Licence expires for French men of letters


What do you call a guy who can openly celebrate his sexual relations with children in books and on TV without being prosecuted?

A giant of French literature.

Things are different in France, or have been until recently for elite figures in the cultural establishment. One of those figures, Gabriel Matzneff, is a feted novelist, a winner of numerous literary prizes who appeared many times on France’s top cultural TV show of the 1970s and 80s, Apostrophes. Back in the day, he wrote: “Once you have held, kissed, caressed, possessed a 13-year-old boy, a girl of 15, everything else seems bland, heavy, insipid.” One of those minors was a girl who met him at 13 and was his lover at 14; now, at 47, she has given France a #MeToo moment, denouncing the man she once fell for in a sensational book, Le Consentement (Consent). It is flying off the shelves, quickly selling out at Amazon and needing seven re-prints in only three weeks.

That girl, that woman, is Vanessa Springora, these days head of the prestigious Paris publishing house Éditions Julliard, a position giving her the ear of the media and hence immense personal power to pursue a vendetta: Le Consentement has been all over the press and Springora has done the rounds of the TV shows.

Not content with consent: Springora’s book is flying off the shelves

What, then, is her complaint? We see no bad behaviour along the lines of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual coercion. She has admitted she wanted sex and consented to it with Matzneff. The Washington Post’s  version says that “for the teenage Springora, Matzneff was the 50-year-old for whom she developed a schoolgirl crush after her mother, who worked in publishing, dragged her to a dinner party. There, she met and was bowled over by the writer who seemed to have eyes only for her.” After that, we hear, “he then set about grooming her”.

But it has to be asked, who was grooming whom? Vanessa’s mother had been a press officer for her firm. She would certainly have been alert to the potential for giving her daughter excellent prospects in the business by “dragging” her to glamorous parties where she could meet famous writers, making contacts that could be hugely advantageous later on. And so it turned out. After an elite private education at the lycée Fénelon and the Sorbonne, Vanessa went on to enjoy a glittering career, to which her early association with the great Matzneff would certainly have added lustre, making her a person of note and allure. It is not as though the relationship was ever hidden: he shared with her his Parisian life in the literary world; she joined him for dinners, visits and interviews, presumably without needing to be “dragged” along.

Not that the relationship lasted. Springora broke away from Matzneff  when she was 15. “Are you sure?” her mother reportedly asked her, “He adores you.”

The problem, for young Vanessa, was that he apparently adored lots of other girls her age as well. And boys. Reportedly, it was Matzneff’s own writings that did it. While he was away on a trip, she read his torrid accounts of sex with other youngsters, works he had told her not to look at. They killed her illusions that their relationship was an exclusive and special romance.“His books were populated by other 15-year-old Lolitas,” Springora writes. “This man was no good. He was, in fact, what we are taught to fear from childhood: an ogre.”

If he deceived her, that would have been caddish indeed. Very reprehensible. But he had not been not such an ogre, it seems, that she ever felt it necessary to go to the police, even later in life, over a relationship of a kind now being rebranded by victim feminists around the world  as “rape”.  She claims that what pushed her into writing her account of their relationship was her disgust over his reception speech upon winning  the Renaudot literary prize in 2013. The prize is awarded for new novels, but Matzneff claimed it was for all his work over the years, which included his early celebration of sex with minors, in works such as his essay Les moins de seize ans (The Under Sixteens) – published in 1974 by, ironically, the company she now directs, Éditions Julliard! He wrote:

What captivates me is less a particular sex than extreme youth, that which extends from the tenth to the sixteenth year and which seems to me to be – much more than what is usually meant by this expression – the true third sex … In my view extreme youth alone forms a particular, unique sex.

He described sex with children as “a holy experience, a baptismal event, a sacred adventure”, and deplored the fact that the “erotic charm of the young boy” is denied by modern Western society, adding that “the two most sensual beings I have known in my life are a boy of twelve and a girl of fifteen”. In 1990, he published Mes amours décomposés, his diary for the years 1983-1984, in which he admitted engaging in sex tourism in the Philippines, picking up “little boys of eleven or twelve years”.

One can well imagine that being obliged to compete with enterprising street urchins would be an intolerable humiliation for many women. Even so, I am sceptical over her explanation. She claims her indignation and ire were provoked in 2013. Why then, did it take until 2020 to write her slim book of only 216 pages and get it published? She is a publisher after all: how hard could it have been?

