As commonly happens when an emotionally charged issue is widely discussed, the controversy in Britain over child sex abuse (which I shall call CSA) is rife with embattled feeling. Everyone, whatever their point of view on the question, seems to imagine that those holding the opposite belief are in the majority, a necessarily dangerous majority. As far as I know, beliefs about CSA – on its prevalence, its gravity, and what society should do about it – have never been polled in Britain, but not everybody can be right to feel on the defensive (even though the arithmetic of opinions is complicated by people’s ability to hold inconsistent views: for example, as to whether local social services are insufficiently vigilant, or too quick to interfere, where parents and children are concerned). In particular, one or other of the books reviewed here must be wrong in its apprehensions about the state of public opinion – and to that extent attacking a straw man.
Tim Tate, who is a journalist and television current affairs producer, tells us that the evil of CSA has been seriously underestimated, and society’s response to it woefully mismanaged and underfunded. The trio of academics who have produced Children’s Sexual Encounters with Adults appears to believe that in the popular mind and in the academic mind there are exaggerated fears and alarms about CSA. One of the authors speaks of there being a Zeitgeist to the effect that CSA is ubiquitous and always an evil. If the book contains no injudiciously warm expressions of adherence to the opposite view – for it is very much a work of professional sociology – the tenor and arrangement of the text do seem to flow from a belief that CSA should be more tolerantly regarded in our society.
It falls into two quite separate sections: the first part, written by Professor West and Mr Woodhouse, reports research into adult males’ recollections of their juvenile sexual encounters with grown-ups, of both sexes, and the second part, by Dr Li, which is more ambitious and novel, centres on a series of interviews with 20 male paedophiles. I hasten to say that Professor West, with a different coworker, published in 1985 a parallel piece of research into women’s recollections of sexual molestation, and the bleaker picture of CSA that emerged in that work is several times mentioned in the new report – which does, however, quite firmly conclude that boys’ experiences of abuse are on the whole non-coercive, and emotionally no worse than annoying (with most of the women-boy encounters being positively enjoyable). West and Woodhouse also judge that male abusers ‘are generally looking for what amounts to a love relationship’.
It is harder to acquit Dr Li of a certain bias in his basic selection of data. His remarkable interviews with paedophiles are very much designed to capture ‘the personal perspective of the individuals involved’, but in stating this aim Dr Li stumbles across the obvious thought that, ‘ideally speaking, research effort should be directed towards letting both parties (i.e. the child and the adult) articulate their experience,’ and he later concedes that ‘it is possible to say that ... this work suffers from a serious defect’ as a result. He was obliged to omit the children’s perspective, he explains, because ‘child protection agencies made access to children impossible.’ But one may feel that the omission is a ‘serious defect’ of the most unarguable sort, such that Dr Li should have contemplated redesigning his research once the agencies created obstacles (if this is indeed what happened).
So much hinges on the experience of the children in CSA encounters that it could be thought the main issue in the controversy. Morally, almost everyone agrees that CSA is in some degree an evil where the sex is not ‘consensual’, and empirically the child’s supposed enjoyment looms large for many abusers, as I shall discuss shortly. There is a very unfortunate resemblance between Dr Li’s remarks on the scope of his research and the justification put out by one of the most cynical of the bogus ‘Paedophile Study Groups’ in America for a similar limitation (as quoted by Tim Tate): ‘Children were not involved, mainly because of their own reluctance or that of their parents or partners.’ The ill-fated PIE, in this country, was also notable for a deafening absence of information exchanged with the objects of paedophiliac desire.
If one puts the two sections of this book together – which it is fair to do, as they are offered as parts of a whole, and not just as successive items in a festschrift or journal – the joint effect of its omissions (of women’s memories from the first section and children’s responses from the second) is strongly to propose that CSA has affirmative or at least condonable aspects. Put in this general way, I am sure this is a salutary point of view. The enemies of CSA have damaged their case by employing too undiscriminated a notion of childhood, accepting in effect the definition which the law on sexual crime provides (in Britain, under the age of 16). But in a controversy in which a child’s sexual understanding and responsiveness play so important a part, it cannot be right to skate over the fact of puberty. Also, both ‘abuse’ and the supposed psychological harm caused by abuse have often been handled tendentiously by those who hold the most hostile views on CSA. When abuse is understood to include isolated acts of exhibitionism by a stranger, and sequels such as low self-esteem in adult life are accepted as caused by such events, it is not surprising, as the authors of Children’s Sexual Encounters with Adults point out, that an alarming picture of CSA can very readily be developed.
