The downfall (again) of 1970s rock star Gary Glitter was just one news item in a crazy week or so with any number of important paedo stories. With any luck, I’ll find time for a hasty round up, below, of the most significant developments; but Heretic TOC likes to set its own agenda, tracking deeper currents rather than current headlines.
The mainstream media flatter themselves that they too dig deeper, with their “in-depth” features and “probing” documentaries. These can work very well within set parameters, generating narratives of a kind the public wants to hear, but heretical interpretations tend to be smothered very quickly, as we know. So I was very sceptical when, in the wake of the Channel 4/Testimony Films debacle last yearI was approached by another TV documentary maker with a comparable project. As part of the preliminary talks, I was asked about PIE’s legal proposals in the 1970s. What did they amount to? Did I still agree with them?
The talks are still in progress. I suspect they will stall, as they usually do, but in the course of these negotiations I found myself reviewing the fate of PIE’s proposals in the wider context of the radicalism of those times, following one strand in particular: the Dutch experience from then until now. I explained to the TV people that my own personal proposal, as expressed in my book Paedophilia: the Radical Case in 1980, was a reduction of the age of consent (AOC) to 12 for penetrative acts. No such lower limit had been set out in PIE’s earlier proposals, but PIE never intended to legalise acts that would have been physically dangerous to younger children or imposed against their will. I added my age of 12 not because PIE’s reforms were bad in terms of their likely effect on children if implemented but because they had not been designed with the media in mind. They were somewhat complex, in order properly to deal with “grey area” cases where the child’s willing involvement was in doubt. Unfortunately, this complexity made it all too easy for the media, as we discovered, to misinterpret (wilfully or otherwise) the provisions and their likely effect.
PIE’s proposals were sound, in my opinion, but of course the times are even less propitious for them now than they were then. These reforms would have retained the criminal law to deal with sexual assault against children. Where sexual acts had taken place with the clearly willing participation of a child, it was deemed inappropriate to use criminal sanctions against the adult. In “grey area” cases, a civil law investigation would take place. A civil court could then sanction the adult, if necessary, in a variety of ways e.g. by ordering the termination of contact with the child. In effect, PIE had invented the ASBO (Anti-Social Behaviour Order) about 20 years before the Labour government.
PIE’s proposals, plus my own personal AOC caveat, would have resulted in something quite similar to what actually prevailed in the Netherlands in the 1980s: in that country, over the age of 12, it was widely the practice to use the criminal law only in cases where the child had not consented. This later became formalised in Dutch law, in 1990, but only until 2002, when the changing climate of the times saw the law revert back to an AOC of 16.
Sometimes the Netherlands of a few decades ago is seen as in an utterly ultra-liberal class of its own, but this is to overlook the intellectual ferment that saw AOC laws challenged by leading thinkers elsewhere, especially France, Germany and Scandinavia. There were even stirrings in the UK that went far beyond PIE. Last year saw present-day left-of-centre British politicians coming under fire for appearing to flirt with drastic AOC reduction in those days, thanks to their association with the then very radical National Council for Civil Liberties (the NCCL, now Liberty). The almost entirely right-wing media were really interested only in smearing the left, so they turned a blind eye to politically neutral organisations that had supported change. Notably, there was the National Council for One Parent Families, which, in its report Pregnant at School, recommended totally abolishing the age of consent. They felt decriminalization would make it easier to avoid early teenage pregnancies by ensuring that sexually active youngsters would be able to access contraception and good advice without fear of getting themselves or their partner into trouble with the law.
I went back over some of my old newspaper cuttings, and found amazing reminders of the radicalism of the 1970s. Take the following story, for instance, from the Evening Standard, London, in 1976 (22 June). Reading it now, we might mistake it for a spoof in The Onion. Headlined “Under-age sex law baffling, says judge”, it begins:
The controversial law which makes it illegal for a man to have sex with a girl under 16 was attacked by an Old Bailey judge today. When you have young women of this age and this maturity participating in a perfectly natural activity, it is difficult to brand the other partner as a criminal,” said Judge Neil McKinnon. QC. “The trouble is that this law stands as an attempt to protect fully mature young women against their own natural inclinations. That is what it comes to,” he said. “How on earth any society could delude itself into thinking that that sort of law can have any measure of success baffles me. “The question is, how do you vindicate a law of this character which is so controversial?” In the dock was 22-year-old Jonathan Groves of Bell Crescent Hooley, Surrey, who admitted having unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl aged 15 on February 24. The court heard that Groves met the girl in December. They had sex in a car while the girl was staying with the family of a friend. She was then 15 years four months. “I suppose she has no complaints at all,” said the judge. “A thoroughly satisfying experience from her point of view.