My guess is that a stronger motivation for her to go public came much later, starting with the Me Too movement, with its explosion of public discourse not only on sexual harassment and rape but also on the meaning of sexual consent. Victim feminists have been increasingly insistent on the need for “affirmative consent”; “rape” has been re-defined much more broadly in the UK and elsewhere to include a range of physical acts that were never traditionally considered rape; consensual sex with minors is now called rape.

It is no accident that Springora’s book is called Consent.  She claims to have been manipulated, reportedly speaking of “the frightening ambiguity in which the consenting, loving victim is placed”. It seems, in other words, that her aim is to seize the moment, cashing in on a Paris court case that she must have known, with her sophistication and publishing experience, put her in prime position to surf the victim culture zeitgeist by exploiting the very concept of consent itself – a concept under unprecedented scrutiny and pressure, especially in the Anglophone world but also beginning to stir in France. The Paris case gripped the public’s attention in the autumn of 2017, coinciding almost exactly with the start of #MeToo in America.

What shocked the French public, we are told, was a story about an incident in the Paris suburb of Montmagny. A girl aged 11 willingly had oral and vaginal sex with a man of 28 and told her mother about it later the same day. The mother immediately called the police, expecting that the guy would be charged with rape. But no. The public prosecutor said there had been “no violence, no coercion, no threat, no surprise”. The girl had consented.

From outraged media coverage around the world, it might have been supposed that France had suddenly woken up to find that instead of having an age of consent set at 15, as it thought, it actually had no AOC at all. It was presented as though a perpetrator was going to get away with his “predatory” deeds entirely.

Propagandist crap! Sure, the villain of the piece could not be charged with rape, which was the only charge that would satisfy the victim feminists. But because the girl was under 15 the man was still in the frame for a charge of “sexual infraction”, punishable at that time by a prison sentence of up to five years. This was played down to the point of invisibility, as though the worst he could get would be hardly more severe than a typical parking fine.

Nonsense it may have been, but this media pressure had the desired effect, leading to a tough new law in 2018. Not that you would know it from the impression given by the media in the UK and US. Britain’s Independent ran two headlines, “France votes against setting minimum age of sexual consent amid backlash” and “President Macron accused of missing opportunity to protect minors”. Further into the story we hear “there is still no law establishing a legal age of sexual consent in France”.

Fake news! While it is true that the legislators declined to say minors under 15 could never consent, if the threshold for rape was not met judges could now classify the incident as “sexual assault” and offenders would face a prison sentence of up to 10 years. Also, if “the victim lacks the ability to consent” the offence would be classified as rape, with a sentence of up to 20 years.

A day after Springora’s book hit stores, French prosecutors announced that they were opening an investigation into “rape committed on a minor under 15” related to the allegations in Le Consentement. The publishing house Gallimard, which released Matzneff’s latest book in November, has halted sales of his work. The Kindle version of Les moins de seize ans is no longer available on Amazon, and we are told Matzneff could lose a state pension for writers that he has received since 2002.

It must all be getting a bit traumatic for the literary superstar, now aged 83 and perhaps utterly bewildered by what must be an unexpected fall from grace after getting away with so much for so long – in terms of candid revelations at least, rather than serious crimes, of which he appears to be entirely innocent. We might expect him, as an old man, to be rather stuck in the culture of the past, which in France has long meant that the concept of “literary licence” has been extended not just to what writers write but also to an exceptional degree of freedom in their lifestyle.

So where was this French exceptionalism coming from? How did they ever come to be given such a free pass to be “immoral”, as many would have thought, or “perverted”?

Well, the moralists could start by blaming the French Revolution, which swept away the old criminal laws and in 1791 a new code was introduced that deliberately focused on “real crimes”, excluding moralistic old offences such as incest, bestiality and homosexuality, which were decriminalised. And there was no AOC. Not that the revolutionaries were entirely easy-going: if you destroyed evidence of someone’s marital status you could be clapped in irons for 12 years! Napoleon’s much longer-lasting penal code of 1810 did not include an AOC  either. It specified rape or any other indecent assault committed with violence as criminal offences but said nothing about non-violent sexual acts with children, so these were legal. Very sensible!

