The controversy surrounding a letter that Peter Tatchell wrote to the Guardian in June 1997 has never gone away. Here is the original book review of Dares to Speak (edited by Joseph Geraci, who also edited the European paedophile magazine Paidika), followed by Peter Tatchell’s letter to the Guardian, Guardian readers’ responses, and finally Tatchell’s response to his critics. Tatchell now claims his original letter was edited by the Guardian, but for some reason he didn’t complain about this in his second letter to the Guardian.
The book review
The Observer, 22nd June 1997
Why Dares to Speak says nothing useful, by Ros Coward
Twenty years ago, paedophile groups caused a real problem for gay liberation politics. The majority of gay men didn’t think paedophilia had anything to do with combating discrimination against homosexual adults. But a small minority tried to use the movement to free “boy-love” from its social stigmas. In the end, the police solved the dilemma: leading “boy-love” activists were convicted for conspiracy to corrupt. So it is shocking that the Gay Men’s Press is publishing a book on paedophilia in a climate even more alerted to its dangers.
Dares to Speak is a collection of essays, ostensibly calling for more balance in research on paedophilia. Yet the scales are tipped in one direction. It emphasises “positive accounts of inter -generational and childhood sexuality issues” and dismisses current concerns as “hysteria” or “the abuse industry”.
An article by a leading Dutch campaigner for “paedophile emancipation” concludes: “Paedophilia is not a problem for the paedophile; it is apparently also not a problem for the child. Paedophilia is primarily a problem for the non-paedophile, for society.” He helpfully supplies the address for a Dutch paedophile publishing group.
The book’s editor, Joseph Geraci, also edits Paidika, a Journal of Paedophilia published in Amsterdam. Although living in a tolerant city, he refuses interviews because of the recent horrors in Belgium. Spokesmen from the Gay Men’s Press were equally elusive, issuing just a written defence of the book: “GMP has always seen boy-love as a legitimate strand in the gay rainbow. There are boys who love men just as there are men who love boys.”
Some points need to be made. Contemporary views of childhood sexuality are schizophrenic. At one moment, childhood masturbation is “normal”; at another, “excessive” masturbation is a sure sign of abuse. Current age of consent legislation discriminates against homosexuals and does not reflect teenagers’ real experiences. It may even be right to condemn the hypocrisy of criminalising the relationship between a 13-year-old boy and a man of 20, while condoning the marriage of a woman of 20 and man of 60.
But it shows that the gay movement has no explicit line on paedophilia. The emphasis may have shifted to older boys and ambiguities around the age of consent, but fundamental assumptions persist: that boys have a very active sexuality; they often initiate sex with older men themselves and these relationships may be harmless. A contemporary twist adds that children are more likely to be damaged by over-officious social workers.
The book refuses to take seriously sexual abuse and its consequences. Take its claim that the problem is exaggerated because conviction rates are low. (Only 2 to 5 per cent of accusations by children under seven result in conviction.) Surely the opposite inference is more likely – that the judiciary simply does not believe children in this age group?
Beyond that, why do these defenders of “boy-love” dare to speak (as one did on Kilroy last week) when no one would do the same about girls? The reason is that their view of boys’ sexuality is no different from the wider social view. “Boy-lovers” believe that boys, like men, are the sexual initiators, because male sexuality is exploratory. So the extremely active pubescent boy might well initiate “harmless” sexual acts with older men as part of a wider exploration of their sexuality.
Feminism has made it impossible to represent girls like this, exposing as meaningless the idea of consent in sex between an adult and a child. Even if a pubescent girl is sexually knowing, that is no excuse for imposing adult conceptions of sexuality which might leave her at best guilty and at worst traumatised.
YET no one stands up for boys in the same way. The prejudice of our culture is that boys are less vulnerable. Indeed, feminism has its own version, arguing that paedophilia is a distracting concern, conjuring up visions of men preying on boys when the “real” issue is abuse of girls.
Both share a view of boys as more active in exploitative situations: after all, if the boy’s body shows a response, doesn’t that amount to collusion? This is why boys have been so vulnerable to unwanted sexual attention from men and so unlikely to find proper protection. Lonely vulnerable boys in need of adult attentions were exploited by men who convinced themselves they had consent. Situations went on unchecked, despite public concern about paedophilia, because too little attention is paid to the vulnerability of boys.
It may be no problem for the Gay Men’s Press to raise the issue of paedophilia. But they have chosen not to confront this basic problem. They offer no line, nor any defence of one. So Dares to Speak ends up dumb – a sneaky defence of an exploitative activity.
Peter Tatchell’s response
The Guardian, 26th June 1997
The Guardian, 27th June 1997
The Guardian, 28th June 1997
The Guardian, 1st July 1997
The Guardian, 1st July 1997