It is in the nature of humans to be frightened about the future. If we could look closely at the past though, really remember it properly, we’d find that pretty damn scary too. It is as they say a foreign country; we have no idea what they’re talking about.
There was a real campaign in the 70s to repeal the age of consent.¹ This seems unthinkable now, but in the context of the time it was, if by no means a popular argument, at least a rational one. The idea was that if anyone is mature enough to feel sexual desire, then they should not be prevented by law from doing something about it. Contraception was seen as a solved problem, so if you wanted to have sex with someone and they did too, why not? This follows logically enough from the premise that sex is a fundamentally good thing. It was natural to feel desire and natural to express it, interference from the laws of society therefore could only do more harm than good.
You have to admit, that was a very optimistic view of human nature. Gravely optimistic, I’m tempted to call it. But though it is hard not to judge at this distance, I do think it was more naïve than cynical. People who felt sexual desire for adolescents or even pre-adolescent children saw themselves as oppressed by an outdated Victorian morality, just as homosexuals had been until so recently. Many still do now I’m sure, but in the culture of the 70s, when people were far less conscious of the pervasiveness of sexual violence, it was easier to hold such a view.
Notably absent though from the campaign for children’s rights to have sex were, well, children. That was probably a clue. Children do have sexual feelings of course; confusing and diffuse in childhood proper, but becoming focused on the desired sex at the onset of puberty. Despite what some of the more shouty newspapers would like to pretend, David Norris was not the only adolescent to fantasize about sexual activity with an adult. It would be unusual not to. Longings begin at around the age of twelve, and nothing can be done to fulfil them for several long years. It is one of the most difficult, and vulnerable, times of life.
The crucial point though is that desire to have sex is not the same thing as consent to have sex – not when a person is incapable of free, informed consent. We don’t regard children as well-informed enough to know their own best interests, and even more mature minors are likely to be at a huge disadvantage in terms of how much control they have over the situation. Any sexual relationship where two people have a very different amount of control is likely to be exploitative – by which I simply mean, one person is able to manipulate the other to get sex. While no relationship is ever between perfect equals of course, we tend to frown on ones where there is a blatant power imbalance; where one has authority over the other’s career for example, or is responsible for their education, or where one can afford to pay for sex and the other needs money for drugs. And while we broadly consider it an adult’s right to form whatever the hell stupid exploitative harmful relationship they want, we accept that society has a duty to protect minors, even from their own decisions.
Is there a vast difference between sexual activity with a child who doesn’t even understand what sex is, and with a willing partner who is just a year below the age of consent? Of course there is. But there is little option except to say that any sex below a certain age is illegal. Certainly, those who are mature for their age will consider this a gross interference in their private lives. Certainly it is ludicrous that two underage people could be considered to be technically raping each other, or that what’s a severe crime one day becomes perfectly acceptable the next. But any way you legislate this will create some anomalies, none will be perfect. The simplest, fairest and most enforceable way to try to protect minors from abuse is to have a clear minimum age of consent for all. With no exception – not even for things that were perfectly normal in Ancient Greece.
I think David Norris believes that too. If he once thought otherwise – and I have to stress that there is no actual evidence of that, just inference and innuendo – we must remember that society’s understanding of this has grown a lot more mature since the ideals of the 70s. Adults have had to become less innocent, to better protect children. Whether being sympathetic to such ideas in the past makes you an unsuitable representative now is a matter for the electorate to decide.
- It does still exist, but it was only in the late 70s and early 80s that it even approached being a mainstream idea.