The spoilsports eventually got their act together though. In 1832 a new law specified that indecent assault on a child of either sex, under the age of 11, without violence, was an offence. So this was at last an AOC; the age was raised to 13 in 1863 and 15 in 1945. Interestingly, though, the courts have at times resisted applying the law.  For instance, Anne-Claude Ambroise-Rendu cites the case of Nicolas B., accused of indecent assault on his 5-year-old niece, who in 1865 benefited from extenuating circumstances on the grounds that his victim had not been deflowered. However, as the man was charged with a non-violent attack and not with rape, the question of defloration should not have arisen. As recently as 2015 (following a recasting of the entire penal code in 1994), the Constitutional Council reasserted that French law “does not set an age of discernment in regards to sexual relations: It is for the courts to determine whether the minor was capable of consenting to the sexual relationship in question.”

At all events, the low AOC in the early part of the 20th century gave plenty of scope for writers such as Henry de Montherlant and André Gide to indulge and write about their sexual tastes for young boys without fear, thereby setting the tone for post-war writers – a permissive tone that found more general expression in the sexual revolution of the late 1960s, supported by such immense figures as Sartre and Foucault.

By the 1970s, backing for children’s sexual freedom had become fashionable, at least in the intellectual world, and the middle of that decade saw books by no less than four major authors cheer-leading for paedophilia – including their own. One of them was Metzneff, as already noted. Another was the philosopher René Schérer, whose 1974 essay Émile perverti  supported pederastic relations between teachers and pupils. A third was Tony Duvert, who won the Medici prize in 1973 and the following year his first openly paedophilic essay appeared, Le Bon Sex Illustré.

Finally, we have the most internationally famous of them all, the Franco-German firebrand Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who shot to prominence in the great student protests of 1968 as a leftist revolutionary dubbed “Danny the Red”. In later years re-invented himself as an elected politician, leading both the German and French Green parties and becoming a leading member of the European Parliament. This successful track record was amazingly achieved despite his extraordinary chapter in a 1975 book called Le Grand Bazar, devoted to “the sexuality of children”, in which he spoke of his interactions with little children when he had been a kindergarten assistant in Frankfurt the previous year. It included incidents in which, as he put it, they would open his flies and tickle him, and he would caress them. He also appeared on Apostrophes in 1982, saying: “You know that the sexuality of a kid is absolutely fantastic…. When a little girl, five years old, starts to undress you, it’s fantastic! It’s fantastic because it’s an absolutely erotomanic game!”

These early indiscretions have come back to haunt him from time to time, but simply by denying  any paedophilic interest in children he has managed to avoid any really damaging scandal. I don’t think he would have got away with it in the US or UK.

Perhaps the most high-profile contribution by the French intellectuals in these years, though, came in the form of petitions in 1977 issued after a trial that saw three men jailed for non-violent sex offences against children aged 12 and 13.

“Three years in prison for caresses and kisses: enough is enough,” one petition said. Incredibly, among the 69 signatures were those of two government ministers, Bernard Kouchner and Jack Lang.

“French law recognises in 12- and 13-year-olds a capacity for discernment that it can judge and punish,” said a second petition signed by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, along with fellow intellectuals Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida; a leading child psychologist, Françoise Dolto; and writers Philippe Sollers, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Louis Aragon. “But it rejects such a capacity when the child’s emotional and sexual life is concerned. It should acknowledge the right of children and adolescents to have relations with whomever they choose.”

That was the place! Those were the days!



I made a rare post on BoyChat yesterday, following a thread there in which the recently deceased philosopher Roger Scruton was discussed and mention was made of my critique of his work. One or two people had put in a good word for Scruton. Nothing wrong with that. I am all in favour of fair and balanced assessments but it did seem to me that they had forgotten just what a nasty piece of work the great man himself could be. So I put in my own two penn’orth here.

One thing I didn’t mention is that even as a father the old reactionary might be a bit of a bastard, if we are to take him at his word (though we probably can’t!) Back in 1999, when his son was a baby, Professor Scruton penned a piece in the Guardian on his plans for the boy’s upbringing, titled “Raising Master Scruton”. He wrote:

…my wife Sophie and I have decided to offer Sam a genuinely deprived childhood… It goes without saying that Sam will not enjoy his childhood…But that is not the point. Childhood is not an end in itself but a means to growing up…

The most important factor in the old systems of education, the factor which caused children to emerge from them with all their wildness and selfishness subdued, was religion. Sam is to get a good dose of this. His parents are Christians.

