous 35,000 words! Far too much! I just prayed the reviewers would give me a chance to cut to a more practical length.

But then disaster struck. I was told too few articles had been submitted to justify a Special Issue. Cantor offered me the opportunity to submit the MS to the regular journal instead. It seemed a good alternative, so I accepted. The paper was then duly sent for review. This was all very well but the absence of the Special Issue meant that Seto and Nunes would play no further part as editors. This was to prove a fateful development.

The review itself was fine. There was only one reviewer, which may be unusual but should not have been a problem. This reviewer – he or she – made a number of criticisms, especially as regards the length of the paper, as expected, but the decision was encouraging. Here is the key first paragraph of the comments received:

This was a very interesting article to review. In places I agreed strongly with the author and in places I disagreed. I found some of it uncomfortable but probably true but at other points some of the conclusions drawn had a self interested flavour (hard to avoid, I accept). On balance I believe the article could be published albeit in a different form. I think that it makes several important points that the journal readership, particularly those in clinical practice but also researchers, would benefit from thinking about.

In line with the reviewer’s recommendation, I expected the editor-in-chief to offer me the chance to shorten and improve the paper, then be judged again on the revised version. But no. Cantor said he had read the manuscript thoroughly himself but had concluded “I am afraid the manuscript is not suitable for publication in SAJRT.”

This looked to me like an irregular and possibly improper decision. The whole point of anonymous peer review, I thought, was that the anonymity is meant to ensure impartial judgment of the work, without any possibility of personal prejudice against the author. I have no reason to disbelieve Cantor when he said he had read the paper thoroughly, but he certainly had been aware of who I was.

More to the point, there was a very good reason to suppose he might have been prejudiced against me. Like Michael Seto, he was a Sexnet member and familiar with my input there. Unlike Seto, though, he had not liked what he had seen. As quite a few heretics here will know, Cantor has been a very prominent public supporter of the Virtuous Pedophiles and is impatient – to put it mildly – with radical MAPs like me. What appears to have got up his nose even more is that I had used Sexnet to publicly cast doubt on the meaning and significance of his research findings, especially as regards a supposed deficiency of white matter he claims to have detected in the brains of paedophiles.

His responses are best characterised as throwing hissy fits, hurling sarcastic abuse while refusing to address the scientific issues I raised. He could not possibly deny this. These exchanges were not in private email: they were on Sexnet, visible to its 400 or so members. For a blow-by-blow account of our verbal fisticuffs see my blog: Scientific egos as fragile as eggs and The dubious analogy of the ‘extra arm’.

In view of this personal history between us, it crossed my mind to complain to the editorial board of SARJT: they would surely see that his rejection of my paper may not have been impartial.

I chose not to pick another fight with him though. Why not? Well, although I had good evidence to suggest he had some animosity against me, I also had to take into account that he was notorious for his sarcastic, bullying, arrogant attitude towards almost anyone who disagreed with him! He was not necessarily prejudiced against me personally, or as a MAP; he could be seen as just horrible all round, in a fairly distributed way! I’m glad I didn’t take up the cudgels, actually, because he has since done me a considerable favour. But that’s another story.

Sticking with the current yarn, then, about a year ago I raised the matter of the rejected article on Sexnet, asking if members knew any other journal that might be interested in publishing it. That was when David Wilson, editor of ATSA Forum, and also a Sexnet subscriber, stepped forward. Even that didn’t happen smoothly though: Wilson only responded after I had kicked up a fuss on Sexnet and been in a spat with one of his colleagues. After that it was “just” a matter of whittling down a 35,000-word article to 3,500 words and then dealing with criticism of the new draft!

In reality, of course, the restriction on length meant I had to focus on one key aspect of the original article rather than paraphrasing the whole thing. What that means, in turn, is that much of the original work remains unpublished. I believe there is potential in this unused material for an article of around 15,000 words. I will not resubmit to SAJRT but I am now on the lookout for a suitable alternative peer-reviewed journal. Suggestions?

