An extract from my book Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s:
…in Colin Wilson’s The Schoolgirl Murder Case there is likewise a relaxed attitude to sex with under-age girls. When it is discovered that another schoolgirl has been the victim of the so-called North Circular rapist, one police officer asks, ‘Was she hurt?’ ‘Not badly,’ replies his colleague. ‘A few scratches. But she was raped.’
The casual tone was not untypical, for it was in the 1970s that questions over the age of consent and of paedophilia really came to the fore, despite some earlier rumblings. Back in the mid-’60s the Swedish doctor Lars Ullerstam – speaking, according to his American publisher, with ‘the authentic voice of the boldest of Europe’s young generation’ – had called for the new tolerance being shown towards homosexuals to be extended to other ‘sexual eccentrics’, including paedophiles. Not, he hastened to add, that he thought ‘all grown men ought to be allowed to manipulate children’s genitals’, but rather that understanding should replace criminalization until a better solution could be found: ‘The sexual deprivation of the “dirty old men” is a problem to be solved by tomorrow’s humanely oriented society.’
It wasn’t solved, of course, but there was at least a brief period when the general culture acknowledged that the lines of what was permissible were on occasion blurred. ‘Sometimes, I’m the new master at a girls’ high school,’ says Terry in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, reflecting on his sexual fantasies. ‘That one seems to come back more and more.’ And Bob knows precisely what he’s talking about: ‘Yes, gymslips. I’ve been worried about that. I think the sexiest programme on television is Top of the Form not Top of the Pops.’
Politically, the issue began to gather at least a small head of steam in 1976 when home secretary Roy Jenkins asked the Criminal Law Revision Committee to look into the age of consent. The following year a series of widely reported court cases suggested that attitudes might be shifting, not in relation to pre-pubescent children but to those in their early teens. First came 21-year-old Gary Lea who had been given a six-month sentence for having consensual sex with a thirteen-year-old girl after a party; the sentence was quashed on appeal, with Lord Justice Scarman saying: ‘It was not only too severe, but was quite wrong in principle.’ In the wake of this judgment, and in very short order, an eighteen-year-old man was given a £20 fine for having sex with a thirteen-year-old, a 39-year-old was put on probation for having sex with his son’s fifteen-year-old girlfriend, and a nineteen-year-old was given a two-year conditional discharge for getting a thirteen-year-old pregnant, the judge admonishing him to ‘behave sensibly in future and keep away from young girls’.
All of these cases – and there were others – concerned older men and younger girls and received relatively sympathetic treatment; when the roles were reversed and when, for example, a 26-year-old female teacher was accused of molesting an eleven-year-old boy, the press coverage reverted to its more normal approach of salacious reporting, even though the accused woman was acquitted.
This spate of judgments provoked the Sun to run a week-long series of articles by Jeremy Sandford on the vexed issue of the age of consent. And he found many prepared to suggest that the time had come for it to be reconsidered. Labour MP Colin Phipps called for it to be abolished, while the likes of John Robinson, dean of
suggested it be lowered to fourteen, as did Patricia Hewitt, then with the
National Council for Civil Liberties and later to become health secretary under
Tony Blair. Michael Schofield, a psychologist, claimed that one in six girls
and one in four boys were having sex underage. Cambridge
Later in 1977 the News of the World, which would later become the self-proclaimed scourge of paedophilia, gave space to the Catholic priest and child psychologist Father Michael Ingram, who had studied a number of cases of men having sexual relations with boys under the age of fourteen, and who was due to report his findings to the British Psychological Society. ‘If a child has been deprived of love, he can get a lot more good than harm from a relationship with a man,’ Ingram claimed. ‘I’m not saying it is right or wrong from a moral point of view – I’m speaking purely from the psychological standpoint. The real harm to a child can come not from a sex act but from the reaction of other adults afterwards.’
And then there was a perceptible turning of the tide. The Paedophile Information Exchange, the principal campaigning group for those who sought reform of the laws concerning sex with children, received increasingly hostile treatment by the press, much of it centred on its most prominent figure, Tom O’Carroll, then a press liaison officer at the Open University.
The first public meeting of PIE was held in Conway Hall, London – the traditional home of alternative thought – and the few attendees were attacked both by the National Front and by a bussed-in mob of two hundred women, armed, in the words of one of them, with ‘stinkbombs, rotten eggs, tomatoes, apples and peaches’. Ingram was invited to attend but had to send his apologies, having been instructed not to do so by the Catholic Church, presumably fearful for its public image. The previous month, on the other hand, a conference of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality had condemned the media treatment of PIE and called for ‘objective rational discussion of paedophilia and child sexuality’...