It sounds as though Sam, now into his twenties, might be dancing on his dad’s grave! I have a horrible suspicion, though, that he is a chip off the old block: it appears he studied theology at Oxford. And if he has done a jig atop his old man’s sod it would have been after reading from St John’s gospel at the funeral.

Lording it from the wild margins


It is with great sadness and bitterness of heart that I find I have yet again been overlooked for a peerage in the New Year’s Honours.

There is some modest consolation to be found, though, in the fact that I was invited to a reception at the House of Lords earlier this month by one of their lordships. It turned out to be a most agreeable occasion, but hobnobbing with a lord or two over champagne and canapés is hardly the same as being a member of the club, is it? As for how I improbably came to be an honoured guest at such an event, discretion, alas, forbids me from saying. There are people I would not wish to embarrass. All I will say is that it was perfectly legit: I was security checked like everyone else; the invitation was made for an entirely respectable reason and there is nothing for  IICSA’s Westminster strand to worry about.

An even better consolation prize was to be dubbed an “edgelord” in the media, which is apparently a term of derision applied to anyone who tries too hard to attract attention by being controversially “edgy”, especially undergraduate rebels. Judging by these examples I found online, I am totally relaxed to find myself awarded membership of this club. Very rejuvenating! I love example number 12: “If there is a god he will have to beg for my forgiveness”. Cool, man! Wish I’d thought of that!

The word itself is fabulous: Edgelord. Lord of the wild margins. Has a romantic ring, don’t you think? Like the Lord of the Isles who ruled the remote coastal islands that edge north western Scotland, or a Time Lord, whose vast domain is an entire dimension.

Anyway, dragging myself prosaically back to a spate of otherwise very unromantically rude articles about my work this month, I am going to stick resolutely to the old Hollywood maxim that there is no such thing as bad publicity. This is not strictly true, of course, as fallen film producer Harvey Weinstein and many other celebs are now all too painfully aware. Nevertheless, we must take our positives where we can, so I will start by noting that in the immediate wake of these articles appearing online, PDF downloads of my recent CHIN piece for Sexuality & Culture shot up by a couple of thousand. Against this background, I feel, there will come a time – maybe in the new year and almost certainly before the end of 2020 – when CHIN begins to attract serious comment and critique in the academic and wider world.

As for the hate-splattered bile that erupted this month, it began with a 2,000-word essay in an otherwise rather sophisticated (albeit with a pro-religious bias, judging by the editorial board membership) American online current affairs and cultural journal called Arc Digital. In an article titled “The Pedophile Apologist”, writer Justin Lee attempted to discredit my philosophical arguments through a number of misleading, inaccurate claims as to the basis of my case. Apparently lacking confidence that this critique would be convincing, he tried to buttress it with heavy reliance on vicious and indeed libellous personal attack – which will certainly have damned his approach in the eyes of any academic philosopher.

Another writer, Rod Dreher, in a piece for The American Conservative, tried to invest Lee with some much needed authority by referring to him as a professor. But he is certainly no professor of philosophy. Rather, Lee has announced himself as “the founder of the world’s largest LGBT Christian advocacy organization”. He is a regular columnist with non-fiction books and novels to his credit and teaches writing skills to undergraduates, through something called the Composition Department at the University of California, Irvine. Nothing wrong with any of that except that his style is neither objectively philosophical nor, indeed, very Christian. Ironically, one of his books is Talking Across the Divide, described by the publisher as “A guide to learning how to communicate with people who have diametrically opposed opinions from you, how to empathize with them, and how to (possibly) change their minds”. Physician, heal thyself!!

I was kindly alerted to the existence of Lee’s article and Dreher’s by blogger Christian, host of Agapeta and long-time Heretic TOC commentator. The news also reached us thanks to Explorer, who mentioned in a comment here that the blog Pro-Pedo Front (PPF) had come to my defence. PPF, which has now been added to Heretic TOC’s blog roll, also turned up as a commentator at HTOC. Replying to PPF, I was able to take up his astute recognition that Lee’s critique did nothing to refute my position. Instead, Lee had merely berated me for failing to consider some supposedly vital aspects of the virtue ethics tradition. The point I made to PPF bears repeating in this more prominent position:

This aspect of Lee’s criticism reminds me of the response made by theologians to the case made for atheism by Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion. They claimed that Dawkins had ignored huge swathes of theology, entirely missing the point that Dawkins’ arguments had rendered such theology redundant. It would be equally ridiculous for astrologers to “refute” the findings of modern astronomy by saying they contradict the elaborate theories in their dusty old pre-scientific books and charts.

