A commentary and resource on Law and Sexuality by Professor Chris Ashford and guests
Many thanks to @katesheill for alerting me to this story. The Guardian carries a very interesting comment piece by Jon Henley in which he explores the disagreements amongst ‘experts’ about what causes paedophilia and whether it amounts to a ‘sexuality’. I’m not an expert on this aspect of sexuality but I confess to being open minded, and can see value in the arguments in favour and against it being a ‘sexuality’. The difficulty, is that this debate is so emotive and politicised that the arguments for/against become proxies for other sexual agendas rather than addressing the actual subject of inter-generational sex.
Henley himself makes a number of interesting observations about these debates from various experts, but he doesn’t fully take account of the external forces at work upon these same experts. A charity dealing with children has its own limitations, whilst academics – supposedly the most free of thinkers – are limited by institutional and Academy politics which condemn to silence whole rafts of opinion and thought. That is perhaps the biggest change in recent decades, and perhaps explains the dramatic shift in ‘attitudes’ that Henley notes, and the contemporary challenges of viewing paedophilia through the lens of sexual liberation.
Henley does offer a definition of paedophilia, via the Sex offenders Act 1997, although an understanding of the complexities of this area might be better gleaned from the Sexual Offences Act 2003 – which also highlights the discrepancies in age when it comes to images rather than acts (you can consent to an act at 16, but an image only at 18).
For lawyers, the subject of consent is readily debated in other sensitive fields – notably the right the life (think abortion for example), and the recent right to life cases (for example Nicklinson and Pretty) and even in the context of age – the famous Gillick case of course. Yet, consent in the context of sexual age is perhaps a taboo subject, touching as it so clearly does on the toxic subject of paedophilia.
The dominant rights-based discourse of the twenty first century is navigated by ascribing rights to ‘children’ (contrast with the nineteenth century) and those who are defined by sexualities – but not ‘perversions’ which remain taboo, and sometimes legally controlled and/or limited. To define paedophilia as a sexuality would therefore shift the subject into a rights-based narrative, and thus one must face the liberal challenge of balancing rights, rather seeking to merely assert the rights of one group over another ‘perverse’ group. Toxic stuff indeed.
Researching this area is surely a maze of funding difficulties, institutional politics and additional barriers which one faces in the name of safeguards. For example, a number of records of the now defunct Paedophile Information Exchange group (mentioned by Henley) can be viewed at the London School of Economics, but you must (or at least you did when I was using their archive for research on public sex a year or so ago) provide reasons for why you want to access those files which are then put on record. My idle curiosity at looking at the files as someone who teaches law and sexuality was stopped dead in their tracks. That’s not a database I’d like my name anywhere near – especially when you consider the bungled Police operation that was Operation Ore, and the history of data becoming misconstrued.
Please don’t misunderstand me, I am not suggesting that the current collective (if there is one) view of paedophilia (as variously understood) is wrong. I am however, questioning the absence of a debate when we debate so clearly every other aspect of our existence.
The Henley article is therefore a really interesting insight into some of the arguments in this area, but those seeking a deep and open debate in this area must continue to wait.