Judging by his obsessive repetition of the phrase “little girl”, and his fixation on getting into their knickers (“I like this issue”), Ross Coulthart may raise some eyebrows when his interview with me eventually goes out on Australia’s 60 Minutes TV programme. Viewers could be forgiven for thinking he was the one who “wants adults to be allowed to have sexual intercourse with children” – itself an expression rammed down my throat with rapacious insistence dozens of times in different variations, heedless of my protests.
As for the word “consent”, there were over 50 mentions. I know because I made my own audio recording. Trigger warning: heretics may find this induces anger and nausea!
Coulthart trained as a lawyer, according to his online profile. While his emotive use of language was pure tabloid rabble rousing, and the lurid conspiracy theory at the heart of his purported investigation – an alleged Establishment cover-up of “VIP paedophilia” – was just evidence-free speculation, there is also a lawyerly forensic focus to his style that did actually succeed in pinning down one issue worth exploring a bit further here.
We think we know all the arguments over consent because we have been over it a million times. Usually, though, our frame of reference as MAPs is to see consent in a broader context. We know that children who supposedly “cannot consent” to sex often in practice do just that; we know that widely varying ages of consent apply in different legislatures and that where the age is lower there is no discernible problem compared to where it is higher. We also feel that the quality of the relationship is what counts, not the legalistic formality of consent, for which there is no requirement in many non-sexual contexts, even hazardous ones.
I could go on, exploring this broad contextual background. That is precisely what Coulthart was determined to stop me doing. His strategy was to home in, myopically, on a single detail from my book Paedophilia: The Radical Case. As quite a few heretics here will know, there is a whole chapter on consent (Ch. 8). But my interviewer chose to take just three paragraphs from a different chapter (Ch. 3) and focus on less than three sentences cherry-picked from them. These are the paragraphs:
Take, for instance, the little girl who will happily smile at and chatter to a “nice man”, and will sit across his knee with her legs apart. If the man is susceptible to paedophilic feelings, he may be tempted to see this as “seductive” behaviour, when the child in fact may be quite unaware of the way he is interpreting events – she may be exhibiting, in the traditional sense, all the “innocence” of childhood (even though, quite independently, she may also be highly sexed and know how to give herself an orgasm).
The usual assumption is that this potential for misunderstanding is bound to be a bad thing, but this is not necessarily so. Typically, in the formation of a paedophilic attachment, as in those between adults, the actual behaviour of either party develops not precipitately, but step by step: each stage is “negotiated” by hints and signals, verbal and non-verbal, by which each indicates to the other what is acceptable and what is not.
In our example, the man might start by saying what pretty knickers the girl was wearing, and he would be far more likely to proceed to the next stage of negotiation if she seemed pleased by the remark than if she coloured up and closed her legs. Despite “being wrong” about her intentional sexual seductiveness, he might never-the-less be right in gradually discovering that the child is one who likes to be cuddled and who thinks it great fun to be tickled under her knickers.
The bold parts in the above are plain text in the original. I have emphasised them as these are the bits Coulthart concentrated on, to the exclusion of all else.
I had agreed to this interview simply to defend my “VIP” friends Peter Righton and Charles Napier from some outrageous allegations recently made against them. I had no reason to suppose the programme would be interested in my view of consent. I had no wish to avoid the issue, though, so when it was raised in the first few minutes I did not duck away from it, emphasising that the practice is more important than the theory, giving the example of Theo Sandfort’s Netherlands-based research demonstrating that children can consent without harm, and even with beneficial outcomes. I imagine they’ll cut this section out!
When he mentioned the “little girl” scenario in my book, he said:
Nowhere in that paragraph do you even talk about express consent. You talk about implied consent from that poor little girl.
He was right.
Ignoring the blatantly emotive and misleading “poor little girl” rhetoric, I felt the most urgent need was to drag my own 20th century language into the 21st with a nod to the contemporary debate on express or affirmative consent in the context of adult relationships. There was this exchange:
Me: In the light of the debate that has taken place in recent years on that aspect of consent, I am persuaded that maybe, yes, one does need to be a little bit more affirmative than as stated in the text just quoted.
Coulthart: So you no longer believe that implied consent from a child is enough?
Me: It may not be but I have not reviewed…that particular scenario for some time; in the light of the debate on affirmative consent I think I would need to think about that again. But most of all, where I need to think again, is with regard to what happens many years after, because people can be traumatised retrospectively.
It was doubtless a disappointing reply for him. He had hoped for something more scandalous, and tried to provoke it with a further resort to emotive language:
Coulthart: You’ll appreciate that the scenario you describe, of a little girl on a man’s knee, sounds just like the creepy, pederastic child molester scenario of every worst nightmare?
Me: No, the worst nightmare is far worse than that. The worst nightmare is a child being abducted at knifepoint and raped and killed.
Coulthart: But fundamentally, isn’t this at the heart of the problem, that you have men who want to have sex with children, telling themselves that children are consenting when transparently that child is not consenting and couldn’t possibly consent?
