Peter Tatchell and Dares to Speak

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

G260697Readers’ responses to Peter Tatchell’s letter (1)

The Guardian, 27th June 1997

G270697Readers’ responses to Peter Tatchell’s letter (2)

The Guardian, 28th June 1997

G280697Readers’ responses to Peter Tatchell’s letter (3)

The Guardian, 1st July 1997

G010797cPeter Tatchell responds to his critics

The Guardian, 1st July 1997

G010797Related: Rather than campaign on the age of consent, it might silence anti-gay bigots if some gay men spoke out against atrocities towards children – by Julie Bindel

  1. James said:

    Peter Tatchell has never advocated adults having sex with children. He does not support this. He says adults should NOT have sex with children. He has never advocated the abolition of ages of consent. He has said that if young people of similar ages have sex below the age of 16 they should not be prosecuted, providing they both consent and there is no coercion, manipulation or exploitation. Treating these young people as criminals is wrong. They need counselling, not prosecution.
    Read here:

  2. I agree with the observation you make that the modern day gay movement is not wanting to find itself linked in any meaningful way with the groups that ultimately came to represent the voice of the minor attracted lobby in the 1970s and 1980s. Having said this I don’t view your text as being entirely honest. What I mean here is that your reading of how things happen is indeed one view, it is a view that I think says more about you than it does about the subject you seek to comment on.

    The social fabric in America and in other Western spaces during the 1970s and 1980s involved a large about of social change, and yes, challenges. Some of those movements for change have succeeded, one of them being the homosexual lobby – going all the way to changing laws to decriminalize consensual sexual contacts for adult males (often women in same sex relationships were not subject to the same restrictions) and today we see many places where gay marriage is receiving public support. As part of the climate of social questioning there were those who looked at minor attracted people and the sexual rights of the young. Both those groups, unlike the homosexual lobby, have not had great success if we cast an eye over how things changed from the 1970s up until today. (A good text to read that discusses the changing shape of sex education for the young in America is Judith Levine’s book (2002) “Harmful To Minors: The Perils Of Protecting Children From Sex”. Levine argues the young have been blocked from gaining a sense of real power over their lives and I think her case is well argued.

    The make up of the gay liberation movement was in its early days a very diverse group, and yes, some were men who were attracted to the young. They made contributions that I think now it would be unfair to erase any or seek to ‘rewrite’ in the tradition of George Orwell’s 1984. One of the attacks by groups like Save Our Children was to accuse the homosexual movement of wanting to get at children. It was a rather mean and nasty accusation, and those who were part of the gay movement back in those days were able to point out and speak to the bias and prejudices that inspired this hate of the homosexual man. A turning point was the birth of the clinical term homophobia and the tables have been turned on those who fear such male on male relationships. These old accusations positioned the homosexual as psychologically and morally damaged and dangerous. The men who had to live down those cries for their blood deserve our empathy and support now.

    Your comments on “Dares to Speak: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Boy-Love” (1997) edited by Joseph Geraci, and an Introduction by Vern Bullough. I again argue says more about you than it does the text you speak about. If the price of a book is any indicator of its value then a price tag of $258 new, all the way down to $80 for a used copy is noteworthy. The gay liberation movement has had to navigate a real climb in its effort to have ideas about gay sexuality circulate in a way where today they would see their voice as being listened to. That belief that they could speak or that no one was twisting what they wanted to say was certainly not how they felt at Stonewall in 1969. (A good read on the rules about ‘truth-telling’ is Michel Foucault’s text published by Semiotext(e), and distributed by MIT Press in 2002, “Fearless Speech”.

    Finally I point you to a book published by Left Coast Press in 2013, “Censoring Sex Research: The Debate over male intergenerational relations”. Am I being fair to you if I were to predict that just as with your reading of “Dares to Speak: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Boy-Love”, you will take this recent collection of articles by sex researchers and academics and hurl this book into the same fire?

    I end where I began, yes in today’s climate the fear and prejudices have gay people afraid that the old situation they fought to over come will return, and they will again be hurled backwards. What the gay liberation movement has been able to say, and I am very glad this message got through, is that a good deal of social attitudes are often based on lies, prejudice and fears that have little or no basis in fact. Yes, along with the emancipation movements for gays and lesbians we have come to appreciate the reality of the abuse of the young. That will not be aided, I believe, but hurling minor attracted people onto community fires. More good work remains to be done.

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