But Dreher is probably a far more influential figure than Lee: The American Conservative has clout and Dreher is one of its star writers. His article about my work, though, titled “Making Pedophilia Respectable”, is largely just a lazy crib of Lee’s essay, citing from it extensively. His more distinctive contribution comes only at the end, when he hits a purple patch of scaremongering:

The normalization of pedophilia is coming. The destructuring of human relations under the guise of liberating desire is the goal of these people, whether they realize it or not. Without God, or some other binding source of sacred order, there is only nihilism. If you will not have God, prepare to make room for Tom O’Carroll and his celebration of diversity.

Can he really be so worried? Does he really believe the normalisation of paedophilia is already on its way? Seems hard to believe from where we stand, doesn’t it? We see only oppression, with no obvious road towards acceptance. But two of Dreher’s readers take the argument much further, in observations that draw on the debate over trans kids. These are presented by the author as “updates”; thus they are accorded an official status and are distinct from the hundreds of “below the line” comments that follow:

UPDATE: Reader kgasmart comments:

The normalization of pedophilia is coming.

I agree, but when it does it will come under the ruse of “marginalized communities” because really, who’s more marginalized than a pedophile?

The concept of “consent” will be the biggest hurdle to get over. The left has fetishized consent; so long as consent is involved, any and all sexual practices are permitted – indeed, to be celebrated! But who can give consent?

How is it the LGBT left holds that pre-teens can consent to, say, taking hormones or binding their breasts, or whatever measures precede transition surgery – but those pre-teens can’t consent to sex? How can they consent to one but not the other; how can they have full agency regarding the first – but not the second?

That’s the slippery slope we’ll slide down here.

UPDATE.2: Reader Xenie:

Lee lays out perfectly why “consent” ethics will be inadequate to stop this: children are already given medical treatments, personal hygiene care, etc, that they cannot consent to. Either the powers that be will reverse engineer things to claim they can give consent after all (as is happening with the transing of very young children) or they will shrug consent off as not always mattering so much, or for certain important things. If consent is all you’ve got, then, it’s game over either way, and evil wins the day.

I cannot overstate just how much the rhetoric of the transgender movement is working to soften society up for this horrific pedo revolution to come. If you can believe, as many well-meaning liberals now do, that a 4 year old boy can meaningfully declare himself a girl and “consent” to a name change, social status change, and then, at age 12 or so, the first medical interventions to transform him into a “real girl,” then how will they defend themselves against the idea that he could also “consent” to a “mentoring” relationship of a sexual nature with some “caring” adult?

Never mind that these readers are hostile to us, there are profound insights here, it seems to me. What do you think? I would be interested to hear what other heretics make of these thoughts.

Lee’s and Dreher’s articles were quickly followed by another in the Christian Post, which was then reprinted in the British-circulated Christian Today. Any heretics who bother to check all these out will see that they include some ghastly allegations against me. Some of you, indeed, will be disappointed that I have not shown more anger over this in today’s blog. But that is not my way. All too often, I have found, those activists who burst into flames of outrage under attack tend to burn themselves out quite quickly: they don’t last long.

That does not mean we should always ignore libellous attacks. We should do what we can to defend ourselves when it is practical to do so. For instance, one serious allegation against me in these latest articles has been sourced to a news story from years ago in the Irish Times. The story is false but it was only many years after its publication that I first heard about it, when it was put on Wikipedia (WP) as one of several sources used to justify repeating the allegation in the biographical page about me. A number of newspapers, including the Irish Times, had published stories put out by the Press Association in the UK that appeared to rely on incorrect information that had found its way into a police press release. The BBC carried a similar report.

I decided this was intolerable. Whereas old news reports are quickly forgotten, what is said on WP is permanently on high-profile display. It is the first source everyone turns to when they “look up” people who are in the news. So I complained to WP. After several months of detailed, documented explanation on my part as to the unsoundness of the allegations my complaint was upheld. The offending allegations were duly withdrawn from the WP page in question – not something WP ever does lightly, as those who have put themselves through the mill of their labyrinthine, intensely bureaucratic complaints procedures will know.

