In what were less-than-halcyon days for us girls and women, we lived in a world of blithe and accepted sexism. As I’ve written elsewhere in this blog, if I had a fiver for every time in my girlhood that I was pawed by a man, I’d be retired on Bali. With my friends. Were we damaged? No. Would we call a helpline? No. Are we victims? No. And well-intentioned efforts to make us victims is to degrade and devalue the experience of those men and women who are and were.
I was half-way through my second Mikado biscuit the other night, when I heard reports of Barbara Hewson’s comments regarding civil-liberties and historical abuse. Dislodging the snowy bits from my sinuses, I went online to read the article itself.
I disagree, outright, with Ms Hewson on the lowering of the age of consent. Moreover, I cannot understand how any situation involving a nine-year-old girl could possibly be deemed a “misdemeanour”. But applying common sense, I doubt very much if a lawyer of her standing and expertise did, in fact, intend to include such a situation in her comments.
As a mother, I am ever-anxious about, and alert to, the safety of my own and other children. The idea of an adult being sexually attracted to, or God forbid active, with a child repulses me.
Though I believe Ms Hewson is absolutely wrong about making the age of consent 13, I have to commend her on her courage for raising the wider issues, knowing she risked being categorised as something along the lines of, say, ‘a disgrace to her sex and her profession, mad, bad, disgusting, childless, heartless, clueless, a rape-apologist, or paedo-protecting, paedo-loving filth’.
I am disappointed, but not quite surprised, that experts working in this difficult area have not emerged to say that the broader issues Ms Hewson raises are at least worth discussing, calmly and objectively. Perhaps, in time, they will do so, despite their fear of the anti-scial media. The angry-bird twitter reaction is quite something to behold. Members of the twitterati would want to hope, fervently, Ms Hewson is not litigious.
Some child-protection experts, especially in the UK, will tell you of their discomfort, sometimes alarm, at the lack of common sense being applied to historical cases, and by the blanket application of the very different standards and attitudes, we so rightly hold today, to the society of 40/50 years ago. A time when people could, and did, marry at 15. There’s the sense, almost, that applying those standards and attitudes now, will suddenly right past wrongs.
In the last 24-hours, I’ve read some considered, common-sense posts, that deal with the issues Ms Hewson raises, as opposed to the hysteria that followed. They point out that while today, we rightly consider our 16 year-olds to be children, 40/50 years ago, a 16-year-old girl might not have been considered a child at all. She could have been at work, engaged, or as one excellent poster, a mother and teacher, put it “dating the boss”.
In those less-than-halcyon days for us girls and women, we lived in a world of blithe and accepted, sexism. As I wrote in another entry on this blog, if I had a fiver for every time in my girlhood I was pawed by a man, I’d be retired on Bali. Was I damaged? No. Would I call a helpline? No. Am I victim? No. That said, I believe it is important to make it clear that what had no impact on me, apart from anger and annoyance, might have had a far greater effect on those who were less resilient, particularly and especially, according to the context.
From talking to my women friends, our shared experience is typical of the culture and attitude of the time. To a woman, we are disturbed by current moves to equate our contemporary, common and casual experience, with the horror visited on others. Far from supporting victims, I believe such efforts – however well-intentioned – devalue and diminish the experience of the women and men whose lives and futures were damaged, even annihilated, by what was done to them as children.
Leaving the 70s and 80s aside, what if today our own teenage daughters were to have a similar experience? Let me put it this way. God Herself would have to help the poor man find his bits. Because law enforcement and nanoscience combined could not. And that’s only because while we, the mothers, were scrabbling around the house, for the glasses on our heads, our daughters in their needle-heels and Converse would have got to him first. It’s what we did ourselves all those years ago. We’ve made sure to teach our children well.
Today - and thankfully - abuse is abuse is abuse. Society is clear on what is acceptable and what is not. But if we are at all concerned for our children, if we are at all committed to knowing more about what is a complex, disturbing issue – particularly in the context of the past – we must be able to have a public discussion that does not involve our establishing ourselves as the ultimate protectors at one extreme, while vilifying those with whom we strongly disagree, as the ultimate abuse-apologists, at the other.
Ms Hewson’s comments might make for a good tabloid headline. But for the sake of the victims whose lives have been blighted by their experience as children, the issues she raises demand more from all of us than a tabloid response. In her comments about lawyers, agendas, “do-gooders” and “crusades”, she does no more than echo the stated reaction of many innocent, responsible parents to their experience of social services. In that sense she has insight into the lived experience of families.
But in the “moral panic” currently gripping society, and our efforts to make up for our past and lavish failures, do we risk making the idea and application of ‘justice’, absolutely ‘unjust’? Is it safe to apply our hard-won knowldege and standards of today, to the ignorance and laissez-faire attitude of an era long past?
While many of us might not agree with Ms Hewson on specifics, the broader issues she raises are worth looking at in-depth. Given her work and experience to date, I find it hard to believe that she sought to be, or become in the public mind, an apologist for rapists and abusers. But from the populist reaction – and indeed that of her own firm – it seems that even to raise a question about the practice and standards within the current child-protection system in the English-speaking world, is to be immediately “ignorant”, a pariah, pro-abuser or abuse.
If we really want to protect our children, then what is so dangerous about debate, reflection or common sense? Or is our concern for children and their protection so new, pc-shallow or shaky, that in a situation like this, we feel forced to protest too much?
As a mother of a teen and an almost- teen, I would like to see us do more, vastly more, for victims. But that does not include equating the wrong of what was, once-upon-at-time, a commonplace, socially-accepted experience, with what left them with a lived – and for many still-living – hell.