Effective consent or moralism

Ian Donovan responds to the furore over the letter published in Weekly Worker 459

The publication of the letter by John Hughes of Hull in the Weekly Worker a couple of weeks ago has produced a flurry of outrage on the UK Left Network e-list - from a number of die-hard opponents of the CPGB, as well as some independent leftists and even some of our own comrades (December 5). This letter, from an individual reader, criticised David Blunkett's proposals for changes in legislation regarding underage sex, particularly the proposals that will make sex with adolescents under 13 legally the equivalent of rape (whereas previously such activities, in the absence of force or other forms of coercion, had been regarded as a separate, lesser crime of unlawful sexual intercourse) and also the proposal by the government to crack down on so-called 'grooming', in internet chat rooms and the like - the author of the letter pointed out the potential for these kinds of laws to ensnare people engaged in innocent activities. Some critics considered the graphic manner in which the author argued his case distasteful, or even that the author's words revealed something distasteful about his own sympathies in such matters - and therefore demanded that the Weekly Worker should "apologise" for printing the letter. Our comrade Lawrie Coombs criticised us for publishing this "ham-fisted", "ill-thought out", "whimsical" and "inane" letter in last week's paper (December 12; two further such offerings can be read in the current issue - ed). In fact, though some of the examples Hughes gave to illustrate his points could be considered dubious and borderline, even points made in this way should be dealt with rationally, not in terms of demands for censorship and a lynch-mob mentality. In my view, the Weekly Worker has nothing to "apologise" for in publishing this contribution - our letters page is well known for carrying a wide range of views, some of which our own comrades, or sections of them, will find distasteful. In no sense does the publication of this letter imply agreement with its contents, any more than publishing the letter from an avowed Stalinist in last week's paper implies agreement with the views of that particular individual - considering the millions of deaths that Stalin was responsible for in the last century, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that some who pick up the Weekly Worker will find that equally as offensive as the letter our critics are complaining about. Logically they should be more offended. This question stirred up a hornet's nest on UKLN. Not for the first time, a shrill element was heard demanding censorship of the Weekly Worker: our weekly advertisement should be banned, they clamoured, since we had dared to publish a "pro-paedophile" letter. The outrage of those habitually hostile to the CPGB - particularly elements sympathetic to ultra-Stalinism, along with people either from, or with a political background in, the Socialist Party of Peter Taaffe - led to an attempt by one of the moderators, Mick Hall, an independent member of the Socialist Alliance, to actually initiate such a ban, threatening to resign if no action was taken. He did indeed resign when the demand for a ban was voted down in a rather sparse attempt at a poll - only a couple of dozen or so voted in the poll out of around UKLN 500 subscribers. A further proposal, without threatening any ban - on whether we should apologise for printing this letter - gained a two-to-one majority in favour of an apology on a similarly low poll. Of course, while this reveals that e-lists generate apathy on a substantial scale, nevertheless the fact that a section of the left has such a hysterical attitude to these questions as to seek to ban those who defend an alternative view is a disturbing symptom of a low level of political confidence, of adaptation to backward consciousness and of susceptibility to the moral panics got up by the bosses' media. It also points to the absence of any view on sex and sexuality that is independent of the bourgeoisie and its moralising campaigns and witch-hunts. Our attitude to these questions is primarily determined by the overall aims of the communist project itself - the liberation of humanity from all forms of oppression and exploitation, and the creation of a classless, stateless society. In this regard, we judge all laws, cultural practices and taboos, etc by the role they play in society in either enhancing, or alternatively repressing, the rights of ordinary people and their power to control their own lives. With regard to youth, in the period of transition from childhood to adult life, there are particularly complex and sensitive questions involved, in which bourgeois morality plays a role that is often quite poisonous and irrational. The obvious fact, for instance - as pointed out by our letter writer - that youths who are old enough to be tried for murder are at the same time considered too young to be able to consent to sex is an incongruity that lays bare the inhumanity of the British system of criminal injustice. The fact that in both kinds of cases those individuals involved often find themselves at the receiving end of hysterical hate-mongering in the tabloid press, including the open incitement of lynch mobs, only underlines the brutal irrationality of the bourgeoisie's discourse on these sensitive matters. But logic and consistency are not what the bourgeoisie's laws to regulate the freedoms of youth are about. Nor, despite their hypocritical pretences, are they about protecting youths from sexual coercion. Rather, they tend to produce, and indeed are aimed at producing, a society where the oppressive power of the state combined with that vested in adults, and particularly parents, over youth is reinforced. In this society, youths who, for any number of reasons, are forced to leave their family homes, are confronted with the choice of foster care, children's homes or "¦ ultimately, homelessness on the streets, with all that leads to, including prostitution and the like. The demands in the minimum section of our draft programme addressed at the problems of youth are aimed at ending absolute financial dependence on the family and coercive relationships with adults in general. Such demands as the "democratisation" of schools and colleges, the provision of grants set at the level of the "minimum wage", and "the provision of housing/hostels for youth to enter of