However, I was advised by one of the senior figures at WP that the only way to resolve the problem permanently would be for me to get the BBC and others to remove their old web pages in which the offending story was mentioned. I always knew this would be a gargantuan task. The Press Association story would have been published all over Great Britain and Ireland and perhaps even beyond. But my first target had to be the BBC. As a prestigious national broadcaster, this organisation’s reports tend to be believed. So if I could get them to remove their story other editors and web archivists would be inclined to accept that my case must have merit.

Accordingly, I launched a complaint against the BBC some months ago. This complaint was rejected at the first and second times of asking. But I persisted, and it finally landed on the desk of Andrew Bell, the Complaints Director. When he too professed himself unwilling to remove the report from the BBC’s website I sent a letter shortly before Christmas threatening to take legal action.

That is where the matter stands. There has been no reply so far from the BBC’s Legal Department. In the event that I do not receive a satisfactory response within the first week of January I will be consulting one of the country’s leading firms of libel lawyers with a view to bringing a court action.

So, rest assured, I am not taking all this lying down. It is impossible to tilt at every windmill. The libel laws are so lax in the US that it might not make sense to pursue Lee and the rest into the courts just yet, but a successful case against the BBC might change that. We’ll see. Watch this space. But don’t hold your breath as these things can take years, so don’t expect to hear any more for a long time. Just wish me luck!


The staircase has not one step but many


Among the 130 comments received in response to Negotiating a little girl’s knickers down were a number of excellent ones on “consent”, including the “informed” and “affirmative” varieties. One commentator, Lensman, kindly agreed to my suggestion that his contribution should appear as a guest blog – by no means his first, as regular readers will know. I thought it was fine in its draft form but it now appears below in a more polished and extended version that must have cost its perfectionist author a lot more time to prepare. He has apologized to me (quite unnecessarily!) for its being “heavy going”. I say it is a serious subject that deserves, and indeed demands, the sort of careful analysis he has given; I trust others here will agree.

  1. What do the words “consent” and “informed”, mean?

According to Collins English Dictionary:

Informed: (adjective) 1. having much knowledge or education 2. based on information

Consent: (verb) to give assent or permission (to do something); (noun) acquiescence to or acceptance of something done or planned by another

From these we can venture that “informed consent” could be “the information-based or knowledge-based acquiescence to, or acceptance of, something done or planned by another”.

This creates a model of sexuality where one party is necessarily active and the other passive which, in my experience, is not realistic. Additionally it should not be assumed that the child must be the passive partner in an interaction (see section 8: “Informed consent” and “intent” – the child).

  1. In what circumstances is “informed consent” required over and above (what I will call) “simple consent” ?

Generally “simple consent”’ is sufficient provided that whatever being consented to

i/ doesn’t remove the capacity to give, maintain, or withdraw consent,

ii/ doesn’t require specialised knowledge to be able to make a consent decision.

“Informed consent” is commonly solicited in connection with medical procedures and from participants in research. Both require “informed consent” because of

i/ risks to the participants,

ii/ to protect the surgeon, researcher, etc., from having to bear the entire responsibility for any adverse effects on the subject of the surgery/research,

iii/ because the subject will also no longer have the capacity to give or withdraw consent during the actual treatment or research (the subject will either be anaesthetized or will be taking part in some sort of double-blind test where they must not know the exact nature of the tests they are submitting to).

  1. Is “informed consent” required for sexual relationships between adults?

No. Generally the consent that happens between adults is implied consent which “is not expressly granted by a person, but rather inferred from a person’s actions and the facts and circumstances of a particular situation.”

Consent is essentially expressed by the willingness or eagerness of the actors to engage in the activity in question and assumes prior adequate knowledge. Plus, in such interactions there is the assumption that the participants maintain their capacity to give or withdraw consent as the interaction develops and changes.

  1. How meaningful is the popular idea of sexual “consent”?

The legal (and popular) conception of “consent” implies prior agreement to the entirety of a sexual episode.

However, in practice, sexual consent works very differently. It is more of an on-going negotiation in which the contract is being constantly re-written.

What does not happen is that a couple, each time prior to initiating sexual activity, discuss in detail what they will do, and draw up a “sex-plan” that will be strictly adhered to and which outlines how they will proceed from hugging to kissing, kissing to groping, groping to undressing, undressing to foreplay…

The only situation in which something like this may happen is with prostitution.

The legal model of consent could be visualised as a house where there is only one single, unnegotiable, step for getting from downstairs to the bedroom upstairs.