Why I am talking to the terrorists

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Fraternising with the enemy! Treachery! There, I’ve said it. It’s out there. Loud but not that proud and not yet that specific either, so I’d better spit it out properly.

Deep breath. Here goes. I HAVE BEEN NEGOTIATING WITH TERRORISTS – although I’d better deny it immediately in case they send someone to have me beheaded. Deny, that is, that they are terrorists not that I have been in talks with them.

I refer, of course, to the fearsome international terror machine that is the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA). Well-funded, well-equipped, its tentacles stretching around the globe, this “association” has been responsible for untold suffering through its ruthless “treatment” of tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands, in its ideological heartland of Canada and worldwide. Specialising in coercion and mental torture, its “cognitive behavioural therapy” (CBT) methods used on captives have reached heights of sadistic sophistication the early Chinese pioneers of brainwashing could only dream about for their “re-education” programmes aimed at the enforced acceptance of communism.

So, you will be wondering, why would I be having anything to do with this evil force? Many of you know that I fell into the hands of forces loosely affiliated with ATSA in 2006-7. Did I succumb when I was held captive and subjected to CBT? Was I turned? Have I been cunningly embedded here on Heretic TOC as an undercover agent?

You will have to decide for yourselves on the basis of the evidence, which is essentially all of my published output since 2007, which we can notionally bundle together as Exhibit 1, with the Fragoso book review in my last blog separated out in its own tagged and sealed evidence bag as Exhibit 2. And now, as Exhibit 3, I offer an article of mine that appeared earlier this month in ATSA Forum – a secret (well, members only) strategy bulletin circulated online solely to around 4,000 elite cadres of the organisation’s ideological hierarchy: crucially, these include the brains who devise and refine the “treatment programmes” as well as the senior operatives in the field.

A defence lawyer might well argue for me that this article of mine has been planted as a Trojan Horse behind enemy lines: it seeks to humanise us heretics and hint in a subtly credible way that we are not their real enemy; thus psychologically, they may be disarmed.

So, what do I say without hiding behind a lawyer?

OK, time to drop the cloak and dagger stuff and tell you what the article is about. Copyright considerations, nothing more sinister, prevent me linking to the full text, though I hope I might get a release on that before too long.

The main aim of the 3,500-word piece is to criticise the style and content of sex offender treatment programmes in an obviously sober, careful, well-researched fashion, so that the professionals will actually take notice. The idea is that they will see a case for changing towards something that is genuinely more in society’s interests while also according much greater respect than at present to the dignity and human rights of those undergoing the courses.

It is an ambitious task but not necessarily an unrealistic one as there are reasons to believe the approach I have suggested would be far more efficient and cost-effective than standard CBT, which is massively time-consuming and often counterproductive.

To those who would say it is treacherous for a heretic to cooperate with the design and provision of any sort of programme aimed at changing the thinking of minor-attracted people, as though any such efforts amount to brainwashing, I would remind them that all education is aimed at changing our thinking (as indeed are newspaper opinion articles, conference speeches, etc.). In general we think education is a good thing. That is because we associate it not just with gaining knowledge but also with learning important skills such how to question assumptions and think for ourselves.

Thinking for ourselves is hardly what springs to mind, though, when we contemplate sex offender treatment programmes, especially when, as is often the case, they are coercively imposed on a literally captive audience in prison.

But this is my point: the courses need to be changed so that real thinking is truly encouraged rather than oppressively crushed as at present.

Whether society as a whole benefits from running offender courses is a separate issue. In principle the idea is surely sound. If an anger management programme helps someone learn to control his temper so he doesn’t beat up his wife and terrify his kids, isn’t that a good thing? The same goes for sex offending, which – let us not forget – includes violent rape and coercive child molestation. Just like adult-oriented heterosexuals, not all MAPs are well-behaved. Society, in other words, has a legitimate interest in persuading offenders to stop causing harm.

We can and should debate whether consensual MAP offences cause any harm, rather than just accepting the current authoritarian dogma that they do. Rest assured, this was an issue I addressed in my article.

