Alienation and irrationality

The panic about paedophilia in British society has reached a new peak in the last couple of weeks, with the arrests of rock star and founder of The Who, Pete Townshend and now Matthew Kelly, presenter of the tribute/karaoke musical TV show Stars in their eyes. Townshend was reportedly one of thousands of people, including dozens of police, a judge and allegedly a couple of MPs, caught in the net of people whose credit card details had been found on the database of a US-based child-sex website. As rumours began to circulate that a 'rock legend' was on the list of suspects, Townshend named himself as the person concerned, claiming that he had logged onto the website for research purposes: he was writing his autobiography, which includes details of his being sexually abused as a child, and was looking for background material, apparently. Townshend protests that he hates child-sex abusers as much anyone else and points to the verifiable and well known fact that he has featured references in his music to his own abuse as a child (witness the rather strange and disturbing piece about "Uncle Albert"� who "fiddles around"� in the stage version of the 1970s rock opera Tommy). In the eyes of his accusers, however, this cuts little ice: particularly the (often quite irrational) campaigners against 'paedophiles' in the tabloid press, notably the likes of newly appointed Sun editor Rebekah Wade. In any case, whatever Pete Townshend's reasons for doing what he admits he did, he still faces the possibility of five years in jail. There are rumours that the investigation that led to his arrest may reveal more prominent names in the entertainment and popular music world. Kelly, on the other hand, along with former Bay City Rollers manager Tam Paton, has been arrested in connection with an enquiry that grew out of the conviction of Jonathan King - jailed last year for various sexual liaisons with adolescent male youths in the 1970s, when he was a somewhat legendary and Machiavellian pop impresario who had a variety of trashy, but memorable hits under a number of different names. It is not clear exactly what Matthew Kelly is being accused of as yet; however, if it is, as seems likely, a carbon-copy of the Jonathan King case, then the kind of accusations of 'paedophilia' that are being bandied about are simply false. King was convicted of consensual sexual activities not with 'children', but with youths aged between 14 and 16, that would have been perfectly legal in a number of European countries and some US states. Once again, for all King's odious nature (due not to his sexual peccadilloes, but rather to his reactionary Tory politics), he was and is a victim of this society's irrational age-of-consent laws, which are not aimed at protecting children from genuine sexual abuse, but rather at strengthening the power of adults, particularly parents, over children - thereby strengthening the flawed and often oppressive institution of the family. In this context, it is probably no coincidence that the entertainment industry, and particularly popular music, is a pet-hate of many 'family values' reactionaries - precisely because of its reputation for inspiring the rebellion of youth against heavy-handed control by the establishment. The Who's 'My generation' was of course a symbol of this kind of discontent in the 1960s. Irrespective of the conservatism of the various pseudo-radical stars themselves - 'Won't get fooled again' is The Who's anti-revolutionary anthem that says, 'We didn't really mean it' of the radical sentiments they experimented with in those days - the authoritarian, bourgeois agenda that stands behind the promoters - including of course Blair and his cronies - of the present hysteria about alleged child abusers is really directed at expunging remaining elements of youth rebellion from popular culture. So maybe the ensnaring of Pete Townshend could be seen by such people as having some kind of symbolic significance? Who knows. In any case, with regard to the question of child abuse in general, it used to be considered a marginal phenomenon, the preserve of the odd 'pervert' in a dirty mac who would hang around the school gates looking for kids to pick up. The massive new opportunities for easy publication that have come about by means of the internet have, more than ever, shown this to be untrue. The existence of child pornography, available on numerous internet sites, initially caused the police huge problems, due to its international scope and the technical difficulty involved in tracing people who use this kind of material. Now that the authorities appear to be overcoming some of these difficulties, it is becoming clear just how widespread the use of child-sex websites has become. The notorious fact that two of the police officers who were most prominent in the investigation and public mourning of the two little girls murdered in Soham, Essex last summer were subsequently charged with using child pornography themselves no doubt shocked many who adhered to the 'dirty old man at the school gates' vision of paedophilia. The speculation that the current police trawl of 'child porn' websites may have netted 7-10,000 UK suspects will no doubt be seen as even more startling. Since each of them could theoretically get around five years, that could lead to a major increase in the prison population that has already reached around 70,000 under Blair. The reality is that child abuse, including sexual abuse, is fundamentally a phenomenon of a society where adults exercise untrammelled power over children, most often within the confines of the family, but also in some places that act as a substitute - the scandals of abuse in children's homes are well known. The internet has provided the technical means for the rapid dissemination of images of child abuse along with more 'acceptable' pornographic material involving mature individuals of both sexes. Indeed, what the internet is doing is bringing a painful social dysfunction out into the open, a dysfunction