The Kids Are Alright

Kindergarten advert. Berlin, July 2015.

Last year, the major twist in the child sexual abuse scandal came in the form of mainstream political ties to a pro-paedophile organisation. It had been decades since the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) was first in the news. Now Harriet Harman was singled out for blame by the Daily Mail. It was typical of the Mail to link PIE to the Labour Party.

All of this seemed to imply a progressive-paedophile alliance. This scandal is still unfolding before our eyes in another stage. Now Ted Heath stands accused of sexual abuse. Allegedly, Heath attended PIE meetings. But we may never know the full truth because the file on this has been lost.

There may be nothing incriminating. It might not even be true. In a way it’s incidental. It’s clear abuse has probably been going on a large scale for a long time.

The allegations of historic sexual abuse have raised a lot of questions. One of them being, what was the sexual culture which allowed this to go on? Many right-wing commentators have blamed the sex-friendly leftism of the 1970s, which was birthed by the hippie movement. What’s wrong with this picture?

Free love, Cheap Labour

The 1960s and ’70s brought changing social dynamics, as social democratic affluence opened up the space for new battles to be waged. Liberation for women, as well as gays and lesbians, became a new social front in politics. Yet the new emancipation would bring about new limits. It would not be the dawn of absolute freedom.

During this time the labour market underwent a transformation. Women began to enter the workplace en mass. This led to the push for wage equality. Of course, women in work was nothing new  – but it may have been the first time when women and men became competitors. Often the change suited employers. Women were paid less. So they posed a cheaper alternative to unionised male-dominated labour.

At the same time, the sexual politics of the UK were changing. The advent of the contraceptive pill ushered in a new era. Women finally had legal reproductive autonomy. It was also the material precondition for sexual freedom. The legal obstacles to the right to choose were broken. Restrictions on divorce were relaxed. All of this seemed to fall into place within a few years. But this cultural revolution was not so fast.

It's all about the framing. Brussels, August 2015.
It’s all about the framing. Brussels, August 2015.

Under Ted Heath, same-sex marriage was outlawed in 1971. It was technically legal until then. This was only undone in 2013. Of course, civil partnerships were introduced years before. Equally, Section 28 introduced by Thatcher in 1988 – to forbid the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality – was only abolished in 2003.

The Neoliberal Turn

Perhaps all of this could happen because class antagonism had been subdued. The post-war settlement was erected to buy-off the demands of the working class. The welfare state provided the structural framework for rising standards of living. Economic growth and development was stable. Social mobility reached unprecedented levels. During this time, employment and wages peaked. This is despite the problems of the day.

As the post-war settlement reached the crisis of stagflation, capital initiated a new class strategy to overcome social democracy. Neoliberalism would liberalise credit and bulldoze through organised labour. Structural unemployment would diminish the power of the trade unions. Wages would stagnate.

What was left of the working-class would have debt to make up for the wage losses. The accumulation of capital would leave behind the lower orders. The industrial base changed forever. Much of it has simply be dismantled and offshored. The British economy has been reoriented itself towards services and finance.

The Politics of Paedophilia

As this process was still in its early years, the UK became home to one of the first pro-paedophilia organisations. The Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) was founded in 1974. Officially, PIE campaigned for “children’s sexual liberation” in general and reform of the age of consent laws in particular. The organisation offered support to adults facing “legal difficulties”. It also produced literature, such as Tom O’Carroll’s Paedophilia: The Radical Case (1981).

That same year, Perspectives on Paedophilia came out. It was edited by Brian Taylor, a sociology lecturer, who claimed that the collection intended to challenge the ‘prejudice’ against child sex. Contributors included respected academics, as well as two members of PIE. One of the members was Peter Righton, the director of education at the National Institute of Social Work, who would later be convicted of child sex offences.

The Oriental version. Schaerbeek, August 23rd.

Of course, the name of the game was to decouple paedophilia from sexual abuse. We should remember that the term ‘paedophilia’ is a recent invention. Its use wasn’t widespread until the 1980s. That’s why the group got away with its name for so long. Indeed, PIE was taken seriously by the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL), known today as Liberty. This included future Blairites Harriet Harman and Patricia Hewitt.

Much like NAMBLA in the US, PIE set out to conflate its mission with gay liberation. It wasn’t completely unsuccessful either. The Campaign for Homosexual Equality conference passed at least two motions in PIE’s favour. The conference slammed “the harassment of the Paedophile Information Exchange by the press”. We shouldn’t take this conflation at face value. There was a separate and legitimate discussion on the age of consent at the time.

Old Enough to Say ‘Yes’

The current age of consent in the UK was established in 1885. Prior to that, it was 13 for about 10 years. Before that it was 12 (for little girls) going back centuries. This legislation was introduced due to the prevalence of child brothels in Victorian England. It was also introduced to update existing buggery laws. Even when homosexuality was decriminalised in 1967, the age of consent for same-sex relations was set at 21. It remained that way until 2001.

Many gay liberation campaigners, such as Peter Tatchell, argued this effectively criminalised underage sexual experiences. It certainly wasn’t that the LGBT movement wanted to enable child abuse. Yes, Tatchell has called for the age of consent to be lowered to 14. But he’s always maintained his opposition to adults taking advantage of children. It should also be noted that the age of consent varies. In many European countries the age of consent is 15 or 14.

So it’s obvious that there was a constituency for age of consent reform. It wasn’t about paedophilia. It was about formal legal equality. There was no LGBT campaign for the abolition of the age of consent. The ultimate agenda of PIE was to eliminate all obstacles. Even 14 was too old for this lot. The convergence of aims is no less unsettling. Yet we should not buy into the conflation between queer politics and pro-paedophile activism. This repeats the old equation of homosexuality with paedophilia.

The allure of plastic. Molenbeek, July 2015.
The allure of plastic. Molenbeek, July 2015.

In practice, PIE resembles an entryist operation. It set out to build a network of support across the most legitimate and respectable quarters of society. Not just human rights groups either. Its members included social workers and public school teachers. Most shocking of all, the deputy director of MI6, Sir Peter Hayman, has been identified a member. If PIE was conspiring to subvert the law, it wasn’t very effective. In 1984 the organisation disbanded after Tom O’Carroll was convicted of “conspiracy to corrupt public morals”.

Absolute Freedom

Despite what the gutter press claims, PIE had a lot in common with bourgeois society. This strange moment in British politics might be best read as libertarian hubris. It was a brazen push towards absolute freedom. As Christian Wolmar has written, PIE worked to infiltrate the libertarian left with its notion of child sexual liberation. Yet its ideology has little connection with solidarity and equality.

Freedom is constituted by its boundaries. Individuals are shaped and embedded in a historical and social context. The age of consent helps to define the contours of a person’s development. Just as the duties of citizenship do. Children aren’t fully formed moral agents. This is why we absolve them, to some extent, of the same standards as ‘grown-ups’. So how could they possibly be developed sexual agents? It’s obvious why PIE would argue otherwise.

Absolute freedom is the key here. It’s the ultimate destination of negative freedom, as the abolition of all restraints, all obstacles, to emancipate the individual. That’s children as fully responsible individuals. Absolute freedom can’t tolerate any restrictions. It has to circumvent, if not subvert, the obstacles in its path. So it goes the free-market, much like the Paedophile Information Exchange, children are fair game.

Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit.

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