We live in an age of consent, or so we are supposed to believe. Nothing is supposed to be done to us without our having been consulted. That’s democracy and, in a democracy, there can’t be any such thing as compulsory ideas – ideas which everyone has to believe. How can we consent to an idea, if we can’t even talk about it? That raises the question of whether there are some ideas that no one should be allowed to consent to. Ideas which it is barbarous even to ‘have a conversation’ about: maybe democracy will only get you so far.
One of the ironies of the alt-right’s rise is that it has hedged everything it has done in terms of “free speech,” while using the resources of free and lavishly paid-for speech to create a tyrannical climate of shame and doxing and bullying. It spirals between trolling and witch-hunting, each reciprocally feeding from the other. The troll punishes, and the witch-hunter trolls. It makes conversation impossible.
No one embodies this poison more than Milo Yiannopoulos. He is fabulously gay yet also insists that he and people like him are pathological, deviant monsters; a gay man who is also a Catholic homophobe. A troll who is also pursuing a deadly serious political agenda. A witch-hunter who doxes trans students and outs undocumented migrants, but who is only joking. Someone who wants to paedo-bait trans women by talking of the need to protect little girls in bathrooms from them, but also pungently explain the benefits of underage sex with a Catholic priest. Someone who wants to align with the neo-masculinist, patriarchal alt-right and then open up shock-jock-style discussions around consent and teenage sex. And in a very different, and differently performative, register of contradiction, he is also someone who wants to say he wasn’t abused, and enjoyed his adolescent sexual experiences, and then later retract this and say that it was abuse.
We should take these contradictions seriously: many of them are integral to his particular form of reactionary performance politics; the latter was integral to its breakdown. There are those who claim he “doesn’t mean” what he says; even if that were true in one sense, it doesn’t matter. Yes, he argues in bad faith: that is integral to the performance. But whatever one says always has a psychological meaning at least; after all, you could have said anything else. Far from meaning nothing that he says, he means everything that he says, one way and another.
The worst thing you can do with a reactionary provocateur is have the conversation on their terms. Any such conversation will always be toxic. In Yiannopoulos’s case, if you talk about trans women or gay people on his terms, you end up circling around the idea of pathology, which leads only to normalisation and moralism, and ultimately to violence. If you talk about the age of consent or the complexities of adolescent sexuality on his terms, you’re staring into the abyss of ‘paedophilia’, which is usually the point at which people stop talking and start throwing things. Conversation breaks down because bad faith has been insinuated into everything from the start, beginning with everything that Milo Yiannopoulos said and the way in which he said it.
James Butler’s LRB piece put it concisely and well: Yiannopoulos’s trolling “admits, though for shock purposes, the unsettling complexity of adolescent sexuality, even as it disdains to take seriously the need for protection against exploitation”. He gestured to something real, but his gesturing is unusable: to even talk about this, one has to wrestle the subject back from him. That is why it is useless to debate him on any of these issues, or to restrict oneself to an evaluation of his words. The next worst thing you can do, however, is conclude that, because of that toxicity, the conversation shouldn’t be had at all: as though that were at all possible, even if it was desirable.
The reactions to Yiannopoulos’s downfall on the Left include a lot of justified cheering and jeering. From being feted on Bill Maher’s programme to grovelling at a press conference, resigning from Breitbart, having his book deal cancelled, and losing half of his allies on the alt-right, is a precipitous and cheering fall from an elevated disgrace. The laughter is immense. And yet, some of the reactions going beyond this, in the assumptions they make, in their implications, and sometimes in their performative grandstanding, are quite terrifying. There is always performance in politics, as the alt-right knows and the left often doesn’t, but the specifics of this kind of performance, for example in the unhinged and often spiteful sanctimony towards those tackling the most difficult and complex subjects from Yiannopoulos’s claims, suggests that we’re miles away from a culture that can hear about child abuse, let alone talk about it. There is a palpable sense of relief that some people seem to experience at being licensed to let go of rigour and nuance in a difficult terrain, because of who started the argument, and slip straight into rote excoriation.
