Friday, March 19, 2010

Defining Children

Along with "paedophilia", the term "child" has become so expanded as to risk losing coherent meaning.

In terms of child protection legislation, a child is anyone below the age of 18 years. That you can drive, have sex, get married and go to war whilst still a "child" is just to highlight our decidedly convoluted views on these matters.

Childhood was once a matter of biology. Post-puberty opened the doors to vistas of sweeping chimneys and vanishing down coal mines, proudly sporting long trousers and a waistcoat. Examine early photographs and children look like miniature adults. Some even sported pipes, and the only way to identify the father in family photos was by the walrus moustache.

In a long, stuttering reaction against the exploitation of the young, the Victorians began to redefine childhood as a legal, political and cultural artefact. It has been a bit of a mess ever since.

This reached it's apogee with the Sexual Offences Act of 2005. This busybody Act created a raft of new offences, including voyeurism and sex in public. As well as missing out on the rave phenomena, it looks as if dogging is something else I'll never experience...

Child protection wasn't overlooked either. Whilst it was previously an offence to have sex with someone under the age of 16, this Act extended the prohibition to "any sexual activity". This is much more insidious and made no allowances for the ages of all involved. School kids snogging and fumbling each other in the local park are now committing child abuse.

There is also a new offence of sexual exploitation. A prostitute aged 17 years 364 days is assumed not to have sufficient standing to make that particular career choice, all her clients are guilty of "sexual exploitation of a child". If, in her private life, she chooses to entertain the marching band of the Brigade of Guards, however, that is all fine and dandy. As long as no money changes hands, she is deemed to be fully capable of making her own choices.

The height of this absurd convolution is the following scenario. A 15 year old boy hires the services of a 17 year old prostitute. She is guilty of underage sex, child abuse; and he is guilty of sexual exploitation of a child.

They are simultaneously held to be morally developed enough to be criminally responsible for their actions, whilst being denied the moral development to make sexual decisions.

Our ever expanding definition of childhood leads to endless contradictions and insanities. A married couple of 16 can have children, yet are too irresponsible to buy alcohol. They can film themselves indulging in the most chandelier-challenging sex but can't rent a commercial porn DVD. Worse, if they circulated their own exploits amongst their other married 16 year old friends, they would be guilty of distributing child pornography.

Child protection is always a worthy aim. It would help, though, if we could return to first principles and define "child", and do so in a way which is coherent and consistent.


  1. The problem is that it's not coherent and consistent: biologically, for reproductive purposes, you're an adult at puberty. Mentally, when you become old enough to make your own decisions depends on a lot of really unpredictable stuff. I know fourteen year old girls who I would definitely trust to make their own decisions about their sex life. I also know fifteen year old girls who, if they had any kind of sexual contact, I would consider to have been abused pretty much regardless of the circumstances. In one case because the person is too sheltered and innocent to know what sex actually is, much less consent to it (I know it sounds strange, but trust me, it's true.) In another because I know the girl in question is too easily pushed around and too afraid to deny people what they want to say no, even though I can't imagine her having sex right now willingly. No matter where you put the age of consent, there are going to be people who could and couldn't consent on both sides of the line. I agree that it's ridiculous to have seventeen-year-olds having a bunch of adult responsibilities while at the same time still having a child's limited rights. At the same time, you can't really build a legal system on "understand the individual maturity level of the people involved, and decide pased on that."

    So where do we draw the line?

  2. Agree Ben - it is somewhat stupid as are several parts of the Act referred to.

    It has also developed that the word paedophile is used inappropriately for people who abuse children.

    It does seem crazy that at 16 a young person can make a decision to get married which is an incredibly responsible decision to make and yet cannot do the things mentioned by Ben.

    Heaven help us!

    Best wishes Ben