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10 February 2021

France faces a reckoning over historic child sex abuse

A new book alleging child sex abuse by a member of the Parisian intellectual elite has caused a sensation in France – and revived an old and troubling debate about consent. 

By Louise Perry

Many people knew and most of them pretended nothing had happened,” writes Camille Kouchner in a new book that has caused a sensation in France. Kouchner is the stepdaughter of Olivier Duhamel, the prominent 70-year-old intellectual and politician associated with the soixante-huitards, the generation that occupied the Sorbonne in 1968 and relished the new freedoms of the period. In her book, La Familia Grande, published last month, Kouchner details the alleged sexual abuse by Duhamel of her twin brother, then aged 14, in 1988, and it is not only Duhamel who stands accused: his powerful friends of the Parisian gauche caviar – the revolutionaries who gathered under the slogan “Il est interdit d’interdire!” (“It is forbidden to forbid”) – are also alleged by Kouchner to have tolerated or participated in the sexual abuse of children, unpunished and at scale.

Under the hashtag #Metooinceste, France is facing a reckoning. Feminists are staging protests in support of a woman allegedly raped by 20 Parisian firefighters when she was between 13 and 15 years old. French laws on statutory rape are lax compared with those in the UK, which means that, despite the victim’s youth at the time of the offences, the men on trial cannot be charged with rape unless the prosecution proves she was subjected to violence or coercion. Meanwhile, the actor Richard Berry, the author Gabriel Matzneff and the director Christophe Ruggia are among the prominent figures who have been accused of child sexual abuse during the same period that Duhamel was allegedly committing his crimes.

[see also: The downfall of an ogre: Gabriel Matzneff and the myth of male seduction]

We can forget how different attitudes to child sexual abuse were in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1977 a petition to the French parliament calling for the decriminalisation of sex between adults and children was signed by a list of prominent intellectuals, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Derrida, Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes, Simone de Beauvoir, Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault.

During the same period in Britain, the Paedophile Information Exchange was openly campaigning for the abolition of the age of consent, and was welcomed in some establishment circles. In the US, the North American Man/Boy Love Association (Nambla) attracted support from figures including the poet Allen Ginsberg and the feminist Camille Paglia. In parts of Europe, child pornography was freely available, having been legalised at the same time as other forms of pornography from the end of the 1960s. In Sweden, for instance, it emerged in 2009 that the Royal Library in Stockholm was in possession of a collection of child pornography acquired (legally) between 1971 and 1980, and still being loaned (illegally) to members of the public into the 2000s.

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This sordid history presents a problem for the progressive narrative about the sexual revolution, which casts the period since the 1960s as a steady march towards liberation. If only it were so simple. There have, of course, been very deserving beneficiaries of sexual liberalisation – most importantly lesbian, gay and bisexual people, whose relationships are now not only decriminalised, but granted state recognition in the West. But every social change has trade-offs, and these can be obscured by simplistic narratives that leave no space for complexity.

For progressives, the boundary between licit and illicit sexual behaviour is now built on consent. The problem with paedophilia, according to this argument, is that children lack the capacity to consent, meaning any sexual activity involving them will always be unacceptable. Thus, the paedophilia apologism of the soixante-huitards is but a brief and embarrassing detour from the progressive path – a small dent in the arc of the moral universe’s bend towards justice.

[see also: Lily Allen: why #MeToo hasn’t hit the music industry]

But the claim from Foucault and his allies was never that violently coercing children into sex is OK. Rather, they claimed sexual desire develops earlier in some children than in others, and that it is therefore possible for minors, in some cases, to have sexual relationships with adults that are not traumatic. Their point was not that consent is unimportant, but rather that children are sometimes capable of it. And they suggested paedophiles are a maligned sexual minority who suffer greatly as a result of the taboo surrounding child-adult sexual relationships. Their project was not, therefore, a diversion from a progressive narrative that prizes consent, but was in keeping with it.

When an ethical system is based solely on the principle of consent, it is easy enough to justify banning, for example, child pornography, since this necessitates the abuse of real children in the production. But what about images described by police as “pseudo-photographs”, which appear to depict real children? What about illustrations? What about adults dressing up and pretending to be children during sex? What about porn performers who look to be very young? What about porn performers who deliberately make themselves look younger? We may intuitively recoil from acts that are, if not strictly paedophilic, then paedophilic-adjacent, but an ethical system based on consent cannot accommodate that intuition.

Appearing to defend Duhamel on French television recently, the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut highlighted the problems presented by a culture that rejects requirement for love, respect, equality and mutuality in sexual relationships, leaving only the flimsy principle of consent. “Was there consent?” Finkielkraut asked. “At what age did this begin? Was there some form of reciprocity?” When the interviewer reminded him the case concerned a 14-year-old child, Finkielkraut gave a response that would once have been unremarkable in his circle: “So?”

“It is forbidden to forbid” will always trundle inexorably towards this endpoint, whether or not we want it to. 

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This article appears in the 10 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, End of the affair