Society sexualises prepubescent girls, yet condemns those who act on that. Child abuse is terrible and we need to change the direction from which we attack it…
Paedophiles! I hope I’ve got your attention. This subject has certainly attracted millions ready to name, shame, and prosecute those who commit these repulsive crimes. But we all know this. Those in positions of authority abusing their power to abuse children is abhorrent.
Nevertheless, it is surprising how we treat this crime. It appears that our prosecution of paedophiles takes on a distinctly paranoid nature. Are we all so quick to call out paedophiles because we fear we, too, may be accused? There was something odd about certain sectors of the media hysterically shaming Rolf Harris for complimenting an underage teenage girl on her jumper and asking to see its contents, when the very same media is so keen to objectify women over the age of consent, relying on the very stuffing of jumper-less girls to shift their publications from the shelves, so that readers can unite in their abhorrence of underage sex whilst enjoying the images of an objectified overage (just about) woman.
Rolf Harris was rightly prosecuted for crimes he wrongly committed. The prosecution of those who commit crimes by abusing their power should be forceful and unrepentant. Yet the collective reaction towards paedophilia is not so clear-cut. The murder of Bijan Ebrahimi, burned alive by his community in 2013, following false accusations of him creating child pornography, is clearly a problem. Less sinister – though still unsettling – instances of pediatricians’ houses being attacked give insight into the truly hysterical nature of society’s treatment of sexual acts involving children.
It quickly evokes comparisons to times of show trials, or women hysterical with fear calling each other witches. Such an absence of rationality should always be met with caution, especially when it involves vigilante persecution. Of course, it is also easy to see how such vigilante attitudes can come about when it is so clear that the authorities are not doing what they must; see Rotherham, the Catholic Church, and St Paul’s Boys’ School.
Paedophilia was a very real part of society in the past, from Grimm’s Fairy Tales to Lewis Carroll and even Plato; paedophilia was accepted and commonplace. The cultural hysteria surrounding paedophilia creates a dangerous social environment. Those who may be prone to such sexual tendencies are increasingly ostracized and unable to seek the kind of help necessary – and we know where that leads.
We also forget how common paedophilia was; falsely assuming that it is exclusively the behaviour of ‘mentally unwell’ individuals, when in fact it has the potential to become systemic. Racism is discouraged in society, yet we are able to accept that was not always the case. Forgetting the past and ignoring the behaviour of those in the present is not the way to eradicate odious attitudes.
One would like to think that paedophiles fall in the same category as psychopaths: rare individuals who are insane, entirely different from the rest of us. Yet if the adjective is used instead of the noun; “paedophilic”, then it is much easier for it to be seen as a potential trait rather than a defining characteristic – one that is far more common and nuanced. We can talk about rape as an action that is not only committed by ‘rapists’, but by people. We acknowledge those who commit rapes can remain within the societal bounds of ‘normal’.
By doing so, we are able to open up a wider discussion about what allows rape to occur, as opposed to accepting that certain people will always be rapists and as a society we should just prevent them from acting on these innate tendencies, as opposed to trying to diagnose the causes of these tendencies. We correctly acknowledge the existence of ‘rape culture’. Paedophilia is part of this, but collectively we don’t want to accept that fact.
It is hard to argue that countless politicians, celebrities, teachers and priests all suffer from a rare mental condition that the rest of us don’t have. Mental illness is an easy get-out clause for society to avoid addressing what has caused such widespread structural oppression, resulting in the abuse of children. Many people must have sexual feelings towards children, or at least people under the age of consent, and once in a position of power they are able to abuse this power to fulfill certain sexual desires. It seems healthier, to me, for paedophilia to be seen as a behaviour of which many humans are capable, and its instantiation as indicative of wider cultural problems, rather than simply the behaviour of weirdos.
A key distinction often forgotten is that between sex with underage individuals, and sex with prepubescent children. A developed thirteen-year old girl dressed as a woman could very easily be deemed sexually attractive. In a society when young girls are expected to look like women and women are expected to behave like girls, complications and contradictions unsurprisingly arise. Our attitude to teenage sexuality is contrary to every other societal force acting on it. Whole industries are based around pubescent and prepubescent girls’ sexual appetites (ever heard of One Direction?) Girls are sexualised from a young age. Women aren’t allowed to be women and are diminished into being girls. But girls can’t have sex. Problems.
It is important to acknowledge the widespread misdiagnosis of paedophilia. Sexual interactions with individuals below the age of consent are not necessarily paedophilia. They are probably deeply problematic – but not paedophilia. The age of consent is an arbitrary line. It’s 14 in Germany, 18 in the USA, marriage in other places. A line is needed, and should be drawn. Yet we need to acknowledge that such a line is fluid, at least to some degree. Fifteen year-olds generally want to have sex. I certainly did. They find people over the age of consent attractive, so why can’t it be the reverse?
Obviously there are problems with an older person having sex with a fifteen year old. There are also problems with older, wealthy, powerful men having sex with younger more vulnerable women and beating them up in the process. Whilst the former may lead people to call for chemical castration, the latter may produce an internationally best-selling book series, and accompanying movie, and called, I dunno, Fifty Shades of Grey? Both of these involve abuses of power – yet only one is universally condemned. Consent is not binary and, forgetting Grey, there are certainly at least fifty shades of consent. Sex is not simple, and there are not simple answers.
The age of consent is important. Yet it should not discredit females’ own personal consent. It does not mean that those over sixteen have consented just because they have made it through puberty. In many ways, we value legal consent over individuals’ consent. The very same tabloid media that are so keen to prosecute those who engage in sexual relations with those under sixteen, perpetuate rape culture. They simultaneously claim underage girls in the public eye are ‘all grown up now’ and wank over women on the third page, having just been sickened by a paedophile on the front cover. Why is there such a dichotomy between page one and page three?
Paedophilia is largely removed from the discussion of rape culture. These are two separate discussions, discussed largely by two very different groups, but they share the same aim: a respect for consent. It is never okay to have sex with someone who doesn’t want to. Simple? Hardly.
In some ways, the discussion of paedophilia has moved away from discussions of consent. It’s more about men’s relationship to children and changing gender roles. Is our obsession with paedophilia a manifestation of counter-feminism? Will Self getting stopped by the police when he was with his children because they thought he was a paedophile is more than worrying; especially when the police also turn a blind eye to actual paedophilia, rape, and domestic abuse. Male teachers are hesitant to go into primary schools for the same reason. Is this societal hysteria towards paedophilia in fact a reaction against changing gender roles, and men percolating into the domestic sphere?
That seems like quite a rash conclusion. Of course, hugely positive changes have come out of our collective discussion of paedophilia. We should find these crimes repugnant and people are slowly, slowly getting the justice they have been denied for so long. Nonetheless, problems have arisen out of these discussions which have remained largely unaddressed and ignored.
Paedophilia is a problem. Rape culture exists. Paedophilia is part of this, and needs to be addressed with a lot more gravitas and a lot less hysteria. Cuntry Living and The Sun may have more in common than they think.