Under-age sex: Statement of clarification
Adults should not have sex with children. I do not advocate paedophilia
London - 28 February 2017
As a human rights campaigner, I would never advocate or condone child sex abuse. I have never advocated the abolition of the age of consent.
In fact, I have for years campaigned against sex abuse, with positive, effective proposals to combat it:
My dozens of articles and interviews have urged the partial decriminalisation of consenting, victimless behaviour involving young people of similar ages. For example:
My critics have selectively quoted from what I've written and quoted me out of context, to give an entirely false and distorted impression. They ignore my many articles, speeches and interviews that contradict their claims – including my proposals to protect young people against sex abuse and my ethical framework for all sexual relations: mutual consent, respect and fulfilment.
An age of consent of 14 or 15 exists in a dozen other European countries. There is no evidence that this leads to more child sex abuse.
I am against criminalising young people under 16 who have consenting, victimless sex with other teens of similar ages, where no one is harmed. UK law treats these young people as criminals. That is wrong. They need counselling, not prosecution. Even though the numbers prosecuted is low, where teens are of similar ages, even one prosecution is one too many. More get cautioned (rather than prosecuted) and some of these get put on the Sex Offenders Register, which ruins their life chances.
The point is that half the teenage population are having various forms of sex before their 16th birthday. According to the law, they are engaging in criminal activities and have the legal status of “unapprehended criminals.” I think this is wrong if the sex is genuinely consensual and there is no more than a small age gap.
Below is a lengthy detailed explanation of what I believe and why. You will see that it is very different from what my critics claim.
An example of my actual views was voiced in a speech to the Sex and the Law conference in Sheffield in 2010, where I addressed youth welfare and sex education professionals. See the text of my speech here:
This speech was well received as a reasoned, thoughtful contribution to the public debate about the law and sexual expression / protection involving young people.
The campaign by BNP members to portray me as a paedophile, or paedophile advocate, is in revenge for my ambush of their leader Nick Griffin in 2010, where I shamed him over his party’s record of racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and hostility to Muslims. See here:
The BNP smear campaign includes faked photos of me holding a Paedophile Information Exchange placard. The photoshopped image of me is recent but PIE ceased to exist three decades ago. I never supported it in any way.
Guardian letter and Dares to Speak book
My 1997 Guardian letter about the book, Dares to Speak, gives the wrong impression. It was not what I asked to be published. The printed version omitted four key points that I made:
1. I oppose adults having sex with children. 2. I empathise with the victims of child sex abuse. 3. I agree that for the vast majority of children, sex with adults is neither wanted nor joyful and 4. I believe an academic discussion of these issues, based on research and evidence, is legitimate and should not be misinterpreted as support for any form of child sex abuse.
The idea that I advocate paedophilia is laughable, sick, untrue and defamatory.
Unlike many Catholic clergy, I have never abused anyone. Unlike Pope Benedict, I have never failed to report abusers or covered up their crimes. I do not support sex with children. Full stop.
Dares to Speak was an academic book published in 1997, authored by professors, anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, a Dutch senator and a former editor of a Catholic newspaper. It discussed the age of sexual consent and whether all sex between young people and adults is necessarily unwanted and harmful; some of it based on what it said was objective research with young people.
The book does not endorse or excuse sexual relationships with young people that involve coercion, manipulation, exploitation or damage.
The authors queried, among other things, the balance between giving young people sexual rights and protecting them against abuse. These are entirely legitimate issues to discuss, even if we disagree with them.
I do not condone adults having sex with children. My Guardian letter about this book was in defence of free speech and open debate about the issue, in opposition to those who said that the book and the debate are not worthwhile or legitimate - and that any further discussion should be closed down. I was against the call for censorship. Even if Dares to Speak is entirely wrong, in a free society its authors have a right to be published and heard.
My Guardian letter cited examples of youths in Papuan tribes and some of my friends who, when they were under 16, had sex with adults (18+), but who do not feel they were harmed.
As an example, the film-maker Derek Jarman told me that he had sex with an adult, at his initiative, from the age of nine. He said he did not feel abused or damaged by the experience. If that is his view, who are you or I to dispute and reject it?
I was not endorsing his viewpoint or that of others who did likewise. I was merely stating that they had a different perspective from the mainstream opinion about inter-generational sex. They have every right for their perspective to be heard. Hence the mention in my letter.
Now mature adults, these people look back on their under-age sexual relations with older people and do not feel that they were harmed. If this is their considered view, we should respect their evaluation (while also recognising that many people are harmed by early sexual experiences).
