Friday, 26 October 2012

Age of Consent and Abuse of Power/Trust

I’ve found myself trying to write this week and failing. Primarily because what I want to write about is Jimmy Savile, but it feels like the world and his wife are blogging about it. And then I figured, hey ho, there’s just no avoiding it.

For me, there are two issues: Sex with underage girls and boys, and abuse of power/trust.

Savile’s alleged crimes aside (the BBC have just used the phrase ‘alleged’ – I assume it is legally correct, though it seems somewhat redundant now given the amount of people who have come forward), there has never been a greater need for a review of the law, has there? How can we put into the same bracket, for example, a 17yr old boy who sleeps with his 14yr old girlfriend, and a 40 something man who has sex with an 8yr old... And is the Age of Consent the best way to put it? Wikipedia, the fountain of all knowledge, defines Consent as:

“Consent refers to the provision of approval or agreement, particularly and especially after thoughtful consideration.”

I don’t know about you, but quite a few of my sexual encounters in my earlier days, definitely didn’t involve much thoughtful consideration, and I’m not even sure there was always agreement from the guy involved, more resignation J

Seriously though, a brief Google reveals that the Age of Consent varies from Puberty to 21+, or, more terrifyingly, for a lapsed Catholic such as myself, ‘only when married’. And in England, our legal age was 12 in 1275, which dropped down to 10 in the latter part of the 16th Century, and was only raised to 13 in 1875 because Parliament was concerned that girls were being sold into brothels. Well, that’s a reason to raise the age limit isn’t it. They then finally raised it to 16 in 1885, due to moral panic......

What does this tell us, apart from the fact that the Age of Consent didn’t even counter for Homosexuality for years? The Age of Consent is variable – morally and culturally. Other countries allow for the maturity of the persons involved, they treat cases very differently if the age gap is small. In the UK, that 17yr old boy who sleeps with his 14yr old girlfriend, will go on the Sex Offenders Register – legally treated the same as the 40yr old man who rapes the 8yr old girl. It is inconceivable that in a society such as ours, that considers ourselves so forward thinking, that we are so, so backward in this respect.

Now, the tricky thing when watching the Savile expose, is women talking about being abused when they were 14 or 15. When I was at school, there were plenty of girls who were sexually active, and mature for their age. Had they found themselves at the BBC, or similar, hanging out with a boy band or a popular DJ, who suggested something sexual, I’d be willing to bet money that some of them would have gone there.

Which leads us to the Abuse of Power, or as it legally known, the Abuse of Trust. When the older person is in a position of trust or responsibility, be that a teacher, a celebrity, a policeman, a priest... then they have a responsibility to act appropriately. Don’t they? But are our expectations too high? There are abuses of power in all walks of life – from the small everyday incidences such as the Nazi bus driver who relishes his ability to drive on past the poor commuter who has just pegged it to the bus stop a second too late, to the larger abuses of power such as the Editors who approved phone hacking, or the MP’s who flouted all moral rules, if not legal ones, when putting  in their expenses. I realise those examples aren’t as direct as physical and emotional contact, but they show that it is embedded, if not, inherent.

It takes a grounded, self-aware, and empathetic individual to be totally unswayed by power or celebrity. It starts young, from the bully in the playground who gets to deal with their own insecurities by picking on others, to the workplace where the boss gets to make lascivious comments or cop a feel, and I’m not just talking male bosses here.

So isn’t it about time, we take a step back and look at ourselves, and the society that we’ve created? Rape has been high on the agenda over the past month or so, and a commentator this week, post Jimmy Savile revelations, queried whether we could still deny we live in a rape culture. I don’t think we can. I think the equally pressing point, is that we live in a Celebrity Culture. We put people on pedestals, regardless of their failings, or more pertinently, their lack of talent. And if we do that, if we continue to buy into some sort of fairytale stereotypes, then surely we are as much to blame? Or are we? Maybe we are just another victim – we are charmed by the very people who are powerful and famous, even though we put them up there.

Which leaves me with a couple of questions. How do we acknowledge what  I think is an inherent need to classify by differentiation, which in turn creates a need for status, and at the same time be better human beings? I think it would require an entire cultural and moral shift – that status becomes about respect, about doing good things (ah wait a minute, that’s what Savile did on the surface, didn’t he?), not about fame, or money, or power. And how do we put proper, just, systems in place, that hold people to account, but that allow for the differentiations of crime, rather than just lumping them all in one a la the Sex Offenders Register? I fear that it isn’t all possible. People are fallible. Laws are fallible. And Society as a whole is fallible.


  1. Love this post, very thought provoking and good to get a run down on the history of the age of consent.
    I agree with you that it is all about an abuse of power and that it is imbedded across all exchanges across society be they sexual... or not!
    I also blogged about Savile but my post is not nearly aseloquent as yours.

  2. Hi Liska,

    Read your post too - really interesting, and liked the tweets!

    Ta fo reading x