Were the 1970s really a paedophile’s paradise? Was Chris Morris’s vision of Rye Spangle singing Playground Bang-a-Round (on RCA Records & Tapes) more documentary than satire?
In the wake of the NCCL/PIE story, everyone else is having a go at the things-were-different-in-the-1970s theme, so I might as well join in. So. Things were different in the 1970s. Three things in particular were different.
(1) The word paedophile was not used as commonly then as it is now. It was known and it was used, but not exclusively. The expression ‘kiddie-fiddler’ was probably more common, though used mostly as slang. It was also a euphemism, since it implied not sex, but the much less serious idea of ‘fiddling’.
In the Who’s song Fiddle About, for example, it wasn’t suggested – or understood – that Uncle Ernie was going to anally rape Tommy. He was just a dirty old man who fiddled with a disabled child. It seems unlikely that the subject would be treated with such a tone of macabre humour in a song written today.
This isn’t to suggest that an Uncle Ernie was approved of at the time. He was a kiddie-fiddler and kiddie-fiddlers were bad men. You got locked for fiddling with kiddies. But there was a division made between Uncle Ernie and, say, Ian Brady (who was close to being the bogeyman when I was a child). I don’t think it was even seen as a continuum in the way that I suspect it would be now. There was a separation between sexual assault and rape.
That, at least, is the conclusion I come to when considering the blind eye that seemed to be turned by so many in authority. It seems unbelievable that head teachers were unaware of stories that every pupil knew, yet so many chose not to act. Presumably the same was true of care homes, though I have no experience of that. Fiddling, while frowned upon, wasn’t taken as seriously as it is now.
(2) There was a recognition in the 1970s that there was something of a grey area about the age of consent. Or rather, the ages of consent, because of course while the heterosexual age was sixteen, that for male homosexuals was twenty-one, while female homosexuality had no place on the statute books at all. But in terms of the general culture, the only one of these that mattered was the age of sixteen, and that was almost always in relation to girls.
The legal age of consent was accepted by the vast majority as being right and proper, but it was not taken to mean that girls only became attractive on their sixteenth birthday. When the Likely Lads agreed that they both had fantasies about schoolgirls, the image they had in mind was the fifth form at St Trinian’s, not Shirley Temple. And there’s no suggestion at all that they would act upon their fantasies.
Even if they had, courts were more lenient about what was seen not as paedophilia but as overstepping the mark. In the extract from my book Crisis? What Crisis? that I put on here this week, I list a very few of the many cases that were reported in 1977, when the issue of the age of consent was being debated, culminating in the nineteen-year-old who was given a two-year conditional discharge for getting a thirteen-year-old pregnant; the judge told him to ‘behave sensibly in future and keep away from young girls’.
Despite those cases, the age of consent was much more widely observed in the 1970s than it is now. There was also an acknowledgement, however, of a recurrent male fantasy about post-pubescent girls, who might or might not be under that age. Leching after teenage girls is not a good look for men of a certain age, but I see no reason to believe that the fantasy has ceased to exist, even if it’s not really permitted in popular culture anymore.
(3) The politics were different. And this is why past officials of the NCCL are currently throwing themselves upon the mercy of the court of public opinion.
As a representation of one tendency in society, let me quote the opening lyrics to the song Sodomy from the 1967 hit musical Hair: ‘Sodomy, fellatio, cunnilingus, pederasty. Father, why do these words sound no nasty? Masturbation can be fun.’
I saw Hair when I was about twelve and I liked it a great deal (though not as much as Jesus Christ Superstar, which is still my favourite musical). Sodomy wasn’t as good a song as Electric Blues or Easy to Be Hard, but it had a certain frisson and it was played fairly frequently round my way. Again, though, it’s hard to imagine anyone writing a song now that put anal sex, oral sex, masturbation and paedophilia on an even footing. However you order these practices in terms of moral acceptability, most people would draw a line that excluded at least one item from the list.
But in the wake of the self-advertising sexual revolution of the 1960s, there were those who felt that freedom was pretty much indivisible. And there were also those who weren’t entirely sure where the liberation bandwagon should stop.
After all, male homosexuality had only been legalised at all in England and Wales the year that Hair premiered in New York. And the people who had most vociferously resisted that change in the law seemed to disapprove of any form of sex outside marriage, leaving them looking somewhat out of ouch when it came to arguments about, say, censorship or the age of consent. They were the forces of reaction, struggling to resist the march of liberalism, and frequently they looked simply ludicrous.
Chief amongst those figures was Mary Whitehouse. She led the campaign against paedophile pornography that resulted in the Protection of Children Act 1978, and there are few who would now disagree with the general thrust of that legislation (however poorly framed it was). But this was the same person who had a few years earlier been equally vociferous in her denunciations of Doctor Who, Dennis Potter and Chuck Berry’s My Ding-a-Ling. It was hard to take her seriously. And unsubstantiated claims that ‘200,000 children are involved in the “kiddie porn” industry in the United States’ didn’t help.
Similarly, the fact that the National Front demonstrated in the streets outside the first public meeting of the Paedophile Information Exchange conferred, in certain quarters, some sort of status upon PIE as my enemy’s enemy. This was a minority opinion – a very small minority, but one that did have a public voice. The idea that the age of consent might be lowered to fourteen didn’t have widespread popular support, but it was not entirely beyond the bounds of debate. The argument for it being reduced to ten, on the other hand, was. Nowadays, of course, most of those who might once have leant towards the former position would concede they were wrong. (Though whether they would go on to say that the National Front was right is less certain.)
That mood of exhilarated sexual liberation in the 1970s, when it felt that all the existing barriers were being broken down – that began to fade. And it wasn’t the successes of Mary Whitehouse, or the 1979 election victory of Margaret Thatcher, that made the difference. Rather it was a change on the left that came with the rise of feminism, calling into question many of the same cultural issues that Whitehouse and Thatcher opposed.
In the mid-1970s, for example, Ken Livingstone was the vice-chairman of the GLC’s Film Viewing Board and supported its proposal to end all censorship of movies for audiences over the age of eighteen. A decade later, he had completely reversed his position: ‘I believe I was wrong on censorship in 1975,’ he explained, ‘and when in 1985 the Women’s Committee complained to the BBFC that they were not being tough enough in cutting the violence against women from the films they were certificating, I supported them.’ The anything-goes attitude had been replaced by what John O’Farrell once called a new puritanism.
So, in short, things were different in the 1970s. Not entirely so, of course: the reason why Jimmy Savile went unchallenged was that the rumours about him were much closer to the Likely Lads than to Uncle Ernie. If it’s true that he was abusing pre-teenagers, he managed to conceal that fact very effectively. And he would have done so in the sure and certain knowledge that discovery would have ended his career. The times weren’t that tolerant.
There was, though, an acceptance that sexual development is not an absolute, that any age of consent is bound to be arbitrary. It is worth restating, however, that a smaller proportion of those under the age of sixteen engaged in sex then than now. Despite our modern outrage at anything that smacks of paedophilia, it’s not all been progress.