Honestly, I kid you not, this was a real judge talking about a 22-year-old man’s sex with a 15-year-old girl. In other words, while the girl was nearly of age, the man was significantly older than her, a fact that would hardly be overlooked today.
A more modern source, the Spotlight on Abuse website, obligingly reminds us:
The paedophile lobby was a lobby of ideas. It sought to change minds. The law, it believed, would then follow. The minds it sought above all were those within the Home Office. A Home Office paper from 1979 (Sexual Offences, Consent and Sentencing) suggested a lowering of the age of consent to 14 and that punishments be reduced for ‘consensual’ sex with girls of even younger ages.
Even the supposedly conservative Church of England had its sexual radicals. As Spotlight on Abuse reminded me, Dr John Robinson, a bishop, no less, is quoted as saying: “On the age of consent it’s quite clear the law is largely an ass. There is a vast amount of illegal sexual activity going on where ultimately no one is being exploited or damaged or abused… Theoretically it would be much better not to have any age of consent at all…”
From PIE’s own magazine, Magpie, I disinterred “The Dutch experience”, a 1981 article by the Dutch lawyer and senator, Dr Edward Brongersma. Jailed in the 1950s for a relationship with a teenage boy, Brongersma went on to fight, and in 1971 overturn, the law under which he was jailed; in 1975 he was knighted. While his work was always Netherlands based, he would become the world’s most distinguished pro-paedophile advocate.
Chapter 13 of my 1980 book Paedophilia: The Radical Case covers much the same ground as Brongersma’s Magpie article, both sources emphasising that churches, trade unions, political parties and the media in the Netherlands all signed up for radical sexual reform. But there is an astonishing further revelation in Magpie. Brongersma wrote:
Regarding the judges themselves, in Amsterdam at least, the children’s court is quite willing to make use of the special talents of a well-intentioned boy-lover when dealing with boys in trouble. When one of my clients, a 15-year old boy, who had committed a serious aggressive crime, told the magistrate that he saw himself as a homophile and that he lived with an adult male friend, the judge invited the man (who had served two sentences of imprisonment for “indecency” with boys) to come to his office, talked with him for half an hour and then instructed the observation centre, where the boy was detained, that this man was to be allowed to visit him. In several cases, young thieves of 14 and older were officially given into the custody of men, former[ly] sentenced for “indecency” with boys under sixteen, or otherwise known as paedophiles. This, as far as I know, with excellent results. In one case, which I was able to follow more closely, the boy broke his habit of shop-lifting, and his relationship with his family at home, as well as his school work, improved considerably.
That’s the way to do it!
The radical legacy persisted in the Netherlands into the 1990s when it was already evaporating elsewhere. Thus the penal code was amended in December 1991. Henceforth there could be no prosecution for sex with consenting children aged 12-16 unless a formal complaint was made by the child, their legal representative, or an official child protection agency. Anyone could approach such an agency with a view to a formal complaint being made. This provision appeared to allay the fears of conservatively minded Dutch parents with respect to their own children. The fabled Dutch spirit of toleration entered the picture insofar as such parents seldom felt the need to lay down the law for other parents and what their children do, or what adults might do with them.
Brongersma was my first major informant on all this, both from his writings and several occasions when I was privileged to meet him. The most significant later sources have been three other Dutch writers, Jan Schuijer (especially on Dutch toleration), Gert Hekma and latterly Juul Gooren.
On the short life-span of the 1991 law, Hekma tells us in his paper “The decline of sexual radicalism in the Netherlands”, that such radicalism across a range of issues ran out of steam for a variety of reasons. Interestingly, though, the retreat from permitting twelve-year-olds to have sex did not appear to have come about as a result of any specific problems with this permissive law. We are not told of evidence that children were being harmed by it. Hekma, a Dutch sociologist and historian, says, rather, that the move appears to have been brought about by more diffuse concerns about the innocence of the young in the face of the increasingly visible sexualisation of society in general – as evidenced by an ever-growing amount of sex on television and elsewhere.
