Martin Sewell is a family Solicitor from Kent
This week has had two primary news stories directing our attention to the same difficult subject of adolescent sexuality and the response of the adult world to it. Both stories should be sounding a klaxon to alert us that we have got all this seriously wrong.
In the Rochdale case, we have read of a long history of targeted abuse of vulnerable girls in the 13 to 15 age group by a group who had no interest in their individuality; I mean no disrespect to them by referring to them as from “the underclass”, but by doing so we can emphasise that they are presented in our media as very different from the missing 15 year old Sussex schoolgirl, Megan Stammers. One group is plainly known to the agencies responsible for protecting the poor, the vulnerable and excluded who slip through the protective net on a regular basis; the other hits the headlines as the seeming antithesis.
In the latter case, Megan’s mother told the Daily Mail: "She is always in at 7pm, she is not one of these kids to roam the streets, she doesn’t go out drinking or anything like that. She doesn’t like the dark so she had never been out after dark,' She added: 'It is completely out of character, this is not her, she is not like this."
In the former case, the threat was external, overtly exploitative, and, yes, "foreign" (whilst in Megan’s case the danger came from the wolf within within the fold). The Rochdale girls suffered more anonymously and brutally, whilst Megan’s exploitation is clothed in the language of “relationship”, though both should be identified as plain abuse by adults who should know better.
Even as we discuss the wrongs, we have to treat the northern lasses as a “job lot”, whilst Sussex Megan has a name, a face and a personality. The differentiation and exclusion continue. I was struck as I Iistened to one “expert” on radio 4 defending under age sex and the “choices”of girls like Megan with the words “young person” and “relationship”, whilst subtly referring to others of the same age as ‘children” being “abused”. That is illustrates the double standard of such excusing minds.
Last night I met an ex-social worker friend, now a priest, and we compared notes: we were often on different sides of court cases but each of us had reached a common conclusion on these matters. These cases need to take us to some fundamental questions about how we protect young people, and part of that process involves making the progressive liberal establishment own the consequences of its actions.
You can see those results in courts, prisons, drug rehabilitation hostels and sink estates throughout the country. My friend had been chatting to a workman at her house about Megan’s case. He would have no problem condemning the Rochdale abuse, but in the second case he softened “…but they’re in love” he intoned, as my friend struggled to contain her anger.
Therein lies our confusion.
There are two approaches to framing laws and policies; the one clear, unambiguous, sometimes harsh; the other amorphous, inconsistent and malleable. We have moved from the former towards the latter, to our detriment.
It is time to ask a simple plain question. Does the age of consent mean anything anymore, and if so what should be done about it?
I have concluded that the pragmatic evidence is clear that society has a legitimate interest in delaying the onset of sexual activity amongst the young. I am sure I did not think this when I was 15. I have become a fogey, but that, I fear, is the price of maturity. I hope it is contagious.
A lifetime of working with, and for, children like those who suffered in Rochdale has taught me how wrong we have been to allow the surrender of childhood and adolescence to the progressive zeitgeist. By fearing to defend a defensible unambiguous standard we open many children to be let down and exploited by poor parenting, commercial interests, inadequately protective public institutions and social experimenters.
Nobody with that background is under any illusion that children who engage prematurely in adult behaviours , whether sex, alcohol or drugs, tend to end up with poorer outcomes. Their problems swiftly become generational and grow exponentially to society’s cost.
There may be some highly resilient girls who make it through relatively unscathed, but the majority who fall into premature adulthood are highly ill equipped to do so, and most have tragic regretted outcomes for themselves and society. Put bluntly this behaviour costs us a fortune. Normally when we can help the vulnerable by limiting the freedoms of the advantaged, our progressive friends are highly in favour, but here we threaten their sacred cows of “self fulfillment” and the cult of the transgressive, so they turn their back. These poor girls of the underclass aren’t worth the effort.
Malcolm Muggeridge – who saw much of this coming – identified part of the problem. “Sex is the mysticism of materialism and the only possible religion in a materialistic society.“ Amazingly. our progressive friends fail to notice that “respecting lifestyle choice” and “marketing opportunity” are almost synonymous. The commercial sexualisation of even the very young is built on the grubby premise that the sooner you can be “at it” the better.
The philosophical roots of the problem are laid bare in the blog entries of Mr Forrest, the teacher in question, where we can hear how contemporary progressive society slithers through the cracks of an unclear social policy. “How do we, and how should we define what is right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable…. you have to have faith in your own judgement”. If only he had added “ You may say I‘m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one”. It is a philosophical wet dream.
No doubt he thought Victoria Gillick utterly delusional when she sought to protect the age of consent at the cost of the much vaunted” harm reduction” approach. Her heroic failure meant that the abuser was armed with a powerful persuasion: "It's not wrong…society pays for underage contraception and abortion… your parents need not know…it’s plainly such a hypocrisy to condemn us…”
The protective parent was simultaneously disarmed, and continues to know that the police are usually not interested in ‘infringing human rights” in this area even though the convention permits countries to limit freedom of expression proportionately. In one aspect however, Mr Forrest’s blog showed unintended insight; his feelings “hit him like heroin”; doubtless they did. Heroin deprives one of all moral values, rendering one selfish, impervious to the interests of others and single mindedly intent on personal gratification. Welcome to moral relativism.
And there lies the problem. The simple law that says that anyone engages in sex with a minor at their peril, would be hard work to enforce, and we should have to back it up with a whole range of attitudinal changes. It used to work: it could again if we had the will to do so. Whether we are prepared to carry that fight forward depends upon answering one simple question.
Do you think we should robustly protect the vulnerable girls of the underclass, and give them a chance of a better life or do we go with those who think they are not worth the trouble?