that has lain until now largely hidden by precisely the semi-mythical figure of the man in the dirty mac. Two issues are involved in the panic over underage sex. On the one hand, there is the bourgeois state's tendency to enforce social controls over the sexuality of adolescent youth, through blanket age-of-consent laws, that do not prevent actual abuse but rather criminalise consensual relationships that defy an authoritarian social norm. Socialists and communists should demand the abolition of the present age-of-consent laws, replacing them with legislation based on the straightforward criteria of effective consent - not only must it have taken place, but it has to be meaningful, in that both parties have the maturity to understand the implications of sexual activity engaged in, on an individual basis. The other is a genuine social problem, which the oppressive institutions of class society keep reproducing - that of non-consensual sex, or sexual abuse, of those not yet capable of giving real consent. No matter how much ruling class reactionaries howl with rage against 'paedophiles', this is a problem endemic to an oppressive, alienating society that deforms and stunts the lives, including the sex lives, of large numbers of people. Lynch-mob hysteria does not reduce alienation one iota, but massively increases it. One can say with certainty that, in a manner analogous to homophobes who secretly fear their own latent homosexual feelings, many of those who howl with rage against paedophiles are really reacting in an inverted fear of what depravities they themselves might be capable of. Alienated, stunted and regimented personal lives, along with perhaps previous experience of being abused, lead a certain number of people to seek easy gratification with children over whom they often have too much power. The impact on those abused, as is well known, has been to make a substantial proportion of those so victimised by adults in this way grow up regarding this kind of non-consensual sexual activity as the norm, thus more easily becoming the abusers of the next generation. This social problem has been cascading down the generations for a long time, and it cannot be solved by imprisoning large numbers of people and inciting mobs of equally alienated people to take to the streets and lynch the abusers who get found out (along with some wrongly accused). Only a programme based on a recognition of child abuse/paedophilia as an important social problem, that needs a rational, scientific and humanist strategy to deal with it, has a cat in hell's chance of making any progress. Paedophilia, the genuine kind (not the likes of Jonathan King with his string of adolescent partners), involving usually pre-pubescent children who are incapable of effective consent, should be treated as a serious matter, not of criminality per se, but a threat to public health, and in particular mental health. Those who are unfortunate enough to be afflicted with a sexual orientation to children incapable of effective consent are suffering from a dysfunction. And of course that dysfunction has different levels of seriousness. Those whose sexuality leads them to compulsively and actively seek sex with children are no different in principle from any other kind of mentally ill person who is a danger to themselves and others: compulsory treatment in hospitals should be used when necessary. On the other hand, there are less dangerous cases: those who are affected by the same unfortunate feelings, but lack the ability or desire to put them into practice. It is likely that many of the thousands snared in the recent dragnet come into this category. There is something deeply irrational about prosecuting and jailing possibly tens of thousands of people whose only crime is to have logged onto a website to look at offensive pictures. It is true, of course, that a substantial part of the material on these websites shows actual crimes being committed: child rape, abuse, molestation, etc. These are crimes, or arguably in some cases acts of lunacy, that of course should be prosecuted or otherwise dealt with as such. It is also reckoned, on the other hand, that many of these images are fakes, often involving computer-generated images that are completely fictional, purportedly showing sexual images of children. It would be a damn sight more rational to treat people who merely view such material as milder sufferers from a psycho-sexual dysfunction - best treated, while respecting their confidentiality, with a view to rehabilitation - than to destroy their lives with prison, the 'sex-offenders register', naming and shaming, etc, in cases where no actual physical crime against another person is alleged. It is quite widely accepted that conventional forms of pornography act as a safety valve in many cases, reducing the likelihood of those with some kinds of sexual difficulties going out and committing sexual crimes; by analogy, it is not outside the bounds of possibility that such material, however repulsive to most people, could play a similar role in this field. Jailing more and more people for these kinds of infractions will most likely create, alongside the universities of crime that are prisons, universities of paedophilia in the 'rule 43' segregated wings of the same prisons: hardly an effective way of reducing this damaging social problem. In any case, there have to be more rational ways of dealing with the question than the hysterical, anti-human irrationality that currently pervades the body politic. Even sections of the bourgeois press are beginning to wake up to the stupidity of current strategies. As Rod Liddle courageously wrote in The Guardian, "No matter how vile we may consider the sexual predilections of paedophiles, we should not be in the business of putting people in prison for simply looking at things"� (January 14). Liddle concludes: "The law should be above the blind, howling, rage of Rebekah Wade's moronic vigilantes. But there is the whiff of Salem about it all."� There certainly is. Ian Donovan