While I have no doubt this was true, Hekma does not take us far in understanding those “diffuse concerns”, which, as elsewhere, must have included increasing feminist influence. One imagines there was also outside pressure for the Netherlands to fall into line, from NGOs working through the UN to diplomatic pressure from the US and UK.
My final source, Gooren, brings us right up to date with a paper published only last year. His research involved interviewing professionals, mainly police and lawyers, about age-discrepant consensual sexual encounters with a minor from age 12 upwards. He wanted to find out how such relationships are handled by the criminal justice system nowadays, including why some cases are prosecuted and others, even today’s stricter atmosphere, are not.
Sex with a minor below the age of consent in America is known as statutory rape, but Gooren points out that Dutch law relies on a different concept, namely “lewd conduct”, which has a moral basis. The difference between statutory rape and lewd conduct, says Gooren, is that the latter “does not necessarily presume that there was no consent on the part of the victim. The sexual contact is believed to be morally wrong due to its nature in combination with age.”
Interestingly, whereas sex with a child under 12 is automatically considered lewd, that is not the case even now in the Netherlands for minors of 12 and over. Thus sex between a boy and girl, both aged, say, 14, might not be considered lewd if they were in a steady relationship. In practice, peer relationships of that sort are seldom prosecuted in the UK either, but since 2003 they have very explicitly been illegal.
Gooren cites one fascinating case in which a youth of unspecified age had threesome sex with his 15-year-old steady girlfriend along with his 17-year-old pal. The pal was found guilty of lewd conduct but the girl’s boyfriend was acquitted. The offender had reasonable grounds for believing the girl had consented to sex with him. She initiated the action, doing a striptease for the pair of them. Then she had sex “doggy style” with her boyfriend, who climaxed very quickly. According to the pal (whose word seems undisputed) the girl then asked him what position he preferred. He, too, took her from behind.
Asked by Gooren to comment on the case, the Attorney General of the Netherlands, no less, said he did not think such a threesome should necessarily be considered lewd. He made the very good point that if the boyfriend’s pal, like the boyfriend, had previously had sex with the girl, then consistency would require that he too would be acquitted. “A threesome is thus only allowed,” he said, “if there is past promiscuity. Is that the message?”
Gooren concludes that the Netherlands criminal justice system in general tends to take a dim view where there is a significant age gap between the partners and also when the sex is of a casual or promiscuous nature. On the other hand, an age difference of five years might be considered acceptable between a man aged 20 and a girl of 15, but unacceptable between a boy of 15 and a relatively immature girl of 12. Gooren criticises the system for its reliance on untested assumptions, namely that “unequal” relationships, and sex outside of a “loving relationship” must be harmful.
What strikes me, though, as an outsider to the Netherlands, is that even now the atmosphere there towards underage sex, including with a somewhat older partner, seems more flexible and liberal than in the Anglophone countries.
Brongersma, E. “The Dutch experience”, Magpie 15, Spring, 1981
Gooren, J. “ ‘Pre-adults’ Having ‘Casual’ Sex with No Strings Attached? Teenage Sexual Activity and Dutch Criminal Law”, Sexuality & Culture 18:257–278, 2014
Hekma, G, “The Decline of Sexual Radicalism in the Netherlands”. In: Hekma, G, (ed), Past and Present of Radical Sexual Politics, Mosse Foundation, Amsterdam, 2004
Schuijer, J. “The Netherlands changes its age of consent law”, Paidika: The Journal of Paedophilia, 3(1):13-20, 1993
STOP PRESS As I said at the start, the news has gone crazy out there. I could just say go look at Clover News (see Blog Roll) where there is a constant stream of amazing stuff; but I do feel there are items that need a particular mention here, quite a few of which would each be worthy of a separate blog. Having written eight of these news briefs, I find that collectively they come to around 1,500 words. So, not so brief. I think it may be best if I hold them over for a couple of days, while y’all digest today’s blog. They’ll keep a while, I think, before they fossilise from news into history.