Is sex with children so very unusual?

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By: Brian Sewell

The House of Commons has just indulged in one of its occasional frenzies of hypocrisy. The occasion was the debate on a Private Member's Bill intended to curtail the activities of paedophiles, arguing too that sexual offences committed abroad should, on the traveller's homecoming, be subject to British jurisdiction, with particular application to those men whose tastes lie with pre-pubertal girls and boys.

MPs believe, it seems, that the innocence of children is both absolute and ubiquitous and those whose lechery is fixed on them are unnatural and wicked, depraved beyond redemption; there were, inevitably, demands for the castration of offenders and the suppression of pornography.

To those of us unwilling to forget or forgive MP's known and often flamboyant cases of heterosexual adultery, to say nothing of the lying, cheating, dissembling, and casuistry to which so many are accustomed in their political activities, there is something distasteful and unedifying about backbenchers of all parties when they unite and make new moral laws to punish what they assert are unnatural diversions.

We should perhaps question the word *unnatural* in this context. In a civilised society (whatever we may mean by that term), we do not engage in sexual acts with children, and it is deemed unnatural even to have fantasies of that nature. Certainly it is not now the custom here, but it has been customary. The business of the child bride (and occasionally groom) were quite in order in Plantagenet times, the child prostitute a commonplace in the prayers of the pious Victorian.

Look back to ancient Rome, that society of noble heroes, wise philosophers and grave political abstractions so esteemed by Gladstone and Disraeli, and we find that innumerable poets wrote their lays in praise of hairless boys and girls, the growth of body hair marking the end of their sexual appeal.

Look now at Bangladesh, where 14 is the average age of women at the birth of their first child - which means that many are much younger. Look at Turkey where recent research has revealed that where the constraints of Islam are relaxed, what we now describe as the abuse of children is as endemic as it was in the Ottoman Empire of Byron's day.

None of this supports the notion that sexual acts with children are unnatural. Indeed the very reverse seems to apply: that our restraint may be the unnatural behaviour. This is not to argue that we should condone the bedding of children, but merely to suggest that what we have only recently learned to find distasteful and deplorable, we have at other times accepted without question, and on other places should now grudgingly accept as an aspect of alien culture. We have, as an imperial nation used to setting good examples, always imposed our moral precepts on other cultures, but in doing so now we may be in error; the sex tourism of the distant east is not part of our social culture, but to Indians, Sri Lankans, Thais and Filipinos (and others) it is and these are the nations that must impose new moral constraints if they feel them necessary. The roots, however, are deep, widespread and historic - witness the Pathan poetry and Richard Burton's report of 1845 to Napier on the boy prostitutes of Karachi, and the boys and girls who made such pretty catamites and whores in the Shinto culture of Japan two centuries ago.

If the traditions of paedophilia reach so far and wide, then outrage in the debating chambers of Westminister (the Lords will soon be nibbling at this cherry) seems a trifle pointless, a potshot with a peashooter at the hide of a rhinoceros. If these eastern countries wish to change their long established patterns of sexual availability, then they have the power to do so, but it is not for us to attempt the initiation or imposition of such changes. If change occurs then we should waste no sympathy on British citizens who offend and find themselves in uncomfortable prisons, but we should never extend laws made in Britain to cover offences committed abroad. To do so as an emotional response would set a deplorable and dangerous precedent in which distaste might distort evidence or even compensate for its absence.

The problem of sex tourism is far more complicated than the simple business of unpleasant middle-aged men in congress with young children, and deplore it though we do, we should not surrender common sense to nausea. We should also consider the possibility that the consequence of preventing child prostitution in the Far East is the same economic disaster that faces families in India dependent on the few rupees earned by the tiny children who slave on carpet looms: if we, with our lofty principles, refuse to import their carpets, then the children starve.

No sane and reasonable MP should talk of castration and life sentences, for whatever it may be to most of us - unpleasant, sickening, detestable, repellent, unlawful (here) - paedophilia is not an unnatural or aberrant condition wilfully assumed.

Is is also as well to recall an observation made in paragraph 98 of the Wolfenden Report, published in 1957 and valid still, perhaps more than ever, dealing with homosexual seduction of boys (but no doubt true of girls, too): "The fact of being seduced often does less harm to the victim than the publicity which attends the criminal proceedings against the offender and the distress which undue alarm sometimes leads parents to show."

source: Article 'Is sex with children so very unusual?' by Brian Sewell (art critic & columnist); groups.google.com/forum/#!msg/misc.kids/u639COBchmM/w5X40YKrzlgJ; Sunday Telegraph; 28 April 1996