Guardian writer Ros Coward started it all with a piece about a “shocking” GMP book called Dares to Speak. It is a collection of essays about “man-boy love” and Ms Coward was appalled that GMP should bring out a book which, she says, dismisses current concerns about paedophilia as “hysteria” or the product of “the abuse industry”.
She wrote: “The book refuses to take seriously sexual abuse and its consequences,” and she also made the point that no one stands up for abused boys in the same way that they do girls. “The view of boys is that they are more active in exploitative situations: after all, if the boy’s body shows a response, doesn’t that amount to collusion? This is why boys have been so vulnerable to unwanted sexual attention from men and so unlikely to find proper protection.”
Peter Tatchell, who has long advocated an age of consent of 14, responded to this in The Guardian’s letters column. “The positive nature of some child-adult sexual relationships is not confined to Western cultures. Several of my friends —gay and straight, male and female—had sex with adults from the age of nine to 13. None feel that they were abused. All say it was a conscious choice and gave them great joy. While it may be impossible to condone paedophilia, it is time society acknowledged the truth that not all sex involving children is unwanted, abusive and harmful.”
The reaction to that from other readers was immediate Andrew Holden wrote: “Sex between adults and children, the innocuous euphemism Tatchell uses, is sexual abuse, plain and simple. It is about power and it corrupts children who are not in a position to make judgments about sexual behaviour. Most gay men will rightly be disgusted by his opinions.”
Many others wrote in — some of them experts in the area of child abuse —horrified that Peter Tatchell appeared to be making excuses for the abusers who exploit children and then trying to justify their activities with “self-serving myths concealed behind a veneer of ‘academic’ research,” (Richard Scorer). Valerie Howarth of ChildLine wrote of her own organisation’s dealings with abused boys. “These boys did not feel positively about the abuse, it certainly brought them no joy. The sexual attentions were unwelcome but to keep them silent they were threatened with violence, told they would not be believed, or abusers told them of the harm it would cause if the family found out.”
In The Sunday Times, Lesley White commented that she thought the book — and Peter Tatchell’s apparent “apologia” for it — did the gay community no favours, “instantly throwing the image of the minority back into the black hole of fear, suspicion and nasty assumptions about child molesting from which it has only just managed to escape.” She wrote: “Conveyed in tabloid shorthand, this already looks like a very good reason never to hire a gay baby-sitter… Why hand the moralising enemy all the ammunition it needs and make the Conservative Family Association’s day?”
And, indeed, just like clockwork, The Daily Mail picked up Peter Tatchell’s letter and featured it in large type, right in the middle of a double page spread about efforts to get the age of consent back on the agenda. “The problem is,” the paper editorialised, “that the more concessions are made, the more the gay lobby demands… Some even think that sex with children can be justified. Yesterday, in a sick letter to a newspaper, gay rights protester Peter Tatchell wrote of the ‘positive nature’ and ‘great joy’ of sex with children as young as nine. Nobody is suggesting that the Government would ever dream of supporting such extreme views. But the whole area of gay rights is one in which Ministers must tread carefully.”
Peter realised that his letter — however unintentionally — had unleashed a wave of emotional responses (not all irrational) that inevitably accompany discussion of child sexuality. He wrote again both to The Guardian and to The Daily Mail to make clear that his words had been misinterpreted. “By writing that ‘not all sex involving children is unwanted, abusive and harmful’ I was clearly implying that most of it is abusive. It is absurd to say that because I acknowledge some exceptions, I am denying the suffering of those who have been abused. I don’t for a moment.”
But it was too late by then. The self-appointed moralists, Victoria Gillick and her equally pious sister, Lynette Burrows, were already on the bandwagon. “The current campaign by all gay rights groups to have the age of consent lowered to 16 (or even 14) is surely evidence that interest in boy-children is as keen as ever among most adult homosexuals,” wrote Gillick in The Guardian. Burrows made exactly the same point on Radio 5. Then The Daily Mail’s resident anti-gay activist, Richard Littlejohn, wrote: “Many of those campaigning to lower the age of consent to 16 are sincere and really do see it as an issue of equality and human rights. But this is not just about allowing 16 and 17 year olds to kiss and cuddle with members of their own sex. To put it bluntly, it would give grown men the legal right to bugger schoolboys.”
There’s no doubt that paedophiles have long tried to gain respectability on the coat tails of the struggle for gay liberation. From the earliest days they’ve been trying to pretend that we are fighting the same war on the same side. Well we aren’t. I have no doubt that children have sexual feelings and want to express them. When they do this among themselves I have nothing but indulgence. But when adults become involved — however spontaneously — the imbalance of power and experience means that some exploitation is inevitable. I am aware that some children are the initiators in some of these scenarios, but the burden of guilt that our society imposes on them will not make it a positive experience. Whatever happens in Papua New Guinea or Ancient Greece has no relevance to what took place in Britain in 1997.
