What is a paedophile?

Last week a highly experienced barrister and expert in reproductive rights suggested that the age of consent be lowered to 13.  Barbara Hewson makes various arguments which, not being a lawyer, I won’t attempt to summarise, and with which I don’t necessarily agree.  However I respect any expert’s considered opinion, and given the current moral climate this is a brave one.  So it was a little depressing to witness the inevitable backlash, with so many less informed commentators declaring that Ms Hewson was, in effect, an apologist or even an enabler for paedophiles.

The word “paedophile” carries so much baggage now, it’s worth taking a cold, objective look at it and sorting through some of the competing truths that surround it.  What does it actually mean?

Its origins are Greek: pais (child) and phileō (I love) — “lover of children” perhaps.  Most parents are that, so we’ve clearly strayed a long way from the etymological roots.

How about the dictionary definition?  Collins has it as “a person who is sexually attracted to children”.  Not very useful — this could include other children of the same age.  What 15 year old is not sexually attracted to some other 15 year old?  Chambers is better: “an adult who is sexually attracted to or engages in sexual activity with children”.  But this definition could make many an adult nervous — some remarkably beautiful teenagers are paraded daily on TV, whom plenty of adults might find sexually attractive even though they would never dream of acting on that attraction.  And after all, what are “children”?  The NSPCC, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Department for Children, Schools and Families all seem to define children as “anyone who has not yet reached their 18th birthday”.  Were all the many men who were sexually attracted to the 17-year-old Britney Spears in that memorable …Baby One More Time video in fact paedophiles?

This matters in the world of multiple truths because dictionary definitions are among the most solid of our truths.  Is the Collins definition an untruth just because it differs from the Chambers definition?  Can we pick and choose our dictionary definitions to suit our politics and proclivities?

Lets try a different definition: most medical and psychiatric texts define paedophilia as an abnormal, usually sexual, interest in prepubescent children.  A bit more specific, but what does “prepubescent” mean?  According to the NHS, the average age for a girl to commence puberty is 11; for a boy it’s 12.  But it can be anywhere between 8 and 14.  Puberty lasts up to four years for girls and up to six years for boys.

All these numbers present plenty of opportunities for competing truths to proliferate.  If you take “prepubescent” to mean “before puberty starts”, and you’re concerned with the average case, then only those adults targeting children under 12 are paedophiles.  Hence, Ms Hewson’s recommendation would be of no comfort to them.  If, on the other hand, you define “prepubescent” as “before puberty is complete”, and you’re concerned to protect every last “child”, then you might view someone taking a sexual interest in a not-quite-mature 19-year-old man as a paedophile — even if that person is younger than their “victim”.

Clearly, law-makers have to strike a balance, and the UK’s Sex Offenders Act 1997 defines paedophilia as a sexual relationship between an adult over 18 and a child below 16.  That’s a legal truth it behoves us all to respect whilst subject to UK law.  But we should at the same time recognise it for what it is: an arbitrary line in the sand.  After all, the age of consent in Germany and Austria is 14.  In Spain it’s 13.  Who’s to say we have it right?  For some US states it’s 18.

To complicate matters, a man reviled in Britain as a paedophile today might have stood as a respectable bridegroom in Victorian times. The age of consent was set at 13 in 1875, even though the average age of puberty for girls was then 15.

So whether or not a person is a paedophile depends on both the country and the time in which they live.  There is little objective truth in paedophilia, however horrendous the crimes of predators like Jimmy Savile.

It’s also worth remembering that attitudes towards paedophilia have changed radically in our lifetimes.  In Latin! or Tobacco and Boys (1979), national treasure Stephen Fry was able to write warmly and wittily about a school teacher whisking his 13-year-old pupil/lover off to Morocco, and similar man-boy relationships appear in his later novels.  No one seemed to worry about the child brides of James I (14 years old), Charles I (13 years old), Henry IV (12 years old) or Richard II (6 years old).  And no, I’m not condoning any of this… I’m just noting how moral truths change over the years.

Given how complicated it is to define even its terms, it’s not surprising that the paedophilia debate has grown so ugly and confused.  Pick your truth carefully: it could put someone in prison for a very long time.

This Guardian article explores the subject further


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