Sunday, January 19, 2003

David Aaronovitch Comment

Don't look now

In the sordid world of child abuse, fantasy and reality are perilously intertwined

This piece starts inside a taxi parked near the Mumtaz restaurant in Baker Street, one evening in the early Seventies. There are five people inside, and one of them, a middle-aged celebrity, looks over to a 16-year-old boy sitting opposite, rolls his famous eyes, and says, 'I think Big John has the hots for somebody here, and my guess,' he pauses, and then points, 'is that it's you.'

The 'you' was me. A boy from school who had got a job as a part-time cleaner in the flat of the celebrity, and with the job came the invitation to be in the audience to watch a famous show being recorded at BBC Television Centre. He chose me. After the recording it was off to Baker Street with one of the stars and some of his friends, including Big John.

What did I feel? Bewildered. This had never happened to me before. Embarrassed. Repelled. Big John was not an attractive man, and he certainly was big. Scared. I wasn't quite sure how I would get home if I suddenly had to decamp (so to speak) from the cab. Fortunately the issue wasn't pressed. My face had registered all that it needed to — the taxi dropped me at the end of my road and sped off.

Ah, and I felt something else too, which is much harder to admit. I was very slightly (very, very slightly) flattered and intrigued. Flattered to be found attractive even by so dubious a catch as Big John, and quite intrigued as to what he would have done to me had I smiled at him, and had the taxi (as I suppose it would) taken us on to his flat. And what would I have done had the celebrity propositioned me on his own behalf? The same, I think. If the celebrity had been a woman? If Big John had been Big Johanna? If I'd been drunk? If they had all been more persistent?

What I'm saying is that I feel and felt some ambivalence, even in that situation, where the prospect was some form of sex with an ugly old man. (Can I really be writing this?) And that that ambivalence is, I would guess, far more a part of our sexual condition that we ever like to admit.

A year or two earlier, I had had a series of minor crushes on younger boys who were more conventionally handsome than me (admittedly a wide field). I never acted upon any of them, but I can just about recall the attraction. So the merest imprint remains, of something that I felt at 13 or 14.

Right now there is no public space for ambivalence. One newspaper spoke yesterday of 10,000 more names being on 'a new FBI list of British paedophiles' — ie, people who had, like Pete Townshend, used their credit cards to access pornography depicting children naked or being abused. In the same way, other celebrities are lumped in with paedophiles, and subjected to reputation-lynching, because they are being investigated for having sex with 15-year-old boys 30 years ago.

Here comes the necessary disclaimer. The sexual abuse of a child is a uniquely horrible crime, because it destroys the child's sense of him or herself and undermines the capacity for trust. The fact that this crime is usually carried out by a parent or a trusted adult, makes the damage worse.

But two aspects of the current panic worry me. The first is that, like judges and the courts, I feel that circumstances can alter cases; had I decided to let Big John have his wicked way with me, I don't really think that he would have deserved prosecution. The second is that, no matter how often I turn this one round in my head, I cannot quite accept that thinking is the same as doing. I just don't agree that looking at child porn on the net is a similar order of crime to creating the abuse and then photographing it, or even to distributing it.

I understand the arguments. If you reward an abuser then you are encouraging the crime. In the film The Accused (based, I believe, on a true story), a woman successfully prosecuted several men who had egged on other men to rape her in a bar poolroom. And that is good enough reason for making it illegal to pay for internet child porn. But it is a step beyond that to argue that those who do pay are either paedophiles or sex offenders, or that they should be humiliated or imprisoned as if they were. We do not know what they are, just as we don't always know what we are.

That's because there's something else here too. The advent of the internet and the ubiquity of computers have shortened the distance between fantasy and its expression. This is a very dramatic change. It's not just about being able to access pictures and stories that once were the territory only of seedy sex-shops (though that's part of it), or even the realisation that there are people out there who are as weird as you may be. It is the ability, in the most unrestricted way, to explore simultaneously the inner and the outer world.

It is easy to see that this search can be motivated as much by a strange curiosity as by a desire for arousal or release. Some 'perversions' such as shoe fetishism have always existed and are relatively straightforward, but others are not. These, however, are now imaginable and available. It surely can only be in the age of the web that you could look up the phrase 'goat-fisting' and get 81 references. And if you follow them up, are you a goat-fister? I believe that some of those who have sent their credit card details off to child-porn providers have simply lost sight of themselves and of reality, and are actually no more likely to abuse children than any of the rest of us.

And there are big dangers in trying to look inside other peoples' heads. In 2001 Brian Dalton of Columbus, Ohio, got 10 years after his probation officer found a diary detailing his (admittedly horrible) fantasies about sex with kids. But they were fantasies, and Dalton was not trying to sell or distribute them. Similarly I worried about prosecuting people who click on dodgy photographs and, by so doing, download them onto their computers.

This is a plea for intelligence, not inaction. The fact that many people are in some way interested in children in a sexual context, is not a surprise to the psycho-analytical community. But they will not, routinely, be described as paedophiles, let alone as 'sick, twisted, perverts'. In any case, the hard-core active paedophiles probably never give out their credit card details, but instead exchange encrypted messages and pictures through hard-to-trace aliases and bogus websites. Such paedophiles, who need to be (and are) exceptionally devious and committed to their perversion, must be aware that overt internet child-porn is the biggest aid that law enforcement and child protection authorities have ever had. So I am in favour of spying on suspect sites and people, and doing everything possible to follow child-porn to its source — real children really being violated — and banging up those heartless, damaged bastards who create it.

But lets not pretend that, somehow, we have this sussed. Strangely I trust the police to act sensibly (because, like the analysts, they've seen it all): it's the rest of us I worry about. We're very anxious, a lot of the time, to act as though sexuality was a straight line from adolescent masturbation, via looking at nude pictures, to years of intermittent intercourse and eventually death. And we still get dangerously upset when there's evidence that it just isn't so.

— David Aaronovitch also writes for our sister paper the Guardian in G2 every Wednesday.

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Created: January 27, 2003
Last modified: January 27, 2003
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