In reality, sexual interactions will proceed from the “downstairs to the bedroom” by multiple small steps. Each step consists of one of the partners making a foray into a new activity, which the partner can either accept or reject.

At each stage both partners are implicitly thinking “Do I want what is happening to continue?”, “Do I want to do what s/he is proposing next?” Either actor can give or withdraw their consent to these actions.

This means that there are actually many moments in an intimate encounter where the progression of the interaction can be either halted, or diverted. The law sees “consent” as a unitary kilogram of “macro-consent” – whereas the actual practice of intimacy is more an accumulation of a thousand separate grams of “micro-consent”.

  1. Children and “simple consent”

A baby is perfectly capable of expressing pleasure or displeasure at something being done to him, and children are very good at knowing what they want and don’t want, like and don’t like. If you’ve ever tried to persuade a reluctant child to eat its broccoli, or suggested a trip to the pool on a hot day, you will see how capable children are of consenting.

But “consent” implies some intellectual evaluation of, and detachment from, the action being performed or proposed.

I suggest four things are required for this intellectual consideration to occur:

a) that the situation is comprehensible for the person,

b) an awareness that acts can have consequences beyond the act itself,

c) a realisation that pleasure (or lack of pain) is not a sufficient justification of itself for consenting to an act (e.g. would the child eat something it knows is poisonous because it tastes good?),

d) knowledge of their own capacity to consent, or withhold or withdraw consent, to acts, or indeed a whole relationship.

According to these criteria a baby can’t give meaningful consent to being suckled. However the fact that this doesn’t place mothers at moral fault for doing so shows that consent is not the be-all-and-end-all of how we should act towards others.

Provided that the criteria listed in section 2 above are met there is no reason to deny children the form of consent which applies to adult sexuality. Just as adults use “negotiated on-going micro-consent” (initiating activities, accepting/encouraging activities that please, rejecting activities and suggestions that don’t…) so can children. (any subsequent references to “simple consent” can be taken as shorthand for “negotiated on-going micro-consent”).

  1. What information do people need in order to qualify as “informed” with respect to sexual interactions?

Many decisions a child has to make will require additional information: jumping into a lake, learning to ride a bike, having their ears pierced, joining the brownies or going on a school trip. Children can, and are expected, to give, or withhold, “informed consent” to many things in everyday life.

Those inimical to child sexuality often evoke “informed consent” as a magical formula which renders all child-adult sensual interactions wrong. However the exact nature of the required information implied by the word “informed” remains (deliberately?) nebulous and protean.

In compiling the following list I’ve excluded factors which, given a good relationship, are covered by the protection of “simple consent” – most notably “knowledge of sexual acts”: a child does not need comprehensive knowledge of every possible sexual act any more than she needs to know about the “off-side” rule in order to kick a ball round the garden.


i. the risk of pregnancy

ii. the risk of STD


iii. knowledge of the nature and extent of social stigma associated with child/adult sexual/sensual relationships

iv. the possibility that s/he may change his/her mind about what happened at some time after the act is over

Note that all of the items on this list have one thing in common: they are about things that have an effect beyond the time-span of the sexual acts themselves; they are about possible results of the sexual activity.

Also, note that if the children in question are prepubescent the first two factors are much less significant than for adolescents. Non-penetrative sexual acts have in and of themselves no consequences outside of the time-span of the sexual activity itself.

  1. Can a child qualify as being sufficiently “informed” that their consent becomes acceptable?

At what ages children have the awareness of their own capacity to consent or not to sexual activity is hard to evaluate since it is not something that is touched upon either in education, child rearing, research or an average child’s experience.

WEIRD societies (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) have a poor record when it comes to providing children with a sexual education. Children are repeatedly taught about “bad touch” and exhorted to “just say NO”. This is done in such a way as to avoid the child getting any notion that she herself can decide what she does with her body. No clear idea is given as to what a child must say “no” to and therefore such “education” doesn’t contribute to a child’s capacity to give or withhold consent.

The extrinsic “knowledge of the nature and extent of social stigma associated with child/adult sexual/sensual relationships” is something children may be aware of (“paedo” has become a play-ground insult) but is it likely that a prepubescent can have a proper knowledge of the stigma associated with adult-child sex?

  1. “Informed consent” and “intent” – the child

An important issue is also whether “informed consent” can be given progressively as a relationship develops. “Informed consent” is often thought of as requiring the child to have a comprehensive knowledge about sex etc. before she can engage in it at even the most basic level. As if a child needed to know about mitosis and meiosis before she can enjoy someone stroking her bottom.

