The radical case for paedophilia is that children like it, and if there were more of it the world would be a better place. ‘Sex by eight or it’s too late’ – too late because the guilt is already on the gingerbread. Tom O’Carroll, prosy successor to Lewis O’Carroll and leading light of PIE, the Paedophile Information Exchange, takes the view that what is nice for him would be good for everyone. ‘A climate in which children come to view all consensual sex, including consensual paedophilia, positively and without guilt may be necessary for the welfare of everyone.’ ‘Consensual sex’, mutually agreed and mutually agreeable: is there anything unreasonable in wanting it for oneself but not for one’s children – or Mr O’Carroll?
Were Mr O’Carroll a more accomplished writer, he might not have elicited such an ungenerous response. It’s possible he doesn’t feel comfortable talking to adults and resents having to spell out things that are, apparently, self-evident to children. Whatever the reason, the result is an edgy, self-righteous book and a lacklustre piece of propaganda. Since Mr O’Carroll sees nothing wrong with paedophilia, he isn’t interested in our sympathy; and since his opinion of the non-paedophile world is no higher than the opinion the non-paedophile world has of him, he doesn’t waste time trying to be conciliatory. We may think we are doing Mr O’Carroll a favour in listening to his case: but in his view he’s the one who is doing the favour.
The book is divided into three sections. The first is autobiographical; a long middle section is taken up with the ideology of paedophilia; and a final section is devoted to PIE and its not so pi activities. Mr O’Carroll starts by recounting his early life as a paedophile. No attempt is made to explain his condition – indeed, he sees nothing in it to explain. ‘I am not interested in why I am a paedophile,’ he tells us in his short sharp way, ‘any more than others are interested in why they are “normal”.’ The most he will say is that past a certain age he found his mother’s affection embarrassing. His best, ‘most sexually active’ period was his first few years at secondary school: ‘it was so easy then to slip into intimacy with one’s peers.’ Things became difficult when his contemporaries took up with girls while he found himself gazing longingly at younger boys.
For many unhappy years he kept his feelings to himself, even tried to find a wife (‘I intend no disrespect to women in general, or my fiancée in particular, when I say that the task was too much for me’), but also spent most of his time among children, ignoring, as he tells it now, the evidence they continually offered of their interest in sex, their interest in him, and their interest in sex with him: ‘he even asked if he could sleep with me and I have reason to suppose he meant more than just sharing my tent.’ He hesitated not out of self-regard but because he couldn’t believe that what he wanted to give them was what the children wanted too, and cringes now ‘to think of the embarrassed, slightly old-fashioned school-masterly way in which I have rejected children’s curiosity (and sometimes more than curiosity) in the past’. His inhibitions were reinforced by the memory of his own dislike of adult affection, but he has no doubt that the main cause of his diffidence was a ‘background rooted in the view that anything to do with the genital areas of the body was unspeakably rude.’
Mr O’Carroll’s diffidence with children is well matched by his intransigence elsewhere. He became a schoolmaster and fell in love with one of the boys – ‘a raven-haired little charmer’ whose ‘seductiveness grew as he learnt how much I cared for him’. It was a disaster, largely because Mr O’Carroll believed he had nothing to hide: the boy’s parents were told, the relationship ended, and Mr O’Carroll lost his job. In despair, he did the one thing to which he was in principle most opposed: he made a pass at a boy he hardly knew.
As I stood there face to face with Kevin, looking into those frightened eyes, I felt that every last shred of my integrity lay in tatters. I was nothing. Just a shit. Just a child-molester.
Later in the book there are some sobering accounts of what can happen to the child when a paedophile relationship is discovered.
Most of what’s on Mr O’Carroll’s mind is introduced in this first chapter. It tells us that children absorb sexual guilt at a very young age, which doesn’t stop them having a good time while they are still children but makes them in their turn intolerant and unhappy adults. That, unlike the rest of us, paedophiles recognise that children like to have sex (even with older men); and that, contrary to what we may think, paedophiles get what they want without any effort. Yet when they get it, the outside world says they must be punished for corrupting ‘innocent’ children whose real innocence is their unambiguous liking for sex.
