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Coffee House

How did paedophilia come to be such a problem in Britain?

7 July 2014

8:53 AM

7 July 2014

8:53 AM

One problem from which I am confident I don’t suffer is paedophilia. I have always liked picking up babies and hugging them, especially my own children or grandchildren, but never in the ‘Rolfie deserves a cuddle’ kind of way. The idea of sexually lusting after children seems to me not only abhorrent but almost unimaginable. If anything is against nature, it must be to regard children as sexual objects.

I have always known of course, that paedophiles exist. I was aware of it when, as an eight-year-old, I went to a prep school in Berkshire where the headmaster would snog the prettiest boys (alas, not me) in their dormitory beds and where the violin teacher had a habit of placing his hand on my thigh. But this was fairly innocuous stuff, and only later did I learn that some paedophiles have urges so strong that they will not or cannot keep them within tolerable bounds.

Accordingly, parental panic about paedophilia has sometimes brought about controversial responses such as ‘Megan’s Law’ in the United States, which decreed that the identities of convicted sexual offenders should be made known to their neighbours, and such as Rebekah Brooks’s copycat campaign in the News of the World for the ‘naming and shaming’ of such people in Britain. But neither had any perceptible effect on the amount of sex offending that went on, and even Brooks herself later admitted that her campaign ‘could have been done better’ and that it had ‘carried risks of vigilantism’.

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In addition to all that, we all became aware in recent years of the many cases of the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and of the shock that this created within the Church (possibly, in my opinion, being a significant factor in the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI, who in his previous Vatican job as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith had to read all the revolting dossiers on this scandal pouring in from around the world). Nevertheless, despite everything, I had continued to regard paedophilia as something that didn’t affect most people, a perversion confined to an unfortunate few, and an evil that was at least limited in its effects.

Now, for heaven’s sake, it doesn’t seem like that at all. After the tsunami of allegations against entertainers, politicians, and people in every walk of life – allegations that in some cases have already proved fully justified – it has come to seem that paedophilia is a condition shared by vast numbers of men and that those who do not suffer from it may just be a lucky few.
There have been efforts in the past, especially through the Paedophile Information Exchange, to make paedophilia respectable, the PIE’s stated aim having been ‘to alleviate [the] suffering of many adults and children’ by campaigning to abolish the age of consent and to legalise sex between them. But the PIE wound up in 1984, and its campaign was not a success. Sex between adults and children seems to remain the one form of sexual activity that society is not prepared to tolerate, and we can only be grateful for that.

If there were ever any chance that people might come round to it (and there surely never was much), it will have been killed decisively by the sheer horror of the revelations about Jimmy Savile, especially his ruthless abuse of disadvantaged and mentally damaged children in the medical institutions he patronised. It would obviously be grotesque for anyone to argue that what he got up to could have ‘alleviated the suffering’ of anyone except, conceivably, of himself.

One might perhaps have some tiny feeling of sympathy for Savile, with his fixation on his weird, heartless, domineering mother with whom he yearned for intimacy. One might even feel sympathy for Rolf Harris, covering up depression and emotional coldness with a ghastly false bonhomie. One might even feel sorry for Cyril Smith for having been so fat. But none of these drawbacks could ever begin to excuse their behaviour towards children. There are circumstances in which even murder may be forgiven, but when it comes to child abuse, a line is quite rightly drawn. If there is one good thing to have come out of all this, it is a strengthening of the public’s conviction that the innocence of children must be protected at any price. Meanwhile, one feels very smug not to be a paedophile.

Alexander Chancellor writes his ‘Long life’ column every week for The Spectator. To receive three months of magazine for just £12 click here.

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