In the same week that David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, proposed that paedophiles be subjected to lie-detector tests, to discover whether they were still attracted to children, it was announced that pregnant girls under the age of 16 could have abortions performed upon them without the knowledge of their parents. Together, these symbolised in the starkest possible fashion the confusion that reigns in this country on the matter of child and adolescent sexuality.
On the one hand, there is an exaggerated fear of paedophilia. It is this fear that Blunkett is trying, in populist fashion, to assuage. The crime of paedophilia is treated in much of the press as uniquely horrible. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that fear and hatred of paedophilia exists in exact proportion to the licentiousness that creates the conditions in which it is most likely to occur. When mobs stone paedophiles in police vans, therefore, they are expressing anger not at the monster inside, but at their debased and degraded way of life which they know perfectly well to be wrong. I know prisoners who would beat imprisoned paedophiles to a pulp if they had the chance. Yet they have often themselves fathered children whom they have then abandoned to the mercies of serial stepfathers. In psychiatric parlance, they are "projecting", ascribing to others the evil within them.
Hand in hand with this exaggerated fear of paedophilia is the ever greater, and ever earlier, sexualisation of children. Magazines and books for children increasingly make sex and sexual experience the measure of all things. A teacher told me how he had one day to comfort a child of seven who had been horribly taunted and insulted by a classmate, who had called him a virgin. "What is a virgin?" asked the teacher. "I don't know," replied the child. "But I know it's something horrible."
Parents happily, indeed proudly, put televisions and videos in their children's rooms - and innocence of any description cannot long survive a diet of contemporary television, or indeed of contemporary advertising hoardings or pop music.
Doctors are officially enjoined to connive at what the law nevertheless still considers sexual crime. They are professionally obliged, indeed, to act as panders to paedophiles, at least in supplying under-age girls with contraceptives without telling their parents. The practice has led not to a decrease, but to an increase, in abortion and pregnancy in under-age girls.
Each and every under-age pregnancy is the result of a sexual crime, since the law holds that a child under the age of 16 cannot give consent to intercourse, because he or she lacks capacity to do so. Yet no investigation of such crime ever follows; instead, we are asked to believe that girls whom the law regards as incapable of giving consent to intercourse have capacity to give consent (without parents' knowledge) to abortion. One 14-year-old girl was reported as saying that she didn't want her mother to know about her abortion because she "would kill me". This remark clearly places pregnancy and abortion on the same moral plane as, for example, a day's truancy from school or failure to do some homework, and is evidence in itself of the incapacity of the girl to take serious decisions for herself. Her mother could be fined or even sent to prison if her child failed repeatedly to attend school, but she has no entitlement to know about her child's sexual activity. She has responsibility without power, which is just as bad as its opposite.
It is not even as if the British population is unaware of the legal age of consent. In prisons I see men incarcerated for having had sexual relations with an under-age girl who are there de facto not because they had sex with her, but rather because they stopped having sex with her. The girl and her parents (who until then have connived at the relationship) use the law as revenge at being so jilted, and go to the police.
The phenomenon of parental connivance at under-age sex was well illustrated in the biography of Ian Huntley, the Soham murderer. Much ink was spilled on the inefficiency of the police in failing to prevent Huntley from obtaining his job as school caretaker in Soham, but what was less noticed, though far more socially significant, was the behaviour of people associated with his previous sexual activities with under-age girls. It went unremarked because we prefer to pretend that faults lie only with the authorities, such as the police, and never with us, the people.
For example, one mother of a child aged 12 who had had sex with Huntley did not tell the police when she discovered what had happened. A 15-year-old continued to have sex with him even though the parents protested - but never to the police. Another girl aged 15 was set up in a household with Huntley by her own parents, and when he started mistreating her, the parents still did nothing. Presumably, they did not want to go to the police because they had procured their own under-age daughter for him. Not coincidentally, a rape case against Huntley collapsed because the complainant was so drunk that she could not remember having danced with him in a nightclub earlier in the evening, as recorded on video.
What we see in all this is a population, or a substantial part of a population, unwilling to draw any boundaries and stick to them, for fear that its own activities might have to be curtailed. In the language of art criticism, after all, transgression is the highest praise. Boundaries are always to an extent arbitrary, but that does not make them any the less necessary in the maintenance of a civilised society.
Both the dishonest execration in which paedophiles are held and the unprincipled sexualisation of childhood suggest the British are a nation of paedophiles who, with good reason, despise themselves.