their own choice for longer and shorter periods when they lose their parents or choose to leave them" are indeed only a meagre start in providing the means for young people to socially develop and assert themselves as individuals. At the same time, we demand "extensive provision of education and counselling facilities on all sexual matters, free from moralistic judgement "¦ to enable youth to develop themselves in all areas of sexuality and reproduction". This empowerment is the programmatic context of our demand for the abolition of all age-of-consent laws - not, as some malicious and prejudiced elements in the recent debate, and indeed in wider society, contend, as part of some so-called "paedophiles' charter", but in order to enhance the independence and freedom of choice of youth in all matters in which they choose to live their lives, including matters concerned with relationships and sex. Society has an obligation to protect those people, whatever their age, whose level of emotional comprehension impedes their ability to understand the meaning and consequences of sexual activity from being exploited by those whose own dysfunctional sexuality drives them to seek gratification without obtaining meaningful consent. But this protection should not be at the expense of those who are capable of consent - a capability which varies not so much by age, but by individual. Since there is a very large probability that the latter category of youth will ignore prohibitions, and actively seek to express themselves sexually in any case - sometimes with their peers, sometimes with older partners whose attraction is their greater maturity in many cases - any age of consent inevitably leads to the victimisation of people involved in completely consensual relationships: a major injustice, particularly in this society, given the tendency of reactionary social forces to encourage bloodthirsty and irrational responses. In place of such a blanket law, society should substitute a more nuanced social norm, based around the concept and practice of effective consent. Regarding any sexual activity, consent must not only be given, but must be effective - ie, the young person concerned must be capable, whether their age is 16 or below, of understanding the meaning of the activity they are 'consenting' to, on an individual basis, not on the basis of some arbitrarily imposed age. In the absence of a reasonable suspicion of abuse, the social norm should be that those who choose to be together should be left in peace to get on with their lives and relationships. But socialists are also in favour of a norm, whereby all members of society are conditioned by habit to look after the welfare of others - not in the sense of encouraging a society of busybodies, but in the sense that if some relationship gives rise to a reasonable suspicion of being abusive and non-consensual, investigations will take place. If accusations of abuse are levelled and there is a case to answer, they should be decided by a jury of ordinary working people according to the concept of effective consent elaborated above. This is actually not a difficult concept: society already uses this kind of criteria, however imperfectly, given the prejudices that persist in this field, for certain categories of vulnerable people who are otherwise legally adults - people with certain types of psychological and learning disabilities, etc. It is not above the power of organisation and intelligence of ordinary people to discern whether an accusation of abuse is accurate or not in terms of a relationship involving a young person, any more than it is beyond comprehension in cases like these. The circumstances - including, but not necessarily limited to, the expressed wishes of the parties concerned - all are generally taken into account in such cases in determining whether consent is genuine and effective or not. Human sexuality is a very varied and variable thing, as the history of a number of different societies in the past, that had radically different social and sexual norms to those which we are accustomed today, testify. Not all of these, of course, are necessarily to be held up as models of rationality, or even in any way superior to our own. But it ought to be clear that one very damaging factor in terms of the way our society deals with questions of child abuse is the damage that bigotry, social ostracism and the threat of violence do to many individuals - often as much or even more damage in fact as acts of sexual abuse themselves. The family is of course the main site for sexual abuse, and thereby the breeding ground for future 'paedophiles' - that is, the tragic cycle of those who are so damaged by non-consensual sexual behaviour that they come to see it as normal - to be repeated when they acquire the power to abuse the next generation. Yet the real agenda of Blair, and the tabloid press, can be summed up as 'family values', which involve precisely the strengthening of this flawed and often oppressive social institution and increasing the power of adults over children - a power which itself so often facilitates this social evil in the first place. It is no coincidence, for instance, that the Blair government's modifications of the laws on sexual matters are concurrent with a whole range of measures in other fields, that even many on the left and beyond who howl with the wolves about 'child-sex' would recognise as bourgeois social authoritarianism. From crackdowns on truants, to harassment of the unemployed into low-paying jobs, to zero-tolerance schemes regarding petty crime (the cause of which is self-evidently the result of decades of neoliberal attacks on the standard of living and prospects of ordinary people), the linkage between all these things should not be that hard to spot. Yet many otherwise class-conscious people lose all semblance of an independent class outlook when confronted with sexuality and youth. The existence of this political blind spot on the left, that often has otherwise capable militants dancing to the tune of the rightwing media, makes the elaboration and propagation of an independent socialist perspective on this question more, not less, urgent. We will not be deterred from frank comment when these kinds of issues inevitably arise. And we will certainly not submit to demands for censorship on the part of those who are either unwilling or unable to buck the bourgeois consensus in the search for an independent, working class struggle for truth.