Titled “What to do with the entrenched client: A paedophilic entrenched client’s view”, the piece began with a quote from an article in the academic literature:

…what do you do with the clients who are so entrenched and ‘anti’ everything? These are the clients who make our lives difficult, and who often cause us the greatest concern. Why are they so problematic?” (Wilson & Pake, 2010)

When I first saw that heartfelt plea, I thought “That’s me they’re talking about.” I had been just such a “client”, a member of the awkward squad undergoing sex offender treatment while released on licence in the second half of a 30-month sentence for distributing “indecent images of children”. They hated the fact that I asked too many questions and refused to swallow their simplistic assertions: the word “entrenched” was written into my official record.

What I now tried to get across in my article was that mainstream CBT might be OK for many offenders but not all. Troubled offenders, including those with problems such as drug addiction, depression, inability to hold down a job, etc., may readily accept that their lives need to change. In my experience they often actually welcome a firm, “no excuses” approach that forces them to face their “issues”.

But what works for these offenders can be less than useless for another group I dubbed The Dissidents – people like myself, who rail against the system, either openly or with a suppressed “silent scream” of protest. Many such offenders, I pointed out, are not only educated and astute; they may also have strong and well-grounded moral values – albeit at odds with majority opinion. I wrote:

Dissidents, as opposed to fundamentally antisocial troublemakers, respect evidence and argument. In dealing with them it is important that therapists engage in debate without worrying about having to win the argument. In the last analysis, the offender will be aware that the law is the law, and scoring points over the therapist is not going to change that. The therapist’s trump card will always be that maybe the law is not fair in all circumstances, but we must all live with it unless it is changed through the democratic process.

Instead of heavily didactic, simple messages that may be suitable for some – but not for the sincere and thoughtful Dissident – there is a need to introduce materials capable of prompting really deep discussion. These might include novels with a relevant theme written from a victim’s viewpoint, or even academic papers.

This is the point at which I gave as an example Tiger, Tiger, the memoir by Margaux Fragoso cited in my last blog Love is confoundedly complicated!

Continuing, I said that traditional CBT group therapy is set up so that participants quickly learn to self-censor in order to avoid dire consequences:

… It is a frustrating business because any attempt to string an argument together will be brusquely shut off… those seeking to curry favour with authority are often only too ready to gang up on the Dissident(s) in the group.

Enforcing resentful conformity is no way to encourage real and lasting change. The profession must have the courage to allow proper debate as to what actually causes harm to victims; including, harms caused to children by neglect, emotional abuse, violence, and chaotic dysfunction in the family. Those who read Fragoso’s memoir will find that she grew up in just such a dysfunctional, emotionally abusive family. Peter “rescued” her from it; albeit with some costs. But, if he had ever ended up in treatment no one would have wanted to know about that because such possibilities are a taboo. As long as this remains the case, therapists will lack credibility with offenders – especially the Dissident – who will continue to present intractable responsivity problems.

The more “credible” approach that I advocate would certainly be experienced as a valid debate, not a degrading insult to the intelligence such as the CBT brainwashing style seeks to impose. I am confident that, as such, it would be experienced not only as a more humane form of treatment but it would also help to reconcile the offender calmly to compliance with the law until such time as it can be reformed, rather than leaving him full of poisonous hatred towards “the system” and perhaps increasingly to society and humanity in general. This does not preclude protest and activism for change, far from it.

What truly appals me in all this, and what motivated me to write the article when the opportunity came along, is the nightmare situation faced by some of the most honest Dissidents when they are faced with indeterminate sentences from which they can be released only when they are deemed no longer to be “dangerous”. It is easy for glib liars. They can “pass” the courses with ease in Britain and elsewhere (though not perhaps the US where few escape “civil commitment”). All they need to do is say they agree with the authoritarian dogma, even if they do not believe a word of it. They don’t mind fudging the truth or telling outright whoppers.