Me: No, I don’t think so. It all depends on how the child feels at the time and whether you’ve got an atmosphere… of hysteria. The way it’s being cranked up is making things worse for children because we are now getting to the stage where children themselves are being accused of being sex offenders. I now see, there’s a police report recently… even four year olds are being taken to task in schools for being “sex offenders”.
This wasn’t what he wanted to hear either so he soon moved on, to the VIP allegations. And there the consent question might have ended. Once we had been over the Righton/Napier stuff, Coulthart said “OK, we’ll stop there”.
With the camera off, as I thought, my immediate response was to say to him “You don’t really believe all that crap, do you?” He admitted some of the allegations were “questionable” and we continued for a while with what I took to be a private conversation between the two of us, including him asking whether I really believed some of the things I had been saying. I was some way into answering before I realised the cameras were still rolling, and then I felt I needed to keep going because it was became quite confrontational and I didn’t want to back down.
So it seems his “OK, we’ll stop there” instruction to the film crew had basically been just a trick to catch me off guard. I shouldn’t have fallen for it, but I am glad we had the exchange that followed, even though it felt sterile and ridiculous at the time on account of its narrowness.
His tactic was to home in very tightly on a single phrase from my book – “each stage is ‘negotiated’ by hints and signals” – and enquire precisely what I meant. What would it take, he demanded to know, for a paedophile to be satisfied that he had the “little girl’s consent to have sex with her”? What words would do it? Or might non-verbal “hints and signals” be enough? If so, what examples could I give? Would I paint a picture for him of how this scenario of the little girl on my knee would play out, leading to “sex” with her? Imagine her, he said, she’s sitting there right now, on your lap. How do you “negotiate” – negotiate! – for this little girl to have sex with you? How do you really know she is consenting?
My answer, broadly, was that the benignly disposed adult will be satisfied with nothing less than an enthusiastic response, whether verbal or not. He will be keen to have the child’s approval and will stop in the face of silence or signs of anxiety. I did not make the mistake of saying clearly expressed verbal consent would be the definitive green light because I don’t think it is. It may work for adults and older minors – I am thinking of the valuable comments made here by “A” – but even verbal assent may be given fearfully. It may mask a lack of real enthusiasm. Any sensitive child-lover can tell when consent is really being given. Also, I pointed out, the consent concept implies one-way traffic: what about kids who take the initiative?
As for the insensitive or manipulative adult, he will run the risk of a later complaint by the child and a criminal conviction. I have never advocated taking away the protection of the criminal law, and neither did the Paedophile Information Exchange.
My use of the word “negotiate” in the book was a tricky one to negotiate in the interview itself. I just ignored Coulthart’s scornful emphasis on the term. Justifying my use of the word would have been tough. I would have insisted he was wrenching it out of context except that I could not remember the context of a passage written 35 years ago! Re-reading it since, I realise I was deliberately being provocative. It is a word from the world of business and diplomacy. We think of hard-nosed bargaining between experienced players of a tricky game, in which they use all sorts of cunning ruses to get what they want at the other party’s expense. Going beyond the cliché of the hapless, helpless, outmanoeuvred child, though, my book revealed children as potentially skilful and successful negotiators: a “little girl” is often notoriously able to wrap her father around her little finger, as the saying goes. In the end, negotiation is simply about saying what you want, what you like doing, or might like to try out, and agreeing about it. That’s not so hard.
So I believe my argument stood up to intense close scrutiny but I doubt many viewers will see it that way: Coulthart’s emotive language, combined with his softly-spoken air of confident authority will guarantee that – along with editing out my stronger points!
My emphasis on showing real enthusiasm rather than verbal agreement turns out, somewhat to my surprise, to be pretty much what is said by proponents of affirmative consent. But opponents claim that in about a quarter of all states in the US, sex isn’t legal without positive agreement, and “Should we really put people in jail for not doing what most people aren’t doing?” Difficulties identified in a proposed new legal code in the US, are that it is said to consider consent meaningless “under conditions of unequal power” (between adults, that is) and that it would shift the burden of proof from the accuser to the accused.
TRANSLATION CUP RUNNETH OVER
Heretic TOC is delighted to report that there were more than enough volunteers for the task of producing a transcript of my interview with Testimony Films, which was used as the basis for David Kennerly’s film A Decent Life. These volunteers, who each transcribed one or more sections of the 11-part film on YouTube, all completed their work very quickly. Many thanks to each of them for their sterling work!
The project was undertaken following an offer to translate the film into French. This was itself a very generous voluntary gesture by an enthusiast, to whom I again extend my thanks. I am sure David will concur, as I trust will other heretics here who have seen his excellent film.
After all the transcription tasks had been allotted, another volunteer turned up. I found myself thinking: Great, how best to make good use of this wonderful willingness to help? One other task to which more than one person could contribute would be making a subject index of all the Heretic TOC blogs so far. I find I often need to refer back to previous blogs, and as they now number well over 150 the task of locating any particular theme I have written about previously is getting steadily harder and harder. The format for the index needs some careful initial thought, though. I hope to give it some attention very soon and then make a further announcement.