And this matters, because social media is increasingly where we do a lot of our politics, like it or (mostly) not. We are too easily looped into Yiannopoulos’s pathologies, too easily set on the groove of a narrow kind of conversation that he obviously wanted, and that can only go in one direction, toward mutual contempt and distrust. The alt-right troll is not a defender of speech, but its saboteur.
When I wrote on the guilt of the abused two years ago, I described two things that happened to me. In the first instance, of which I have no direct memory but of which there are bureaucratic records, I was raped with a razor-sharp knife at barely three years old. On the plus side, for some people, that experience will give me a right to have an opinion about these matters. For others, of course, it will be all the more reason to discount what I have to say.
In the second experience, which I do remember, when I was fifteen a man responsible for my care invited me to have sex with him. I remember that, in describing the second experience I adopted a slightly arch tone, because I felt that he hadn’t done any harm. After all, while his behaviour was hardly appropriate, and he was exploiting his position, and putting me in a position that I shouldn’t have been in, he hadn’t forced himself on me. I also thought that, if I’d had the desire to consent I was able to do so, and I might even have enjoyed myself.
I am no longer entirely sure of all that; it is in question. And even if I was still sure of it, and even if I’d had the desire to take up this offer, and even if it had been enjoyable at the time, it doesn’t follow that it would have been wise to do so. What if, even in retrospect, I overestimate my own precocious bearing and insight at the time? Still, I’m aware of people who had sex with adults as teenagers, and not only don’t feel that they were abused, but are expressly grateful for the experience. I’m glad that they feel able to say so. I’m glad for that matter that I was able to have a series of conversations about my experiences, without having to defer to someone else’s idea of what abuse might be, and without paying any attention to moral peacocks.
It doesn’t necessarily follow from the fact that some people had enjoyable sex with adults as teenagers, that the people they had sex with behaved well, or that this should in general be condoned – and I will return to this. But to insist that the people giving this testimony about themselves must be, definitionally, wrong, to insist that they are victims, regardless of their own stated belief, is also to say that they are ‘bad victims’: it is a complex form of shaming dressed up as concern and care.
What I find troubling in so many left-wing responses to the these sorts of discussions about adolescent sexuality, consent and abuse, is the implied idea that people like me shouldn’t think or say these things about ourselves – that they can feign some sort of omniscience about our life stories. Essentially, the idea is that no matter what I might say, I couldn’t have consented, and any idea that I could have is inherently either wicked or stupid – this is usually prefaced by a tragic shake-of-the-head about the ‘denial’ and ‘confusion’ in which some abuse victims live. What is adverted to here is the idea of the ‘bad victim’, the one who doesn’t feel as abused as they must if our moral standards are to be preserved.
It has even been charmingly suggested that those who take a libertarian view on age of consent laws might be victims of childhood sexual abuse who have become paedophiles. As I’ll momentarily indicate, my own view of the laws is not in any straightforward sense ‘libertarian’: I think we need age of consent laws, and am pragmatic about what that age should be. Nevertheless, it is worth unpacking this claim in order to demonstrate that it is moral panic-fuelled reactionary poison dressed up as intra-left critique, and thus indicate something of the nature of this problem.
The intergenerational ‘cycle of abuse’ idea, originating in the Sixties, became very popular in the Eighties. As it evolved from being a crude prejudice to an object of knowledge, it came to rely on statistical data which suggested that there was a positive correlation for a minority of people, between the experienced of being physically or sexually abused as a child, and going to physically or sexually assault children. The statistics vary, but in no case that I am aware of are a majority of perpetrators made up of those who were themselves abused. In one study of sexual abuse, it suggested that the correlation was weak overall, but strong in the case of men who were sexually assaulted by women. The most recent large-scale study of physical abuse found no correlation of that kind at all. One study finds the rate of intergenerational transmission to be approximately 7 percent, and that in its turn is explained by the study in terms of other, mediating factors. I don’t cite any of these studies to endorse them, but to indicate the state of professional knowledge on this front, which is not good. And even where it exists, correlation is not causality, and statistics aren’t a theory.