But that strategy sticks in the throat of the sincere Dissident, who feels honour-bound to tell it like it is. By doing so, though, he guarantees that he will always “fail”: his candid difference of opinion with the authorities is deemed a thought-crime that guarantees his continued incarceration as a “dangerous” criminal. In the name of humanity and decency, we must reject this barbaric dogma.

It would be naïve as well as immodest to suppose one article is going to make a huge difference, but there has to be a start somewhere. I do believe, though, there is a chance the profession will listen: after all, as indicated in my quote from Wilson & Pake, above, the authorities are beginning to ask relevant questions; also, the sheer fact that a professional journal has been willing to carry an article under my own name from me as a known “heretic” – something unique so far as I can tell – suggests that opinion among the powers that be is not as steely and unwavering as might be supposed from the impression they so dispiritingly give in the therapy sessions.

 

Wilson, R.J. & Pake, D.R. (2010). Treatment readiness: Preparing sexual offenders for the process of change. In Herzog-Evans, M. (Ed.), Transnational criminology manual. Oisterwijk, Netherlands: Wolf Legal Publishing.

 

PUBLICATION NOTE:

I have given only one reference above, to Wilson & Pake, as this is the only item to which I have referred directly. I might add, though, that some 17 references, from academic and offender sources, appeared with the ATSA article. Additionally, in order to do a thorough job of understanding all the relevant research on sex offender therapy, I found it necessary to read a number of textbooks and pushing up towards a hundred research articles.

As for getting the piece accepted, it took over two years and more drafts than I care to contemplate – with alterations required following criticism by some half dozen editors and reviewers at ATSA and Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, which is where a version of the article was first submitted. I make no complaint about this; and if people want to say my efforts are just a waste of time, or kowtowing, or Uncle Tom foolery, they won’t be raising any questions I have not asked myself. My fear is that they may be right; my hope is that they are not.

Love is confoundedly complicated!

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A lingering social death by contempt, humiliation and shame is the daunting prospect I face when I go ahead with my next planned blog in a few days’ time. It is not the enemy’s scorn I fear – the more resilient of us can live with that – but, far worse, that of my friends.

So, in a bid to ease the anticipated sting of your withering rebukes, I am going to use today’s Heretic TOC to set the scene in what I hope will be a disarming way. What appears below is a book review I wrote a few years ago for Berlin University’s Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology, which is now independent and known simply as the Archive for Sexology – a great resource, by the way: the Growing Up Sexually section is superb on childhood sexual acculturation beyond the modern developed world.

The review is of a memoir by Margaux Fragoso, who had a long childhood relationship with a paedophile. I briefly mentioned this book once before in The consequences of consequentialism last year, a piece which might particularly interest those heretics here of a philosophical bent.

As for why my next blog could be a source of such utter mortification to me, and why the review is relevant, you’ll just have to wait and see!

 

Margaux Fragoso, Tiger, Tiger: A Memoir, Penguin, London, 2011

Seven-year-old Margaux sees a grey-haired old man at the local swimming pool. Two little boys are frolicking with him in the water. The three of them are having great fun, whereas she has no playmates. Her mentally ill mother is sitting at the poolside; her father, an emotionally abusive alcoholic, is not around.

Quickly sensing the man must be an exceptionally friendly adult, she approaches.

“Can I play with you?” she asks.

“Of course,” he answers, playfully splashing her face.

It is the start of a relationship that almost immediately becomes sexual, in ways graphically described; it continues as romantic through her teens and ends only when his death parts them after fifteen years. She tells of being in love, “addicted” to her elderly lover’s company; of her lover, she says, “I was his religion”.

The echo of Nabokov’s Lolita is clear, with its famously rapturous opening paean to a beloved “nymphet”; but Tiger, Tiger is billed as a memoir, not fiction – and certainly not a work of paedophilic pornography, or propaganda, as might otherwise be suspected from my introduction. Even though it reads like a novel, author Margaux Fragoso has been at pains to insist, in the face of reviewers’ scepticism, that it is a faithful record of a well documented relationship with Peter Curran, a hard-up, long-term unemployed invalid and girl-oriented paedophile, who committed suicide at age 66, when she was 22. He had not been sexually interested in the boys at the pool, who were the sons of his landlady-cum-not-quite-girlfriend: he was just good with them anyway.