I suspect that “progressively informed micro-consent” is the mechanism by which all activities proceed where the child develops new skills and knowledge in partnership with another person. Think how a child learning gymnastics will concentrate on acquiring the information and skills necessary for the next step. A good teacher will pass on his knowledge in small quantities and help the child assimilate it through practice and experience.

The intent of a child who willingly and proactively engages in a sexual relationship is clearly one of someone who is showing an eagerness to become “informed”, as are all children who are engaged in play and exploration. Such a child is at the same time giving “simple consent”, but is also seeking to become progressively “informed”.

Society normally encourages this progression and calls it “learning” and “education”. However when it comes to “sex and sensuality” society does all it can to maintain children in a condition of being uninformed.

Indeed society prevents children from seeking the knowledge and experience necessary for them to be sexually “informed” by:

  1. withholding information from the child i.e. lack of sex education and openness on the subject in society at large,
  2. prosecution and stigmatisation of adults who educate, or wish to educate, a child,
  3. stigmatisation and even prosecution of children who seek to be so educated.

9.  Stigma

A lack of openness, of proper sex education and the stifling of children’s capacity to decide what they do with their bodies and emotions, makes it harder for children to be able to give “informed consent”. However, if we accept that a child in a relationship can become “progressively informed” then these are not insuperable obstacles.

But the stigma society loads onto such relationships is an insuperable obstacle.

The trauma often experienced by adults who have participated in non-coercive intimacy with adults occurs not at the time of the sexual activity but when the child/adult grows old enough to experience the stigma such activities provoke, and re-contextualise them as “abusive”. Can a child make an informed decision on how she will react in, say, ten years when this stigma really starts to bite?

This is an extrinsic source of harm imposed on such relationships by society. While this stigma exists there is a significant risk that harm will eventually result from even the best conducted, most loving child/adult intimate interactions. It is unlikely that a child engaged in a relationship with an adult could be made fully aware of this stigma – if she were, and had internalised it, she would be unlikely to wish to engage in the sexual activities.

This very serious risk of trauma is one that neither the child or the adult can reliably forestall.

  1. Conclusion

Children can give “simple consent” (“negotiated on-going micro-consent” ) to sex but society creates conditions which make it impossible for children to give fully “informed consent”.

First, society denies children the concepts and information by which they can think about and make sense of feelings and emotions they experience in their bodies and minds. Society then says children cannot give “informed consent” because they are “innocent” (read “ignorant”). Society use the ignorance it creates to justify the very creation of that ignorance.

Even if a child does adequately fulfill the normal criteria for being “informed” (i.e. those that are assumed in adult-adult sex) there is one criterion that will ensure that the child cannot ever be fully informed: the knowledge of the nature and extent of social stigma associated with child/adult sexual/sensual relationships. If the child is ignorant of this, she clearly is not “informed”; if she is aware of the stigma, faced with such a horrific prospect, she is unlikely to wish to engage in the sexual activities.

In a society where such relationships were not so heavily stigmatised, in which children were given the conceptual tools by which to be aware of their bodily integrity and autonomy, they would be able to give “informed consent”.

But all this is missing the point: society’s talk of “informed consent” is a smoke-screen, a sleight of hand, a boxer’s feint.

When Antis talk of “informed consent” they do not do so out of concern to define the criteria necessary for a child to consent. They do it out of an awareness that evoking “simple consent” doesn’t adequately do the job of shutting down child sexuality. “Informed consent” is their next line of defence.

Present an Anti with a hypothetical child who is sexually experienced, who is knowledgeable, who is independent-minded and autonomous, who lives in a society where adult-child intimacy is licit and who is eager to engage in intimacy with an adult.

Ask him ”Can that child consent to a relationship with an adult?”.

Furnishing us with a prime example of begging the question, his answer will be “No, of course she can’t! She’s a child!”



Last time, in What to do about the Twitter twats? I wrote:

“I have drafted a letter to the police, calling for an investigation into the individuals who have posted incitements to violence and death threats.”

At the end, I asked for advice:

“Should I send that letter I drafted or would it just be a waste of time and effort? Is there anything else that can be done? Your views would be most welcome.”

Thanks for all the comments made. I think I probably will send the letter, but before I go ahead I’ll be consulting a solicitor next week for his professional input.


%d bloggers like this: