While Barbara Hewson ducks for cover and the Catholic Church apportions blame for its historical sexual abuse scandals onto the nebulous concept of silence and a cover-up, one of the most current, rational and illuminating secular arguments on the history of human sexuality still emerges from the late philosopher Michel Foucault. Unlike Freud and the followers of the psychoanalytical tradition, Foucault positions human sexuality within a secular discourse of people, power, politics and the emergence of an economic hegemony in which these relationships are controlled by the powerful elite in any society.
Foucault explains how up until the separation of Church and State within the Western intellectual tradition, sexuality was controlled through a compulsory morality (the Roman Catholic Church still uses this model today with disastrous results) which can be traced back to the 4th Lateran council of 1215. These 13th century noble celibate Church fathers, and keepers of everyone else’s chastity; under the moral guidance of Pope Innocent 3rd, instituted confession as a way for people to expiate their sexual guilt and fall into line with the Church’s moral teachings.
Today, arguments about human sexuality still polarise people and as Foucault claims, they are about preserving a conservative political, religious and economic hegemony. A good example of this is China, and its one child policy, juxtaposed with its illegal access to pornography and a highly visible prostitution sub-culture which is exported to the four corners of the globe. It is estimated that in China there are around 4 million sex workers who are regularly subjected to violence and police brutality.
There are other examples where life imitates art too. The 1994 movie Four Weddings and a Funeral has a character George remarking about a bride-groom at his wedding “…I was at school with his brother …tremendous bloke. He was head of my house, buggered me senseless…still it taught me about life…” This oblique yet shocking revelation into his early sexual experiences affirms Foucault’s argument on how the Bourgeoisie use power and position to control sexual behaviour. It also illustrates the arbitrary nature of the laws governing moral behaviour throughout the centuries. This point is further illustrated in Alisadre Hicken’s controversial book “The Poisoned Bowl: Sex, Repression & the Public School System’. Embedded in his arguments is Foucault’s thesis of sexual control through class dominance. But, an interesting question emerges from this text: Why is there a lack of allegations of historical sexual abuse arising out of the secular British public school system?
In terms of the age of consent and who one can engage in consensual sexual relationships with; the overall human experience is a little more complex. Countries and cultures vary significantly in this regard. For example, the momentum in recognising that people of the same sex may engage in consensual sexually activity still horrifies and outrages a significant majority of the people across cultures and countries. This notwithstanding the passing of the equal marriage act in countries like Argentina, Denmark, France, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and New Zealand, and in some states of the United States of America, where the age of consent varys widely across these countries and cultures.
So it’s not surprising that the prominent UK Human Rights lawyer Barbara Hewson ruffled the feathers of the British establishment, and the various classes within English society by declaring that the age of consent should be lowered to 13 and a strict statute of limitations enacted into law to prevent prosecutions against those charged with minor sexual misdemeanours, after a substantial amount of time has passed. Her employer, a prominent English law firm –The Hardwicke Chambers-disassociated themselves from her comments, while The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children expressed outrage and incredulity at her suggestions claiming her views were outdated and simply ill-informed.
But how outdated and ill-informed are they? Hewson brings a legal perspective through her voice of reason to a very emotional and volatile contemporary issue-claims and allegations of historical sexual abuse and the prosecution of such cases. She asserts that gang-rape, violent sexual assaults, murders, and the kinds of serial sexual abuse uncovered within the Roman Catholic church, Penn State University, and other secular institutions needs to be delineated from minor misdemeanours like the occasional touching of a “17 year old’s breast or patting the bottom of a 16 year old etc.” While these are outrageous acts against a person’s modesty, her point that the former BBC broadcaster Stuart Hall and PR guru Max Clifford are fall guys and are being manipulated by a “British justice system to produce scapegoats on demand” after failing to take seriously allegations of sexual abuse by Jimmy Saville before he died, is provocative, and worthy of attention even though the main stream media has dodged the issue. It seems to prefer the titillating tales of historical sexual abuse allegations on the nightly news as a means to maintain ratings and sales. There’s been no critical, intelligent debate and discussion on the issue
Barbara Hewson’s stand is a legal one. It is not intended as an affront to victims of serious criminal acts of sexual abuse, or to assuage the guilt of serial offenders like Jerry Sandusky. It’s about the current inadequacies in the legal system which sees a minor offence such as Hall’s classed with serious serial sexual offences. She is not arguing that minor sexual offences should be ignored, her argument is about how they are classified and dealt with by the legal system over a period of time. Given the controversy surrounding memory recall and repressed memory syndrome Hewson’s comments are timely.
But it is not only in the United Kingdom where there are legal anomalies to be found in how social deviance in human sexuality is dealt with by the law. In the United States consensual sex between two sexually mature young people is an offense if they are below the age of consent. In one such instance a young man of 17 was placed on a sex offender’s register, with rapists and convicted paedophiles after engaging in consensual sex with his 15 year old girl friend. He will remain on it for 10 years, ruining forever his chances of rehabilitation into his community and wider society (Maxwell, 2009). In another case a teenage boy had his mobile phone confiscated by a teacher while texting in class. The teacher took the rather perverse liberty of scrolling through texts and photos to find naked pictures of the boy’s 14 year old girl friend. The teacher reported the boy to the authorities. The teenager was subsequently arrested and charged with possessing child pornography and he was placed on a sexual offenders register too (Satawa, 2010).
When I was in grade 6 at primary school, we had a boy in our class who constantly ran around grabbing everyone’s genitals-often causing hilarity through his antics and the occasional pain and anxiety in the process-it was a kind of game, somewhat inappropriate and annoying. We thought he was a bit crazy, and brushed it aside. That was in 1966. Today he is a very successful professional man, happily married to his wife of 29 years, with children and grandchildren. How many of his classmates ought to make allegations of historical sexual abuse against him? Apart from victim solace and a degree of respite from some kind of repressed sexual guilt, anxiety or confusion; what would be the point of ruining his life and that of his family, extended family and friends? A better alternative would be psychotherapy, healing, forgiveness and letting go of the past and moving on with one’s life. But for many people this is too naive, and isn’t an option and lacks the quintessential base act of legitimized legal revenge. Or as one prominent protestant UK Member of Parliament once said it is simply “too Jesuitical”. It seems that a lack of critical analysis and a circumspect approach to understanding human sexuality and deviance is a long way off along with Hewson’s suggested law reform, notwithstanding her big faux pas.
Maxwell, M. (2009). Young Pittsfield Township man struggles with sex offender label. Pittsfield: AnnArbor.com.
Satawa, M. (2010). Sending Text Messages of Naked Photos is a Crime! Will Your Teen Be Prosecuted For “Sexting”? . Detroit: Attorney at Law, Vol 2, No.2.