Although a whole clutch of memoirs, especially in the “misery lit” genre, have been exposed as fake in recent years, Tiger, Tiger strikes me as the real thing. It is clearly not written as pornography, because the sexual descriptions are utterly unsexy: while Fragoso portrays herself as a willing, and at times even a demanding, participant in under-age sexual acts, her own lively sexuality is always at odds with the sense of grossness and disgust she feels towards the wrinkled, decrepit body of her aging lover and the whore’s repertoire of tricks and role plays he nags her into performing.

Nor can she be accused of propagandising in favour of a child’s ability to consent to sex with an adult. Ultimately, the author is plainly of the opinion that the relationship was harmful to her in many ways, and that men like Peter need treatment.

As a paedophile myself, throughout my adult life I have resisted all the conventional arguments against children’s willing participation in sexual contacts with adults, especially when the older party is affectionate and loving. None of these arguments, or the evidence adduced in their support, has ever made much impression on me. I have even written books saying exactly why they are unconvincing.

But I find Fragoso’s work is strikingly more effective than all the usual moralising, with vastly more persuasive clout than the endless plethora of one-sided and even dishonest victim narratives so beloved of our cultural media, from tabloid yarns to TV documentaries, to films and novels. Tiger, Tiger is an immensely powerful testament. I am in my mid-sixties, with a typical old dog’s shortcomings over learning new tricks; but Fragoso is making me think again.

How so? What is the source of this extraordinary power? It is simply that Fragoso’s account is not one-sided. Tiger, Tiger comes across as a determined attempt by the author to examine all aspects of her relationship with Peter with the utmost candour, and calm honesty. Rather than simply vilifying and demonising him, “letting out the anger”, as “survivors” are often encouraged to do, she strives for an objective, almost scientific, description of how things came to pass, her feelings at the time and what they led to. In an Afterword, she speaks of having “learned through my writing”: through pondering, and describing, she leads both herself and the reader towards a reasoned assessment.

It is also a balanced and fair one. We are told, for instance, not just that Peter could be violent and was often “pushy” in his sexual demands. No, we are additionally told that far from being “innocent”, little Margaux as a child could be calculating and manipulative, and she spells out exactly how. Ultimately, of course, there is no moral equivalence: the adult must take responsibility.

The author’s judicious even-handedness is what makes Tiger, Tiger such a stand-out from the many hundreds of learned journal articles and books I have read on adult-child sexual encounters. For me, this is one of the most impressive and important of the lot. As a set text for reading and discussion by participants in sex offender treatment programmes I suspect it would be more successful in helping reduce recidivism than the crude brain-washing usually served up.

The only caveat to my recommendation – but it is an important one – is that there are severe constraints on what can reasonably be concluded from any one account. Fragoso herself makes two major mistakes: she over-interprets what can be learned from her own experience, and then over-generalises these questionable conclusions, seeking to apply them invalidly to all child-adult sexual contacts. To take the second point first, a properly scientific account demands the investigation of hundreds, indeed preferably thousands, of cases before general statements can be made with any confidence, and even then effects associated with the data do not necessarily reveal a particular cause. I suspect Fragoso would be surprised to learn that the most rigorous statistical studies of the available evidence do not support the conventional view that such contacts are in general very harmful.

On the first point, there are many ways in which the book leads the reader towards the view that the relationship with Peter was deeply traumatic: to take the most serious of these, the sexual side compromised her, making her feel she was “corrupted” and that others would regard her as worthless. Even the “romantic” aspect was awful because it locked her for year after year into emotional dependency on a partner who had no future, and whose attentions kept her unhealthily alienated from her peers – which may have been why, in a belated act of redemption, Peter ultimately killed himself, setting her free at last.