The most serious omission from this book is, in a way, everything that Tim Tate has to say in his utterly unacademic, thoroughly journalistic, badly-written, deplorably-edited, but important study of child pornography. There seems to be not a single allusion in Children’s Sexual Encounters with Adults to the use of pornographic photographs and films by abusers, but if Tate is right about their popularity with paedophiles, and their central role in paedophile activity, this is a major distortion, especially in Dr Li’s explorations of the subjective worlds of his 20 abusers. The clear implication of Tim Tate’s book would be, indeed, either that some of Dr Li’s subjects were less than truthful about their dependence on child pornography, or that Dr Li has edited references to it out of his transcripts.
Tate has no hard facts about the scale of child pornography in Britain. It emerges in the reminiscences of one Portsmouth-based maker of videos that, in an ill-defined area of Southern England, he knew of ‘at least a dozen premises’ producing such films, with ‘thousands’ of clients for them: but this is as close as we get to quantities. And as the extent of paedophilia in this country is also a completely obscure matter, it is impossible to judge what proportion of paedophiles use child pornography. What this material implies about those who do consume it is dismaying, however, and certainly not in tune with the idea of the paedophile generally offered by Professor West and his colleagues.
The studio manufacture of child pornography has almost ceased in recent years, which has one dramatic implication: that most of the photographs and films circulating among paedophiles are perfectly literal records of actual events, which have usually taken place in the camera-owner’s home and have involved him as the adult partner. This is the reality of CSA, or part of it, and it offers potential evidence about the experience of the children who are abused. Tim Tate says that he has seen clear tokens of children’s distress and injury in some pornographic films. The overt spirit of these productions is, of course, hedonistic (leaving aside the special case of sadistic pornography), but even Tom O’Carroll, the founder of PIE, has admitted that he often recognises that the hedonism may be bogus: ‘There are children, We are invited to suppose, who are perfectly happy to fellate and masturbate each other, and to have coitus ... How much of this is real, how much a counterfeit designed to ease the buyer’s conscience, it is hard to say.’
This introduces a second important point, that child pornography tends to assist the conviction which paedophiles hold – or persuade themselves they hold – that children want to have sex with them. This is not the only way in which pornographic photographs and films ‘validate’ actions which a man might otherwise hesitate to perform. Precisely because this material is home-produced and a literal record, it shows the paedophile that the unthinkable can be done – and the unthinkable then retreats to another level, from the oral to the vaginal, perhaps, or from the vaginal to the anal, which in turn becomes do-able. There are several accounts of this process in Tate’s book. Significantly, fictitious imagery is not popular with the consumers of child pornography: the only exceptions to this rule in the currently marketed material are paedophiliac computer fantasy games.
Paedophiles do not simply divert themselves with pornography: they employ it in a calculated way to enhance their sexual lives through disinhibition. Deliberation and system are, in fact, a striking aspect of the collecting of child pornography, according to Tate – whether or not in the service of a calculated disinhibition. The material is often carefully sorted and catalogued, a feature apparently so important for some paedophiles that they will masturbate over ‘a typed list of photographs’. It is well attested that the paedophiliac community at large is a highly linked one – much more so than the community of transvestites, for instance. In that sense, the various paedophile ‘study groups’ and ‘information exchanges’ are not as disingenuously misnamed as it may appear.
Obviously the notion of the paedophile with a large and carefully organised archive of pornographic images of children, systematically in touch with like-minded individuals whom he assists, and who assist him, in a process of sexual disinhibition through the exchange of faithful records of their activities, is hot very harmonious with the figure described by West and Woodhouse: ‘looking for what amounts to a love relationship’. There are examples in Tate’s book of child pornography being used in ways more or less directly inimical to children’s interests. One worker in the field reports that photographs and films are made by abusers partly to help the coercing of children, through blackmail, into keeping quiet about sexual events (though such a threat of exposure would mainly be effective with older children). Not unexpectedly, child pornography can be used as a device for lowering a boy’s or a girl’s resistance to seduction – as several paedophiles in this book attest.
Tate’s version of the paedophile, as I have mentioned, is even more at odds with anything that emerges from Dr Li’s interviews, and it must be said that the latter offer a considerable invitation to the 20 paedophiles to ‘validate’ their activity in a bad sense. Dr Li has adopted a trendy, ‘hermeneutic’ approach to his theme whereby sex sounds very much like the pursuit of a piece of academic research: ‘a human person ... construes and reconstrues reality, and acts according to his constructions in a hypothesis-testing fashion.’ At best, this mushy talk of ‘meanings’ and ‘constructions’ would make for trivial results, a mere paraphrasing of interviewees’ statements about their motives, without any tools to discriminate pretexts from reasons, but in the present connection it is especially regrettable.