My Guardian letter did say clearly that paedophilia is "impossible" to condone - meaning that I don't condone it. It is true that I said “may be impossible to condone” but I used “may” in the sense that I concurred with that view. To avoid doubt, I should have used “is” impossible to condone. My apologies for that inadvertent error.
Here's an example of what I wrote in the Irish Independent in 2008:
“The time has come for a calm, rational debate about the age of consent. It should be premised on four aims. First, protecting young people against sex abuse. Second, empowering them to make wise, responsible sexual choices. Third, removing the legal obstacles to earlier, more effective sex education. Fourth, ensuring better contraception and condom provision to prevent unwanted pregnancies and abortions and to cut the spread of sexual infections like HIV.”
You can see that I made protecting young people against sex abuse my first priority.
I have said similar things in many other articles and interviews.
None of these speeches and articles advocate or excuse child sex abuse.
Age of consent issue
It is true that I have supported reducing the legal consent age to 14 but only if it is backed up by earlier, better quality sex and relationship education to encourage wise, responsible sexual behaviour; including education about consent and abuse, saying no to unwanted sex and reporting abusers.
I have also proposed keeping the age of consent at 16 but not prosecuting consenting sex involving young people under 16, providing there is no more than two or three years difference in their ages – similar to the German, Israeli and Swiss legislation. I support these reforms solely in order to end the criminalisation of the many young people who have sexual contact with each other below the age of 16.
More than half of all British teenagers have their first sexual experience (not necessarily full intercourse) by the age of 14, according to National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles. Under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, they are currently treated as criminals, even if their partners are of similar ages; with a maximum sentence of five years custody for mutually consenting sexual contact, including mere sexual touching, kissing and fondling.
I do not advocate young people having sex at an early age. It is best if they wait. But I don’t agree that consenting under-16s should be dragged to court and threatened with incarceration and listing on the Sex Offenders Register (which is what the current law states). I certainly do not endorse adults having sex with young people under 16. I never have and there is no evidence that I have.
My critics may disagree with me on the age of consent, but I have advocated a clear ethical stance and moral framework, which stresses sex with mutual consent, respect and fulfilment. My arguments and articles are not about abusing young people but protecting them. That's my motive.
Betrayal of Youth book
The critics also cite the book, Betrayal of Youth, to which I contributed a chapter. I had no idea that it was involved in paedophilia advocacy when I was asked to write my essay. The book was published in about 1985 – three decades ago.
When I was invited to write a chapter in 1982, I was told it was a book about children's welfare and rights. I was asked if I could write about the age of majority and age of consent. I was told that the other contributors were Ken Livingstone and child psychologists etc. It seemed an innocent and reasonable request at the time. But I was clearly tricked.
My chapter in the book did not endorse child sex. It merely questioned whether 16 was the appropriate legal age of consent. Different people mature at different ages. There are many countries that have diverse ages of consent, some higher and some lower than 16. I did not advocate the abolition of the age of consent or specify at what age sex should become lawful.
I was not aware of who the other authors were or what they wrote until the book was published three years after I wrote my short chapter. I would not have agreed to be in the book if I had known. I cannot be held responsible for what others wrote. It is wrong to tar me with their opinions. There is nothing in my contribution that even remotely condones child sex abuse.
The section in my chapter about voting rights and other legal rights and responsibilities for teenagers was deleted (giving it a stronger focus towards the age of consent issue than I had written). The footnotes to my chapter were added by the book’s publishers – not by me.
Thud interview with Lee
My critics also cite an interview / article I did with 14-year-old Lee in the late 1990s for Thud magazine, where he said that he had sex with older people when he was a young person and that he does not feel that he was abused.
This was a journalistic piece designed to let him have his say and, through him, to give a glimpse into what many young people think about the current age of consent and its failings. I believe in free speech. My critics seem to believe that young people's opinions should not be heard if they disagree with their moral perspectives. I call that censorship.
In the interview with Lee, I nevertheless challenged his view in various ways, including making these points:
“How can a young child understand sex and give meaningful consent?
“Perhaps your friends were particularly mature for their age. Most young people are not so sophisticated about sex.
“Many people worry that the power imbalance in a relationship between a youth and an adult means the younger person can be easily manipulated and exploited.
“Many people fear that making sex easier for under-age teenagers will expose them to dangers like HIV. Isn't that a legitimate worry?
I hope this clarifies and reassures everyone. Thank you.
Best wishes, Peter Tatchell