Last week a prominent British lawyer wrote her way into a whole world of trouble by taking the side of a bunch of old celebrities accused of sexual abuse of children. Strange as it may sound, she has a couple of extremely important points to make.
Fox-hunting may have been banned in the United Kingdom, but pedophile-hunting remains a flourishing sport in the British media, and right now the press pack is baying. Since the Metropolitan Police launched Operation Yewtree in the wake of the allegations against the late comedian Jimmy Savile, a string of revelations have appeared in the British press revealing historic allegations of sexual abuse. Many of those accused are household names.
Given the outpouring of public anger on this issue you can’t knock Barbara Hewson’s bravery in describing the investigation as the “persecution of old men” in an article for online magazine Spiked. The article was misjudged or downright wrong in many places, but it was refreshing to hear someone break the taboo on going beyond the populist platitude that this is a simple story of victims and monsters.
The first important point Hewson makes is that the traditional and important British legal principle that those accused of a crime are innocent until proven guilty by a court of law seems to have gone out the window. The media is, of course, constrained by law from explicitly labelling these people guilty before they are convicted. However, the volume and tone of coverage of the Yewtree allegations has created such a strong implication of guilt that this is almost irrelevant. For the individuals accused, the damage to their reputations — and arguably their lives — will be permanent, even if they are ultimately proven innocent.
Hewson’s most controversial point, but one that is worthy of serious debate rather than just cries of horror, is that we need to have a more nuanced perspective legally and socially on what is currently blanket-labelled as “sexual abuse”, or in the case of sexual relations with those below the legal age of consent, as “pedophilia”. She argues that while “bottom pinching and groping in cars” may be wrong they should still be treated differently from “rape in padded rooms,” and that the age of consent should be lowered to 13.
Sexual abuse is horrendous and needs public condemnation and strong legal sanctions. However, we need to look at why it is so wrong. Fundamentally, it is because of the harm that abuse does to vulnerable people, psychologically or physically. The moral outrage we feel at the perpetrators of these crimes is because they have either not cared about the harm they are causing or have sadistically enjoyed inflicting pain.
The relative age of victim and perpetrator is often important because it may create power dynamics that make true consent less likely, but the legal age of consent in any country is inevitably arbitrary. Sexual relationships that violate the letter of the law will not always be abusive, while relationships that are for all intents and purposes legal may be abusive. An 18-year-old, and indeed a 30-year-old, may voluntarily enter a relationship that is abusive because they lack the emotional or psychological empowerment to see it for what it is.
There is a real danger that in our rush to label as monsters all those accused of “sexual offenses,” we catch in one net both the truly bad, the merely foolish, and those who have not behaved maliciously or done real harm but have merely violated social taboos. In getting focused on the taboo of youth and sexuality, we will also continue to ignore forms of sexual abuse that are just as harmful and just as wrong.
The solution is not, as Barbara Hewson thinks, to change the age of consent. However, she is right to be concerned that the post-Savile frenzy is in danger of becoming a witch-hunt if we lose sight of basic principles of justice or if we resort to tarring all those accused with one brush instead of looking at the facts of each case.