Paedophiles: How to combine freedom and protection

The arrest of several high-profile celebrities on charges of downloading child pornography, and rumours of moves against even more highly placed individuals (MPs and civil servants), has put the spotlight on issues of adult-child sex, pornography and paedophilia. What should socialists think about it all?

Is it just a case of reactionary hysteria and sensationalism fuelled by circulation-hungry tabloids? Is it a case of "it's the rich that get the pleasure"? Are working class children being preyed upon by the rich and powerful with impunity? Gerry Byrne, in the first of two articles, examines the issues

Working class politics

The working class movement from its earliest days took up the cause of child protection, both against work in dangerous industries and against child prostitution and sexual exploitation. The Industrial Revolution took children and young people out of the family and set them to work in the new factories and on the streets. Poverty, family breakdown, migration and the vulnerability of youth combined to create a super-vulnerable class of young workers. This process is being repeated today in the newly industrialised "Third World", where not only super-exploited child labour, but child prostitution and sex-work make these countries extremely attractive to Western predators.

The early labour movement's attempts at child protection were often couched in terms that we would find overly moralistic and patronising today. They inveighed against the "immorality" of semi-naked girls working in brick-works or down the mines. Women were often equated with children in a way we would now find insulting.

But we need to recognise the decent socialist impulse behind the archaic language. It represented a basic class solidarity. Another side of the old labour movement slogan, "Unity is Strength" is the idea that we should look out for the more vulnerable members of society.

Capitalism is about reducing all human relations to financial transactions. We have a much higher morality than that. Against the capitalist dog-eat-dog, weakest-to-the-wall free-for-all, we assert human values of solidarity. And our idea of "liberty" is based on freeing people from unjust constraints imposed by class society. We do not advocate or excuse amoral self-seeking individualism, which takes no account of the cost incurred by other human beings.

Sexual liberation

There was another trend in the socialist movement, from the end of the nineteenth century onward especially, which saw sexual freedom as an aspect of human liberation, and criticised the rigidly assigned sex-roles of the patriarchal family. Women and children, as well as "inverts" (as gay men and lesbians were described at the time) were again equated in this view, but now as oppressed subjects who could also be agents in their own struggle for their liberation. Youth have always been irked by arbitrary authority and have been most likely to rebel - making them prime targets for revolutionary agitation. Sexual freedom was a popular slogan.

The two trends, protectionism and sexual liberation, battled for the soul of the labour movement throughout the twentieth century. Immediately after the Russian revolution, the movement for sexual revolution seemed ascendant, especially in Germany. With the rise of Stalinism came a sexual counter-revolution, the return to an authoritarian model of the family, medals for motherhood, re-insistence on women's traditional role. This was mirrored by Nazism /fascism in Europe. Sexual deviants joined the Gypsies, Jews and communists in the camps.

The next wave of sexual liberation came with the sixties and again it was associated with youth rights and political radicalism. Activists opposed laws governing sexual behaviour: "Keep Your Laws Off My Body" was the slogan of the pro-choice abortion movement. Anything goes.

Patriarchy, power and PIE

The backlash to the modern movement for sexual liberation came from within feminism. Hang on, some feminists said, this sexual free-for-all distinctly advantages men. They have the power in society, and one of their perks is unlimited sexual access to women. And children. Many founders of the new women's movement were mothers of young children. They were organising round issues of male violence, rape and domestic violence. They looked at the family as a site of oppression for women and children. Patriarchal power gave men, even working class men, a stake in the system, in keeping women oppressed and powerless. The family as site of both physical and sexual abuse of children was uncovered.

In 1982, Sarah Nelson's Incest, Fact and Myth, was published by a small feminist publisher, Stramullion. It exposed how the prevailing Freudian assumptions of social services and child protection agencies were based on victim-blaming and unquestioned acceptance of male domination in the family and led to abused children being doubly victimised. It is hard to credit now how reactionary the official bodies charged with child protection were at that time, and the startling impact of that small book.