The turning-point in Mr O’Carroll’s life came when he joined PIE. ‘The general public in the UK has long been aware of “child-molesting” and “perversion”. But only in the 1970s did it come to hear about “paedophilia”, a designation suddenly lifted from the obscurity of medical textbooks to become a crusading badge of identity for those whom the term had been designed to oppress.’ A new children’s crusade was taking place, and in 1976 Mr O’Carroll became its leader. In the late summer of 1977 a special campaign was mounted to make the world aware of what paedophiles want and why. Success was not expected – ‘we knew in our bones that the fate awaiting us would probably be more like that reserved for the Tolpuddle Martyrs than for Darwin or Marx’ – and not courted either. The campaign was strident, insensitive, and brimming with contempt for the public to whom it was addressed: ‘we would go in hard with the view that a fundamental, radical change in attitudes to sexuality and towards children in general was called for.’ It didn’t take long to see that it wasn’t working. The Guardian-readers and ‘trendy liberals’ on whom the campaigners had pinned their hopes turned out to be no more ‘open to ideas’ than the Sunday Mirror, which urged the Open University to sack Mr O’Carroll from the job he then held. It did. A few weeks later a Conference on Love and Attraction at Swansea University was to discuss child sexuality: the auxiliary staff threatened to go on strike if Mr O’Carroll wasn’t asked to leave. He was. ‘We were quite wrong in supposing that only religious maniacs and splenetic judges are ruled by factors outside the intellect,’ says Mr O’Carroll with some satisfaction.
Paedophilia: The Radical Case is a new and more thoughtful bid to get at least a few book-readers to attend to the arguments which the public at large has so far ignored, and its long middle section is devoted to putting Mr O’Carroll’s ideas on what is nowadays called a scientific footing. It begins at the beginning, with Freud and the contention that children below the age of puberty are not ‘asexual creatures’. All sorts of statistics assembled by the diligent Kinsey are cited: 57 per cent of a group of adults had taken part in ‘preadolescent sex play’; 11 per cent of a sample of boys had had coitus by the age of ten, etc. Louis XIII, according to his father’s physician, was having a pretty good time (‘in high spirits he made everybody kiss his cock’) by the age of one. Outside Europe and North America stranger things happen. In the Siwa Valley of North Africa ‘all men and boys engage in anal intercourse,’ among certain aborigines ‘pederasty is a recognised custom,’ and so on. It is clear that large numbers of children all over the world do various things with each other and sometimes with adults. Mr O’Carroll claims that all this is good, which is hard to prove, though most ‘trendy liberals’ would hesitate to say it was all bad. He has some evidence on his side.
A few years ago, the American journal Pediatrics published a paper on children in communes where ‘sexuality had come to be expressed very early. With parents who spoke openly about sex and with no taboos against physical contact, exploration of each other’s bodies and actual intercourse took place between most children ... by the age of five or six.’ With the consequence, apparently (these quotations are from the article itself), that ‘the majority of the children demonstrated a high degree of maturity, self-confidence and self-reliance.’ It’s not clinching evidence – not enough to bear the full burden of Mr O’Carroll’s libertarianism – but it’s something. Children, he tells us when he has finished cataloguing their prowesses, must be allowed their sexual freedom: ‘freedom of access to their own bodies in masturbation, freedom to engage in sex with their peers, and freedom to have sex with adults’.