While these terrible facts are undeniable, what the author’s own conclusions ignore is the serious possibility that without Peter’s love and support her life might well have been even worse. It was her father, after all, not Peter, who would habitually rant and scream at her, telling her she was a worthless burden, before she had even met Peter. Her response as a small child had understandably been one of aggressive “acting out”: she would randomly kick other people in the street. After meeting Peter, she transferred that aggression to him, lying and playing mean tricks on him. His reaction, by contrast, was generally one of patient, almost saintly restraint: Margaux’s admittedly delusional mother even thought he might be a reincarnation of Jesus, “so wise” was he, “and pure of heart”. The presumably non-delusional author would commend his consistent support for her creative side, and the praise he habitually lavished on her, boosting the self-worth so sapped by her father.

So, as one feminist reviewer grudgingly conceded, “it’s complicated”. In terms of what caused the bad outcomes in her life, a scientist would have to note that there were “confounds”: in other words, there were other factors apart from having an early sexual relationship that could account, wholly or in part, for all that went wrong.

And, hey, despite the extremely unpromising start of having two massively unsatisfactory parents, a lot eventually went right for Fragoso. She is now a best-selling writer, after all, as well as being in a stable adult partnership which has seen her become a mother. These successes might have come despite Peter’s role in her life or thanks to it: those confounded confounds make it hard to tell which.

Ultimately, though, Tiger, Tiger should be judged not as a failed work of “scientific” self-observation, nor in literary terms as an inferior imitation of Nabokov, as some critics have maintained. Her style and subject matter admittedly invite comparisons with the celebrated novelist, but we must remember that this work is a memoir, not a novel. As such, it is simply an apparently honest account that does far more justice to the complexity of the issues than most of the “child sexual abuse” literature.

 

MILESTONE

One other thing, a milestone worth noting in passing: there have been over 100 comments in response to the last blog, Hail to a hero of ‘transgressive expression’, largely on account of some very lively discussion prompted by young “adultophile” James. That’s three figures for the first time. Great, keep it coming on future topics!

Hail to a hero of ‘transgressive expression’

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Robin Sharpe is a writer of proven literary merit, as judged by the Supreme Court of Canada no less.

I heartily endorse that verdict. He is indeed a damn fine writer, imaginative and linguistically inventive. Whether Sharpe is conjuring up a primitive paradise or a post-apocalyptic dystopian hellhole, his talented evocations are dotted with freshly minted words and striking images. He is wryly humorous and ironic, with a perceptive eye for the hilarious tragedy that is “the human condition” – whether visited through individual foibles and monstrosities or the bizarre, confused, mishmash of dimly understood myths, rites and traditions we use in order to prise some sort of meaning out of the wild chaos of nature and circumstance.

He is both funny ha-ha and funny peculiar. The humour, black as sin, is as colourfully satirical as that of his less subtle namesake Tom Sharpe at his best, in Riotous Assembly, and as outrageous as Iain Banks in The Wasp Factory.

His writing is humane, good-hearted and moral, too, without ever being moralistic – qualities to which those who do go in for moralising will inevitably be blind on account of his disturbing subject matter. And he is honest: the man’s truthfulness emerges clearly in his very candid non-fiction.

But none of these admirable qualities have been anything like as significant to the world at large as the most obviously “outstanding” (so to speak!) feature of Sharpe’s writing: it is blatantly, patently, pornographic. One may meander agreeably through many chapters of less urgent delights than the carnal, but engagement with the latter, when it comes, cums. His prose, while always written with style and sophistication, is what many would condemn as not merely pornographic but also deeply “perverted”. Sharpe takes us into the world of the notorious Marquis de Sade, with whippings and beatings. Most dangerously of all, it is a world heavily populated by sexy young boys.

Hence the unusual interest in literary criticism taken in Sharpe’s case by the criminal courts in Canada – and it is also one of the reasons why Heretic TOC is blogging about him. It all began in 1995 after Sharpe had travelled abroad, visiting Dr Edward Brongersma, famed Dutch boy-love activist and former senator. Sharpe’s baggage was checked by Customs on his re-entry to Canada from the Netherlands. They found a collection of computer discs containing text titled BoyAbuse. This writing, of which he was the author, was alleged to constitute child pornography and Sharpe was prosecuted for possession. The charges also included visual material found at his home but it is the literary side that will concern us here.

