When I was growing up my mum tried to avoid listening to or watching the news because she found it too upsetting. Whereas I’ve always had the view that it’s our duty to know what it going on in the world and to speak out against it if we don’t like it.
But on days like today when the headlines concern numerous stories of little girls and young women being raped, abducted, abused and murdered, it does indeed make for very uncomfortable listening.
And yet somewhere in the midst of all this comes a voice which, instead of condemning the male perpetrators of child sexual abuse, claims that they are the ones being persecuted and that the law should be changed to protect them from prosecution.
Eminent barrister Barbara Hewson told online magazine Spiked that the age of consent should be lowered to 13 to end the ‘persecution of old men’.
Her remarks came after a number of high-profile arrests over allegations of historical sexual offences in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal.
Among those to have been convicted is former BBC broadcaster Stuart Hall, who admitted 14 charges of indecently assaulting girls, including one aged nine, between 1967 and 1985.
Ms Hewson described Hall’s crimes as “low-level misdemeanours” which “ordinarily… would not be prosecuted”.
She said that “touching a 17-year-old’s breast, kissing a 13-year-old, or putting one’s hand up a 16-year-old’s skirt” are not crimes comparable to gang rapes and murders and “anyone suggesting otherwise has lost touch with reality”.
Actually it’s the perpetrators who have lost touch with reality. When I worked as a journalist I once interviewed an expert who worked to rehabilitate child sex offenders and one of the hardest jobs he had was to get them to stop normalising their behaviour.
For a grown man to kiss a 13-year-old girl or put his hand up her skirt is not normal or acceptable. It wasn’t in the seventies, it’s not now and it never will be. The age of consent is there to protect children and any move to lower it to prevent elderly men being prosecuted for abusing girls years ago is effectively an attempt to make child abuse legal.
As a journalist I covered many cases of child sex abuse and rape. Sometimes it had taken years for the victims to come forward. The fact that the perpetrators were by that time pensioners didn’t make what they had done right. It simply meant that the law had taken a very long time to catch up with them.
They are not deserving of our sympathy. That should be reserved for the victims who have been through a terrifying ordeal and somehow found the courage to come forward and report it.
We as a society must start to listen to children, to create a climate where they feel able to report things and never make them feel they are to blame or are somehow responsible for what has happened to them.
Comments like Ms Hewson’s set that process back a long way. It’s up to us not to put our heads in the sand, however uncomfortable these stories are, but to speak out and make it very clear exactly who the victims are here.