For a ‘cycle of abuse’ theory to emerge, data had to be combined with a vulgarised version of an idea drawn from psychoanalysis, namely ‘repetition’. This idea that ‘repeating abuse’ meant finding children of your own to abuse, was enormously reductive, and missed the point: what is repeated is not abuse per se, but trauma. Feminists rightly criticised the tendency encoded in this concept to reduce child abuse to the activities of a pathologised minority, while ignoring the gendered distribution of victims and perpetrators. For the liberal-minded, one advantage of the idea is that it seems to resist dehumanising perpetrators, by situating their action in an explicable context. The problem, of course, is that it also participates in the culture of shaming abuse survivors, of telling them that they are broken, permanently damaged, and thus a threat to be kept an eye on. This is where victimology segues straight into demonology: you are a victim and, because you cannot help being a victim, you will probably become a perpetrator. Here is the ‘bad victim’ in another guise: having been abused becomes a reason why one should be abused.
It is, perhaps, easy to cop an attitude when you’re talking about someone as demonstratively loathsome and self-loathing, and self-contradictory, as Yiannopoulos. But it is an attitude, and anyone brandishing it flippantly or maliciously in order to shut people up is many things but not, in that instant, any comrade to the survivors of child abuse. It hardly seems worth being on the Left, if you end up sounding like a version of Milo in your rhetorical choices. And insofar as there is an argument lurking behind all this, it depends on a reactionary, class-blind conception of human development – the life-cycle – which, perforce, takes no account of the specificities of experience, of different ways in which we come to desire, and formulate our desires, and become worldly about desire. The very messiness of concrete situations to which Yiannopoulos gestured for his own attention-seeking reasons, is occluded. Since it is assumed that we already know what abuse is, who needs to listen?
The “automatic belief” in survivors of abuse thus has a strange flipside; the automatic disbelief in those who say they aren’t survivors of abuse. Both are a way of not taking people and their testimonies seriously. Rather than giving a certain credence to what people say about themselves, with all due awareness of the limitations of memory, knowledge and self-understanding, we gainsay the question by resolving it in an absolutist way. And it is no good to patronisingly vouchsafe the right of abuse survivors to speak about their experiences, while insisting that others must hold their tongues: that is another way of not taking it seriously, of ensuring that this testimony has no effect. Either we can all have these difficult conversations about abuse and adolescent sexuality and consent, seriously and rigorously, or the conversation is essentially ceded to fascists, hatemongers and provocateurs.
The polite way to put this is to say that it leads to, or rather already is, a bad politics of abuse. But one of the dimensions of abuse is that you don’t have any say in what happens to you; your life story is written by someone else. When people claim a right to speak on your behalf, so that what you say about yourself doesn’t matter, this is in its own way abusive.
One excellent reason not to discuss the age of consent on Milo Yiannopoulos’s terms, is that if you get caught up in his tangle of contradictions, provocations, hedged political agendas, backtracking, self-justifications, and self-hate, what comes out will be reactionary, moralistic poison. Trolling begets trolls. That is exactly what has happened. The homophobic undertow of many online reactions from the right includes reference to the old trope that gays just want to do away with age of consent laws so that they can rape children with impunity. There is also a lurking idea, expressed in some of the alt-right ‘defences’ of Yiannopoulos, that homosexuality is a tragic byproduct of abuse – a crudely homophobic version of the way in which anyone who is abused is pathologised, as if anything they might believe or do that is disagreeable or troubling to you must be a result of mental scarring. These are tropes that I don’t doubt Yiannopoulos was happy to activate. His own paedo-baiting has come back to haunt him.
Symptomatically, in defending his position, he taxed the left with a kind of repressive moral absolutism about age of consent laws. Yiannopoulos comes from Britain, where debates about the age of consent in recent decades have coincided with the gay struggle for equality. The age of consent for gay men after decriminalisation in 1967 was 21. It wasn’t until 1992, that it was reduced to 18; and not until 2001 was it finally reduced to 16, which is now the legal age of consent for all sexual relationships in the UK.