It must be granted that, as described here, sex with adults is not the monstrous thing we have imagined it to be. ‘The vast majority of sexual acts between children and adults are not aggressively imposed,’ according to Mr O’Carroll, and a number of seemingly disinterested studies agree with him: most acts of sexual violence against girls are committed by heterosexuals ‘under stress’ – i.e drunk. More often than not, the adult in question is a relative or friend of the family and – like everybody else – paedophiles prefer to have sex with partners who can be seen to be enjoying themselves (which mostly means older children – boys between 11 and 15, girls between eight and 11). ‘Benevolent’ is the word Mr O’Carroll uses to characterise his kind, and although it’s impossible for an outsider not to fear that what in fact takes place is benevolent exploitation, there is no reason to suppose that harm is intended.
Whether children are in the long run damaged by sexual contact with adults is another question, and so far the evidence that would resolve it is lacking. Mr O’Carroll quotes from interviews conducted by a Dutch psychologist with people who had had love affairs with adults in their childhood. They all claimed to have enjoyed themselves at the time:
Gradually that summer I was being completely initiated and ‘woken up’, and soon Uncle, Herman ... taught me how a girl can satisfy a man. He taught me all kinds of positions and the pleasures of licking and sucking. But he kept himself completely in control (that I find a real achievement) and did not have intercourse with me.
They claimed, moreover, to have suffered no ill effects. On the contrary. ‘I have an especially good marriage,’ one of them boasts, ‘an especially fine sexual relationship and an especially dear little daughter.’
The most powerful argument for a change of attitude, if not of heart, towards paedophilia is what happens to a child when outraged parents discover what he’s been up to. The greater the attachment between the child and the adult, the more liable his parents are to turn against him: the only children who can count on sympathy are those who have been assaulted. The worst things tend to happen when the police are called in. There are long and often futile interrogations with policemen eager to prove that terrible things have taken place when in fact nothing much has; medical examinations of the grimmest kind (‘if he hadn’t been buggered by the man he certainly had been by the doctor’); and a great deal of emotional blackmail both in court and out of it. What happens to the paedophiles themselves – some of whom are still teenagers – is even grislier. ‘Strange, isn’t it,’ says Mr O’Carroll in his unamiable way, ‘that society professes a concern for the child and obsessively keeps him/her away from adult sexuality as an expression of this concern, yet when – for whatever reasons – sexual contacts are found to have occurred, the child’s real interests fly out of the window.’
If children were free to do whatever they like (sexually) with whomever they like – or to put it the other way round, which Mr O’Carroll doesn’t, if adults were allowed to do whatever they wanted – contradictions of this kind would disappear. Which is like saying that if every tree which was not part of a forest were cut down no one would be struck by lightning. Mr O’Carroll himself, though he would like to see the present laws of consent swept away, recognises that some limitations are necessary: he would, for instance, forbid sex with adults for children under four and ban intercourse with grown-ups for children under 12. What’s immediately striking about his proposals is that they suggest that it’s in the interests of children that the law should be changed. Since children haven’t, so far, asked for any changes, the implication is that Mr O’Carroll knows what’s best for them: but one of his main points is that in claiming to know what’s best for children (in sexual matters especially) adults are merely exercising their own prejudices. If the rest of us are, so is he.
It would, however, be unfair to dismiss everything Mr O’Carroll says on the grounds that it is in his interest to say it. He has made a case for believing in the decency of paedophiles and hence for a more decent way of treating them and, more important, their partners: there is no more reason for shielding children from adult forms of sexual activity than for shielding them from adult forms of justice and its retributions. On the other hand, once it is conceded that children require protection in one area the general case for treating them as children is strengthened. They may do all sorts of things with each other, but that is not in itself grounds for their doing the same sorts of thing with adults (despite what goes on in the Siwa Valley). One can assume, for instance, that for children sex is a fairly uncomplicated business: whatever else it is for adults, it isn’t that; and when Mr O’Carroll says that the inequality between the adult and the child doesn’t matter since there is seldom equality between the partners in an adult relationship, he is merely showing up the weakness of his position. Does the case for children having sex with adults boil down to the proposition that it would be no worse for them than it is for us?