Sharpe argued that the law in question targeted the political advocacy of pederasty and served little purpose in protecting children from sexual abuse. Representing himself, he scored a remarkable victory in the British Columbia Supreme Court, successfully claiming that under Canada’s Bill of Rights it would be unconstitutional to deprive him of the private possession of his own thoughts as expressed in writing. The prosecution appealed. The charges in respect of his writings were eventually dismissed in the Supreme Court of Canada in 2001 when it was successfully argued on his behalf that his work had artistic merit. A professor of English compared his written works to “transgressive expression” as seen in Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom.

It was something of a pyrrhic victory, though, because the verdict generated a storm of political outrage leading to the passing of a more restrictive new law in 2005 that made the possession of written child pornography permissible only for those deemed to have a “legitimate purpose related to the administration of justice or to science, medicine, education or art”, and if it did not pose “an undue risk of harm” to minors. Written child pornography was defined as writing that “advocates or counsels” sexual activity with a person under 18 or “whose dominant characteristic is the description, for a sexual purpose”, of illegal sexual activity with a person under 18.

Whether “a sexual purpose” can be considered the “dominant” characteristic of Sharpe’s writings depends on how alert one is to their other qualities. His work has much else to offer, in my view, at least in some of the more ambitious pieces. Literary S/M sex definitely isn’t my thing but the book Pagunan Masks: An Ethnofiction, to take one example, is really clever stuff and I found it fascinating. I should add that I would not have enjoyed or appreciated anything that appeared to revel in a callous or cruel attitude to children; on the contrary, I would have been appalled.

Sharpe has said this about his work, which strikes me as a reasonable summary based on the limited amount I have read:

“Most of my BoyAbuse stories have sadomasochistic themes but with little violence, violence in the sense of coercion, aggression and injury. The theme is fortitude, usually willing, for some purpose. They are simple tales of flogging, fun and fortitude appealing to certain fetishes including my own.”

Sharpe’s lengthy legal battles over written pornography have long been over, but his travails are more significant today than ever, as moral entrepreneurs worldwide continue to eat away at freedom of expression in the name of child protection. Back in the early days of legislation against child pornography, most of the countries going in for these new laws focused solely on photographs and films. Laws against “obscene” literature had long been in existence but these were widely falling into disrepute and disuse and were not extended to deal with child protection. Canada was an exception. Although it had a remarkably low age of consent, at 14, since raised to 16, its approach to freedom of expression with respect to written child pornography was far less liberal.

The trend, though, is for greater security, surveillance and suppression to be deployed in endless “wars” against a range of “risks”. Paedophilia now vies with terrorism for top spot in the charts, both having long displaced first communism and then drugs as the great evils of our times.

For this reason, we can expect the written word to come under greater pressure everywhere, with dire implications for everyone’s freedom.

In the UK, the latest manifestation of this trend is to be seen in the Serious Crime Bill, which has already been debated in parliament and will reach its report stage in the next session a couple of months from now. This is the one Heretic TOC mentioned in May: Paedophiles to be treated like terrorists.

It has a clause banning the possession of “paedophile manuals”, defined in the Bill as “any item that contains advice or guidance about abusing children sexually”. Maximum sentence is three years.

Could Sharpe’s work be construed in this way? I don’t think it could, in fairness, from what I have seen of his writing; but fairness is unfortunately not what we can expect in the current climate. So, what about Heretic TOC even mentioning Sharpe’s work by way of recommending his literary talents or providing online links to his work? Would this fall foul of the new law? Who knows how broadly it will be applied? What is certain, though, is that it will have a chilling effect on expression: valuable thoughts will go unexpressed through self-censorhip out of entirely justified fear of the consequences.