The left was still caught up in a simplistic sexual liberation model. In 1981, four members of the Paedophile Information Exchange were charged with "Conspiracy to Corrupt Public Morals". The forerunners of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty opposed the trial (rightly I think) on civil liberties grounds. A catch-all conspiracy charge was anti-democratic and could easily be used against the labour movement in the future. What is striking, though, is the little coda I added:

"Many in the women's movement, the gay movement, and the left, would argue that unequal power relations make adult-child sexual relations oppressive, not liberating." (The defence campaign had concentrated not on the civil liberties aspect but on putting forward the view that paedophilia could be "a means of children's liberation".)

I am astonished at the tentativeness of my argument. Those were very different times. A comrade active in the lesbian/gay student movement at the time recalls that there were active paedophiles accompanied by young children at a conference. When the then lesbian feminist Linda Bellos objected as a mother, she was howled down.

In my, or our, defence, we didn't know what we do now about paedophilia. In 2003, I don't think there's any real dispute that paedophilia is abusive and indefensible. It is worth restating the arguments.

Invented childhood?

One of the justifications used by paedophiles is that they are just helping children or young people explore their sexuality, that no force is used and no harm done. Allied to this is the idea that child sexuality is repressed or denied in this society, and its expression is therefore liberating.

It is frequently asserted that childhood is just an invention of the Victorians. At best this is over-simplification to the point of idiocy.

To my knowledge, every human society and language marks a distinction between child and adult. Indeed pre-humans and higher mammals make the distinction too. Children are different from adults, and one of the major ways they are different and should be treated differently is in relation to their sexuality.

Children are maturing younger in well-fed Western societies (especially with all the hormones in the water). Many girls hit puberty in primary school. If you take the argument, put crudely, "If she's big enough she's old enough", then a nine-year old girl who has had her first period is a suitable sexual partner for an adult man. I find that idea repellent and oppressive. Children have a limited experience of the world. They are still in the process of learning that people are not always what they seem. They do not have the economic independence or social authority to resist adults, especially the adults they are used to trusting - parents, teachers, police, doctors.

Any sexual relationship between an adult and a child is necessarily exploitative, even if there is no physical coercion involved. The massively greater social weight of the adult renders physical threat unnecessary. This is not to deny children have a sexuality. Nor should they be punished for exploring it by themself and among themselves. It is that "consent" is meaningless in the structurally unequal relationship of adult to child.

Should "just looking" be a crime?

Some people argue that criminalising people for just looking at child pornography is a step too far, moving toward an Orwellian system of Thought Police. Does any institution have a right to police desire in that way?

This fails to take into account that porn is an industry, producing for a market. Some estimates (and it's hard to get clear figures because it does shade off into illegality) are that the porn industry is larger than the music industry. Not all of this is child porn, and not everybody involved is coerced.

But I would argue that all child porn is abusive. In so far as it uses real children in its production, child porn is sexual abuse. The consumer is an essential part of the process. It would not be produced if there were not a market. So consumption of child pornography is incitement or material support for sexual abuse of children. At its most extreme, it involves child murder, and civil libertarians would do well to weigh the consequences of a freedom that sanctions the torture and murder of children.

But what about computer-generated images, which do not involve actual children being sexually used in their production? Often they are hard to distinguish from the real thing.

Radical feminists have argued that porn is an ideological incitement to abuse women and children: "Porn is the theory, rape is the practice." But I would make a definite distinction between processes which physically involve abuse (and I would define all commercial sexual use of children as abuse) and those that put bad ideas in people's heads.

I am against banning or burning books. The way to combat bad ideology is through ideology: by argument, by producing counter- and subversive images and ideas, by campaigning for non-oppressive alternatives.

Yes, the consumers of oppressive imagery should be confronted with the implications of their consumption, even publicly exposed. But we should still maintain the distinction between material and ideological.

If all such products carried, for example, a label that said: "no actual children were involved in sexual acts in the production of this product", it would probably limit the appeal to consumers. But at least it would avoid people being punished for thoughts, for looking, rather than for contributing to the actual exploitation and abuse of children.

Continued next issue