On top of this Dr Li shows a rather alarming reluctance to listen to his subjects when they cease to find ‘worth’ and ‘meaning’ in their actions and admit that these were callous and selfish and at least four out of the 20 fall into this category. ‘Edward’ (who concedes that his continued abuse of reluctant ‘John’ shows that he did not love him), ‘Robert’ (who recognises the fraudulence of saying that ‘the boys aren’t really hurt’) and Matthew (who is ‘still very disgusted with people who want to have sex with children’) are all described by Dr Li as merely ‘ambivalent’ in attitude. ‘Keith’ acknowledges a sadistic element in his motivation (‘if a person resists you a little bit, then it’s more ... stimulating for yourself’), but this makes no appearance in Dr Li’s summary of how this man ‘had come to understand his sexuality’.
Selfishness, or some such notion, is perhaps a key one for thinking about the very wide range of behaviour that goes under the heading of CSA, or at least for thinking about one’s responses to this behaviour. At one end CSA includes activities – most obviously, sex between adult women and pubertal boys – which it is absurd to deplore, let alone punish, as West and Woodhouse rightly imply. At an opposite extreme is the kind of behaviour on which the American paedophiliac liberationist David Sonnenschien gives advice: ‘Most very young or small kids cannot and should not be penetrated by an adult penis or a dildo. Sometimes a finger is OK, but even with a finger lubrication is recommended. And watch those fingernails!’ On a purely utilitarian calculation the actions imagined here could perhaps not be deplored: at any rate Sonnenschien seems to have a concern that the child should not be hurt. By this measure a considerable variety of abuse of very young children could be condoned: the quantity of pleasure-giving molecules released by arousal and orgasm in the brain of an adult outweighing any pain experienced, or even (pace some experts) long-term psychological damage endured, by the child victim.
What is it that makes Sonnenschien’s attitude nevertheless so grating and repugnant? To my mind, the key to the matter is the one-sidedness, the self-absorption, the arrogant requirement of self-gratification, which would be funny were it not distressing (one of Tim Tate’s sources, an 18-year-old prostitute multiply abused from the age of five, defines men as the ones who ‘get all crazy and go red and then it’s over’). We feel this keenly in this situation (as opposed to the one where a man gets crazy and red with a piece of liver from the refrigerator) because of the value we attach to children. That was the ironical common ground between the bitterly opposed parties in the Cleveland affair: out of a concern for the child which was probably just as strong on both sides of the dispute, each perceived the other as atrociously misguided.
Dr Li makes some reference to the theories of Philippe Ariès, who has argued that the notion of childhood, and a high valuation of this period of life, are fairly recent historical developments. Ariès’s views have been substantially discredited by later students of the subject (most notably Linda Pollock), and the special respect and concern we feel for children looks to be historically much more venerable than Ariès had argued. His claim that childhood sexual innocence is a post-17th-century invention is more secure, and, to be fair to Dr Li, this is the particular issue on which he cites Ariès. But it may be doubted if sexual impurity in itself is what troubles us about the violations involved in CSA. Certainly sexual games between children have nothing like the power to arouse the indignation of adults that CSA possesses. Campaigning paedophiles often speak as if their enemies were ignorant or intolerant of childhood sexuality, an accusation which I suspect to be generally unjust, and characteristically self-serving.
The most eloquent expression in our times of moral revulsion against the specifically adult violation of a child’s sexuality – eloquent, above all, because it comes from the heart of an intensely realised paedophilia – is to be found in a book which has lent its name to many sleazy productions described by Tim Tate, Nabokov’s Lolita. Dolores Haze was not a virgin when she first had intercourse with Humbert Humbert. Indeed it was she, initiated into sex by the 13-year-old Charlie Holmes, who led the way. That event, a triple bout of intercourse which Dolores thereafter referred to as a ‘rape’ and which caused her traumatic pain and bleeding, was the beginning of a paedophiliac’s three years of ecstasy and moral nightmare. For Humbert at the end of the novel, demented by remorse, the most significant of several memories which insistently tell him of his guilt is the occasion when he looked over the parapet of a mountain road in the early morning and had the strange experience of gazing directly down onto a mining town, while hearing rise from it a music which said that his ultimate crime was to have denied Dolores her childhood: ‘And soon I realised that all these sounds were of one nature, that no other sounds but these came from the streets of the transparent town, with the women at home and the men away. Reader! What I heard was but the melody of children at play, nothing but that ... and then I knew, that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.’