Another reason for mentioning Robin Sharpe at the present time is a more sentimental one. Robin, as I shall now begin to call him, is old and very unwell. He is 81. He suffered a terrible blow earlier this year after being in hospital for eight months, which was doubtless bad enough in itself. He was illegally evicted from his home in Montreal when his landlord expected him to die. All his possessions were stolen or trashed, including his entire library. He took refuge back on the West Coast where he has family and friends. He is now in the process of taking his former landlord to court.

It is high time Robin’s great fighting spirit and literary talents were acknowledged here, and I am pleased to do so. Robin and I have corresponded from time to time. He kindly wrote to me when I was behind bars, and I returned the compliment when he suffered a similar fate.

He is too ill to do anything quickly but in a sense he is an old man in a hurry, anxious to see his work published before he dies. Unfortunately, there are huge problems with this. One, obviously, is finding a publisher willing to take the risk of being labelled a pornographer and charged under either traditional obscenity law or newer child protection law. Another is that in his generosity Robin has long made all of his work freely downloadable from his two websites, primarily at robinsharpe.org and also with some titles at robinsharpe.ca. While there are no doubt those among his many readers who would like to possess bound volumes of his writings, that too would be worrying on legal grounds for many (depending where they live) and publishers are unlikely to be persuaded they could cover their costs on such a project, never mind make a profit.

Robin has had a few volumes printed privately and he might be able to send copies to those who contact him via his websites. As a limited item (and perhaps hand-signed if you are lucky) they will have a value beyond the words they contain.

One aspect of this added value is the illustrations. Robin’s career was as a town planner, which may have given an outlet for his skills in drawing maps and plans, as demonstrated on the back cover of his novella Blood & Semen. Another string to his bow is wood-carving, beautiful large photographs of which form an integral part of Pagunan Masks. This book is about an imaginary primitive tribe and their discovery by westerners. The chapters, or parts, of the book feature the various masks worn by the tribe members for their rituals: Lizard Mask, Demon Mask, Death Mocking Mask, and so on. Each has a special purpose and history, skilfully woven into the story and illustrated in an “ethnographic” account with close parallels to early attempts at anthropological writing, which he seeks both to satirize and draw upon for allegorical purposes.

Robin’s legal battles have been the subject of numerous papers in academic law journals and citations in law books. His own writings cover the legal issues ably and thoroughly. There was also a book, On Kiddie Porn: Sexual Representation, Free Speech and the Robin Sharpe Case, by Stan Persky and John Dixon (Vancouver: New Star Books, 2001).

I was going to finish at this point but an item in the current issue of the London Review of Books absolutely demands at least an additional paragraph or three. It is a review of A Sentimental Novel, by the French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet, published in an English translation in May. Judging by this review, it makes Robin’s writing look about as sadistic and perverted as Harry Potter. Reviewer Adam Shatz describes it as a work of “unrelenting and graphic sadism in which women – or rather, barely pubescent girls – exist to be raped, tortured and murdered”. The work features “a harem of child sex slaves…violently deflowered, in scenes described with Robbe-Grillet’s obsessional precision: murderously large dildos, seats made of nails, sliced and grilled breasts”.

But Robbe-Grillet was never arrested and jailed. On the contrary, long acknowledged as a leading intellectual, he had been elected to the prestigious Académie française in 2004. Un roman sentimental appeared in 2007, shortly before his death the following year. This particular book was not well received, to be sure. Shatz tells us it was “treated with derision”. But now we find it is being respectably republished in the UK with no calls as yet, it seems, for the publishers to be clapped in irons; nor has there been any controversy so far as I am aware over LRB and some of the upmarket national newspapers legitimising it through their reviews. Funny old world, as they say!

Let’s not forget, though, that even Robbe-Grillet’s “sentimental” novel is just words. He didn’t kill anyone; like many other writers, he may have used his work cathartically, to purge his inner violence rather than victimise anyone with it. Meanwhile, people are actually being killed. Children are being ripped to bits in Gaza and deliberately starved on a mountain in Iraq. Is it because their killers have been reading too much Sharpe and Robbe-Grillet? Somehow, I doubt it.

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