Strange Days (published with many thanks to the author who wishes to remain anonymous)
As we await publication of the Wanless/Whittam review, here are some brief sentences on the strange atmosphere that allowed groups calling for the decriminalization of paedophilia to lobby and infiltrate the Home Office.
It was an era of turbulence and change. Things now illegal had yet to be so defined; and things then illegal had not yet been repealed. Laws and ideas relating to sex were bitterly fought over. Many paedophiles felt emboldened in such an atmosphere and thought their moment had come.
Their lobby, presented as part of broader liberation movements, was said to stand for modernity and common sense. This actually convinced some people. One editor of Gay News claimed that: “We were fighting against a lot of outmoded laws, and perhaps the ones against paedophilia were as outmoded as those against homosexuality or cannabis.”
The Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE), which existed from 1974-84, was the most notorious member of the lobby. It existed and operated openly. Most of its members maintained their anonymity, but others chose not to. In some circles members were very open indeed.
PIE members gained and held positions at legitimate, mainstream pressure groups like the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) and the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE). But PIE operated much more widely. Members associated, formally and informally, with a whole range of influential people from a bewildering array of pressure groups and community organisations, both large and small. Some maintained relationships with MPs and Civil Servants.
The Home Office seemingly lacked the will to combat these trends and, consequently, necessary legislative change was resisted. The mess in relation to child protection was summed up by The Times in February 1978: ‘At present police have difficulty in gaining a conviction under the Sexual Offences Act 1956, because there must be evidence of assault on a child. The Indecency with Children Act, 1960, is concerned only with those under the age of 14 and its wording is not clear. The Obscene Publications Act, 1959, has been described as the most useless legislation on the statute book.’
This confusion allowed for an open trade in ‘kiddyporn’. One shopkeeper, who argued that giving paedophiles access to such material prevented them from “going out after the real thing”, nevertheless had ‘no idea whether the magazines he sells will be judged indecent by police, who he says are as bewildered by the present law as he is.’
Cyril Townsend, a backbench Conservative MP, asked the Home Office to act. In response, he claimed, it said: “that the problem did not exist, then that it had all been exaggerated, and finally that it was impossible to do anything about it.”
Townsend sought to tackle child pornography by sponsoring a Private Members’ Bill that eventually became the Protection of Children Act 1978. He became a PIE hate figure in the process. He lamented the need for private action and said this was only necessary because the Home Office itself was unwilling to propose its own legislation: “MPs of all parties have expressed their support, and I do not think that I will have difficulty getting the required number of MPs in the House… The only people who are not giving me their support are the Home Office and their lawyers. I find their attitude extraordinary.”
A Times leader column, in discussing the Bill, demonstrated the liberal confusion of the day: ‘It is right that severe penalties should be readily available against those who exploit children in a detestable trade. It is more questionable whether they should fall on the addicts as well as the pushers – on the furtive swapping of pictures as well as their commercial promotion. At an earlier stage in the drafting of the Bill it was even intended to make even possession [sic] an offence, on the grounds that even that might make the owner dangerous to children. That would have been wrong, and might have resulted in blackmail.’
Another example comes from the Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship (otherwise known as the Williams Committee), which reported in November 1979 and took a relaxed, relativist line on pornography: ‘Given the amount of explicit sexual material in circulation and the allegations often made about its effects, it is striking that one can find case after case of sex crimes and murder without any hint at all that pornography was present in the background.’
The paedophile lobby was a lobby of ideas. It sought to change minds. The law, it believed, would then follow. The minds it sought above all were those within the Home Office.
A Home Office paper from 1979 (‘Sexual Offences, Consent and Sentencing’) suggested a lowering of the age of consent to 14 and that punishments be reduced for ‘consensual’ sex with girls of even younger ages. It said: “Paradoxical though it might seem to argue that [the point at which tougher sentences are applied] should be lower than the average age of puberty it is not unreasonable. The average age is 13, but it is not unusual for a girl to reach puberty before her 10th birthday or after her 16th. Thus a large number of 12-year-old girls have already attained puberty and may not only be willing to take part in sexual activity but may actually initiate it.”
Tom O’Carroll, former PIE Chairman, has written of this Home Office paper: ‘It took the recognition of “under-age” consent seriously, using the term “partners” rather than “victims”. He added that: ‘Also – and this will raise eyebrows but I said it way back in 1980 in my book Paedophilia the Radical Case – we had it on reliable authority that [Roy] Jenkins [Home Secretary] personally read PIE’s evidence to the Home Office Criminal Law Revision Committee on the age of consent and that our proposals for law reform caught his imagination.’
Other groups shared key parts of PIE’s agenda, but also had broader concerns and were thus less obviously objectionable. The Sexual Law Reform Society (SLRS), for example, grew out of the genuine need to reform laws relating to homosexuality and had several establishment figures on its executive committee, including parliamentarians, intellectuals, and a clergyman.
Nevertheless, Dr John Robinson, Chair of the SLRS and Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge, openly lectured on the ‘effect of sexual experience on children’. He quoted and described as “wise” the words of an anonymous former probation officer: “Harm results much more from the tension between an individual’s experience and that of his reference group than from the experience in itself. Some research on childhood ‘victim’ of sexual offences would appear to bear this out in that it is the subsequent parental horror, police investigation, etc., which are significantly more disturbing than the offence.”
Robinson later said: “On the age of consent it’s quite clear the law is largely an ass. There is a vast amount of illegal sexual activity going on where ultimately no one is being exploited or damaged or abused… Theoretically it would be much better not to have any age of consent at all, but to settle the matter according to any particular case – according to whether a person really is being abused or exploited.”
Groups with establishment credentials like the NCCL and SLRS were able to feed ideas in this area directly to the Criminal Law Revision Committee (CLRC) at the Home Office. But other groups, PIE included, did so too, both to the CLRC and elsewhere. One official submission, by the Gay Activists Alliance, actually signed off by declaring: ‘Gay love and paedophile kisses, or paedophile love and gay kisses to the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure, from the London Gay Activists Alliance.’
The Home Office knew of all these groups and their overlapping personnel and agendas. Indeed, an official PIE submission to the CLRC had been made as early as 1975. When powerful figures were involved, as they were, the Home Office would have surely desired knowledge of their activities and intentions, just as PIE and its allies desired knowledge of Home Office activities and intentions. We can say that PIE and others sought to control and influence the Home Office. Might the reverse have also been true?
i ‘Home Truths’ by Christian Wolmar, Independent on Sunday, 8 October 2000
ii ‘Fears over children lured into pornography’ by Penny Symon, The Times, 9 February 1978
iii ‘Profiting in kiddyporn’ by George Brock, The Observer, 12 February 1978
iv ‘Fears over children lured into pornography’ by Penny Symon, The Times, 9 February 1978
v ‘Home Office criticized on child pornography’ by Penny Symon, The Times, 4 February 1978
vi ‘The Need to Protect Children’, The Times, 10 February 1978
vii Obituary: Professor Sir Bernard Williams, The Daily Telegraph, 14 June 2003
viii ‘Whitehall study wanted age of consent lowered to 14’, by Robert Booth, The Guardian, 8 July 2014
ix Tom O’Carroll blog post (26 February 2014: accessed 10 November 2014)
x ‘Sex and the law’ by the Rt. Rev. John Robinson, The Guardian, 6 July 1972
xi ‘Rights and wrongs’ by Michael De-la-Noy, The Guardian, 5 September 1974
xii Gay Activists Alliance submission to the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure, April 1979