With impeccably spun timing, while Gary Glitter hunkered down at Bangkok airport to avoid police interrogation at Heathrow, Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, took to the airwaves yesterday to announce new initiatives to prevent paedophiles from travelling as “sex tourists”. Snatch their passports, she cried. Ground them for five years. Nail their filthy feet to the floor.
Her plans, no doubt, resonated with public opinion. In announcing them, however, she reinforced a largely unacknowledged muddle at the heart of all debate on the subject of paedophilia: is it an illness, or is it a crime?
Indeed ... the timing was immaculate, wasn't it? And which politician is going to want to stand up in front of a baying crowd and not milk it for all its worth? Which politician is not going to encourage the baying?
At the moment, galvanised by the desire to be as punitive as possible, we mix and match. When it suits us to invoke the idea of uncontrollable urges, we do exactly that - look how readily the tabloid press appends “sick!” to any mention of child abuse. On the other hand, when it suits us to argue for the throwing away of keys, as befits any rotten but otherwise common criminal, we do that instead. The truth is, it's time to choose.
If we accept that paedophilia is an illness - and there are reasoned voices who say that it is - then, by definition, we accept it as being beyond the control of its sufferer in exactly the way that we accept schizophrenia. Therefore, we should respond as such: if a man, for reasons not remotely his fault, is posing a risk to others, he should be subject to sectioning under the Mental Health Act, with all the appropriate regret, sympathy and kindness that accompanies such a move. Given the grip of the current bogeyman frenzy, it is hard to see that one playing in Peoria; nevertheless, it would be the only humane response.
I don't know if it's an illness. Sexuality is such a bizarre thing anyway, what with blood-queening, watersports, two girls one cup, anal fisting, asphyxia, etc., etc. All these things have passed me by, leaving me with a mild state of bemusement. But people want to do all these things. You might as well call homosexuals "ill" just because they deviate from the norm -- whatever the fuck "the norm" actually is.
My guess (I am not a sexologist or anything) is that it's just another proclivity but the key thing is that current Western society insists that it's one that we consider unacceptable. So I guess, after all, that "illness" might be a reasonable shorthand for "something that's not your fault but we can't let you loose in society because it has a high risk of causing actual harm or doing something that we consider unacceptable". (You'll see why I chose the last bit in a moment.)
Take, for instance, a man who had sexual intercourse with a 14-year-old girl or boy. If caught, and especially if force were involved, he would expect a severe sentence - at the end of which, he would emerge into the light of day and have his every movement monitored for the rest of his natural life. And so what, you say, shedding not a tear.
Quite so. But if that same man had broken every bone in that same 14-year-old child's body, he would similarly expect a severe sentence - at the end of which the prison gates would slam behind him and he would be totally free.
On the other hand, what do you do with the uncivilised Spanish, who feel that girls of 13 are fair (and legal!) game? Or the Portuguese who feel that 14 is OK? The nasty French are cool with 15. So those are three countries on our doorstep with long, rich histories as part of the fabric of Western society that are effectively nations full of potential paedophiles by our standards of paedophilia. Conversely, there are some countries that consider Brits to be a nation of child-molesting nonces because they regard children under 18 as taboo -- how does that make you feel?
It's a very, very confusing situation. And it's not made any simpler by people who want to have penetrative sex with toddlers who are still in nappies. Where do you draw the line? At what point do we cross over from being "kinky" to being "sick" or even "criminal"? I find the idea of sex with a two-year-old disturbing, disgusting and repellent; I also find the idea of anal fisting disturbing, disgusting and repellent. But going into google and searching for anal fisting gives over 3 million hits, many of which appear to be sites where people can voluntarily part with their hard-earned to watch anal fisting. How fucking weird is that?
If we accept that it is a crime, however, then it is something which the perpetrator can control. He may choose to offend or not, and if he chooses what is unacceptable, again we should respond as such. We catch the bastard, try him, lock him up by way of penalty and then - this is the crucial bit - once he has served his sentence we restore his liberty. In full.
This has been the fundamental principle of justice, at least within crime and punishment, that has stood us in reasonable stead since Magna Carta. Now, just because one particular category of behaviour is exciting public consciousness - pressing, as it does, all the right buttons such as “sex” and “children” - is collective gut revulsion really enough to challenge copper-bottomed, tried, tested and trusted legal tradition?
This I do agree with: society has decided that pederasty is a crime, and he's done his time, and been a model prisoner, getting an early release for his troubles. Something which would ordinarily be very happy about in a prisoner.
So, until he does something else (if he does something else) leave him be. (And if he does do something else, for fuck's sake, don't give him a fucking ASBO or a community service sentence. Put the cunt in jail.) If it's going to be treated on a criminal basis, then treat it properly. Don't create a special kind of criminal bogeyman that you can bully, while real criminal bogeymen piss on you with impunity.
I can't help but feel, as I have blogged before, that this is another case of the government whipping up moral fervour to introduce legislation against a small minority of "clearly" beyond the pale people, which same it can then use against other small minorities of beyond the pale people, and so on, until gradually more people are monitored and constrained and forbidden from travelling and so on and so on.
And if they don't have a beyond the pale minority they can pick on, by God they'll create one.
Update: while I've been trying to scrape this into some sort of coherence, Devil's Kitchen has let rip in a similar vein.
Update 2: And leg-iron ... it's the Terrible Thing...