When men begin to organise themselves in an effort to “get” children, when they deliberately insinuate themselves into youth clubs, schools and churches for the sole purpose of gaining access to children, then I think society has a right to be concerned. When paedophiles get together and start comparing notes and conspiring to ensnare particular types of children (pre-pubescent, certain hair colour, a particular height) then the children lose their humanity and become fetish objects to be used for gratification. I will never stand shoulder to shoulder with paedophiles. And I will object to their presence in any gay forum. I do not believe Peter Tatchell would support any paedophile organisation either. I fully understand that his concern is for the young people. But that does not really undo the political damage that has been done.
As Leslie White said: “understanding for ‘boy-lovers’ is not the next staging post in the great march towards gay freedom, merely a return ticket to a hostile yesterday.”
Before the Tory party leadership election there was much speculation about the sexuality of the semi-glabrous wunderkind William Hague. Any political figure who has reached the age of 36 and shown little interest in romantic involvement with the opposite sex is sure to fuel curiosity. And when such a figure is up against ruthless opposition, the smear-machine will be merciless. The Independent said: “The hot-house atmosphere of the Commons is a notorious breeding ground for the most scurrilous stories about senior politicians, the higher they climb, the dirtier become the claims spread against them.”
But the speculation about Hague was not invented especially to hinder his chances of becoming Tory leader. In 1989, when he won the Richmond by-election, I reported in Mediawatch a comment which appeared in the London Evening Standard’s gossip column. “He shares a flat with Alan Duncan, two years his senior and also politically inclined.” In that column I asked: “Are the papers trying to tell us something?” In the same piece, Mr Hague also remarked prophetically: “It’s complete nonsense that you have to marry for career reasons.”
Which brings us round to Ms Ffion (Jolly) Jenkins, Mr Hague’s recently acquired fiancée. According to the Express on Sunday, rumour had it that the engagement was nothing more than a “stunt”. An unnamed source was quoted as saying: “I heard one person say the wedding will be called off the moment he becomes leader. Another said Jolly is a madly ambitious girl who wants to marry a famous politician at any cost.”
By way of denial, The Express said that “One Tory MP was amused when he saw Mr Hague pinching Jolly’s bottom two weeks ago. And the elderly widow of a peer was shocked when she saw them kissing passionately in the gardens of their Westminster apartment block.”
But this “passionate” embrace was witnessed by others, more worldly-wise and less shockable than the unnamed widow. Matthew Norman in the London Evening Standard commented: “One Sunday paper reported him dragging his fiancée into the Dolphin Square garden for a passionate public snog and he may yet go the extra mile and engage the poor woman in soixante-neuf in the Commons tea room.”
Perhaps the person to whom Hague has been closest is fellow MP Alan Duncan. But who is Alan Duncan, other than Mr Hague’s recently appointed parliamentary political secretary, or “spin doctor”? The splendidly named Simon Sebag Montefiore was despatched by The Sunday Times to find out, and his interview was published on June 22nd.
Mr Montefiore is not what you’d call a discreet interviewer, and his piece opens: “‘Take me to the bedroom of William Hague,’ I say to Alan Duncan MP, the diminutive eminence grise who managed Hague’s triumphant campaign from his Gayfere Street house in which we sit.
`What?’ splutters Duncan.
`When Hague was a new MP he shared the house with you: show me his room.’
`No. Certainly not. Bloody cheek! Actually, it was up there towards the back. It was really only for three months. I was in Singapore mostly. William was with his girlfriend.— “
(If we can leave this interview momentarily, and pop over to The Guardian, June 24th, which informed us: Hague was “briefly a tenant at Duncan’ s Westminster house” — together with the “famously-gay” Andrew Sullivan, former editor of The New Republic. No mention of girlfriends.)
Back to Mr Duncan, and the innuendo-packed interview with The Sunday Times.
“‘Do you think Hague will distance himself now from your exotic reputation?’
`No. I am what I am’.”
Although there should be no “guilt” by association, the fact that Mr Hague and Mr Duncan go back so far together suggests that they have a pretty good friendship. As The Sunday Times has it: “Alan has fierce hates and loves, whereas with William it is much more glacial… and Duncan is the stronger personality. If one compared them to a couple, then Hague would be very much the wife and Alan the daddy figure.”
To sum up: Mr Hague denies categorically that he is gay: “My friends know things like that are ridiculous,” he says. On the other hand, he is generally not unsympathetic to the gay cause, although he did vote in favour of Section 28. He caused a minor stir when he recently announced that he had no objections to gay weddings. “When they’re not causing harm to other people, why should we object?” When he was president of the Oxford Union he instigated a debate on the age of consent.
There is the evidence, such as it is. Make of it what you will.