Thursday, 17 September 2009

We need to talk about paedophilia

One day – sooner rather than later – we're going to be forced into having a serious discussion about paedophilia.

Now there's a sentence guaranteed to end a few friendships, but just stop and think about it for a moment. Rather than reverting to our default setting, which appears to be finding some minority group (witches, Catholics, the Irish, Muslims, lardies) and blaming all the ills of the world on them, would it not make more sense to detect which group is the most likely to harm children and focus on deciding what should be done to stop them?

The way things are at the moment a 16 year-old boy who persuades his 15 year-old girlfriend to have sex with him runs the risk of being placed on the same sex offenders' register as Ian Brady, Ian Huntley and Gary Glitter, which scarcely seems a sensible solution to the problem.

Of course children should be protected from the unwanted attentions of the friendly neighbourhood paedo and of course adults who volunteer to work with youth groups (whether professionally or via a voluntary organisation) need to be checked, but do we really have to treat every person who might come into contact with kids as a perv-in-waiting?

It reminds me of the old feminist slogan, “Every men is a potential rapist”. In one sense that is true; all of my male friends have the physical equipment necessary to be a rapist (unless there's something that I don't know) but I would suggest that none of them are remotely mentally capable.

A few years ago the American actor Jeffrey Jones (best known for his roles in Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Amadeus) was placed on America's sex offenders' register after he was found guilty of photographing a 15 year-old boy in a series of erotic poses. Clearly Jones is a sad old queen with a rather unsavoury interest in beautiful youths, but does he really merit the same kind of censure as someone who absuses and tortures eight year-olds? There was no question of Jones's photographic subject being anything other than willing and saw the assignment as a way of earning some extra pocket money. Yet onto the sex offenders' register went Jones and, presumably, is still recorded there, along with truly depraved individuals guilty of the most sickening acts of abuse towards tiny children.

I can imagine what it must be like to be a concerned parent – if we can't trust our children to the care of the Roman Catholic Church, then who can we rely on? – but this “guilty until proven innocent” stance is doing nothing but harm.

As of writing I am not sure what the fate of the mooted new system will be, but the author Philip Pullman has already stated his opposition to the new £64 clearance required of all adults who visit schools to give talks: naturally enough he objects to being considered a potential threat. This I find especially appalling, since it is so obviously counter-productive to the education system. It's hard enough to enthuse children at the best of times (and I speak as someone who has lectured at university level) without depriving them of the chance to meet adults who might be positive influences.

When I was a teenager Ted Hughes visited our school to give a poetry reading. This was before his tenure as Poet Laureate, but he was a huge name in the world of creative writing and I was determined not to miss the experience, even though the only time he could visit was during the summer holidays. I was obliged to my Dad, who volunteered to drive me the 100 miles to school to hear him speak and I was not disappointed – he was like Heathcliff on steroids!

Maybe I'm exaggerating, but I feel sure that Ted Hughes was partly responsible for my decision to become a writer. It's certainly a pretty momentous experience to meet someone like that, especially someone who was the epitome of what a teenager thought a poet should be – tall, broad across the shoulders, good looking in a rugged sort of way. He would have made a great Mr. Rochester if he'd ever been cast in a movie of Jane Eyre.

After reading The Bell Jar the previous term I had tormented my poor English teacher by threatening to ask Hughes why he thought that Sylvia Plath, his late wife, had killed herself but having heard him read his poetry and seen him in the flesh, tormenting him was the last thing on my mind – unless it involved handcuffs and a whip!

Meeting Ted Hughes is still one of the high points of my professional life and actually being able to shake his hand and talk to him was a treat of the highest order; in my fevered brain it was like being given permission to be a writer. In truth, he had far more to fear from a roomful of hormonal teenage girls than we ever had from him.

Wouldn't it be stupid if we deprived a generation of children of such an experience just through fear?

Are we really so paralysed by terror, or mentally bankrupt, that we can't see the difference between a paedophile and a role model?

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