Throughout all of this change, the constant reactionary refrain on the part of those who opposed it, was that changing the age of consent laws would expose adolescent boys to predation at the hands of adult men. Anne Widdecombe went so far as to suggest raising the age of consent for heterosexual couples, so that there could be an equality of legal repression. On all these fights, the Left was not invariably on the right side, but was more likely to be so than Yiannopoulos’s erstwhile political allies.
Meanwhile, when gay activists like Peter Tatchell suggest lowering the age of consent to 14, as it already is in some countries and as a Home Office study has suggested it should be, in order not to criminalise the majority of adolescents who do start to have sex at that age, he is baited as a paedophile by the far right. The irony of this is that Tatchell’s argument, agree with him or not, is for empowering and educating children regarding their sexuality. He even suggested having graduated consent laws, so that the ability to consent would be partly contingent on the age of the older partner – similar to the close-in-age sliding scale that exists in Canadian law. Again, agree or not, this is a nuanced position that is clearly aimed at helping young people. It is the desire, hardly limited to fascists, to preserve the idea of an innocent, pre-sexual personhood, of childhood as a realm untroubled by sexuality, that protects sexually exploitative patriarchy and deprives children of the knowledge they need to defend themselves.
If the discussion about the age of consent is had on the terms set by Yiannopoulous, it won’t be anything to do with preventing child sexual abuse. It will be a mirror of alt-right-style snark predicated on the intrinsic bad faith of any such discussion, hinting that anyone who thinks this is a debate worth having must be either a paedophile or an apologist. It will be people strutting about and attempting to intimidate others into not saying things they can’t bear to hear. And indeed, that is exactly what is happening, on the social media Left.
Laws are pragmatic, not perfect. Even in the best cases, they define a bandwidth of acceptable behaviour, which necessarily includes some harmful behaviour, while also prohibiting a lot of harmless behaviour. You can’t legislate for exceptions, because legislation is all about the rule, the average, the norm. Any age of consent law is not about eradicating harm, but limiting it. We need age of consent laws, not because consent is simple, but because it is messy: it is always to some degree constrained and structured by power. The difference between children and adults in terms of social power, resources and sophistication is qualitatively great enough that at some point the law has to say, no sexual relationship can be allowed. This always be negotiated imperfection, there will always be exceptional situations, and the law will always do some harm both to those it does protect, and to those it fails to protect. If there’s a case for reducing the age of consent, therefore, it doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that some people say that they were able to consent to sex with an adult when they were pubescent. Even Yiannopoulos, in full fascist enfant terrible mode, didn’t try to claim otherwise.
Like any law, however, age of consent laws are materialised in police action. What effect they really have depends in part on how police choose to enforce them. That in turn depends on the political and moral culture that police officers partake of. The very fact that there are children being arrested and cautioned for having sex, or being charged on child pornography offences merely for sending one another semi-naked photographs, or sexts, indicates what some of that culture is like. The fact that people are actually reporting children to police, and that police are keeping intelligence databases on children who sext, and threatening them with the sex offenders register, is another indication.
This is where the ideological presumption of childhood innocence – a presumption which is all the more effective since everyone knows it is bullshit – feeds into the institutions of the state, and is embodied in violence. And it is violence directed, not mainly against ‘paedophiles’, but against children who are experimenting with their sexuality, as they always will. The potential problems with sexting – abuse, online humiliation, shaming, bullying – are cited as reasons to surveille and punish sexting among children. When we talk about childhood sexuality, we only tend to talk about the problems and dangers, in a manner that implies that the chimera of a danger-free sexuality could be a reality. We don’t talk about how exciting it is for them to discover their own sexuality because, when it comes to childhood sexuality, we want to know nothing about it. We want innocence: ours, as the precondition for theirs; or theirs, as the precondition for ours.
The presumption of innocence also doubles up as a presumption of guilt. Eighteen-year-old Kaitlyn Hunt was engaged in a long-term relationship with her fourteen-year-old girlfriend, when her girlfriend’s parents complained to police, and she was charged with felony child abuse. The girlfriend adamantly denied being in any way a victim, and was no part of the prosecution – though, of course, her say had no weight as she was a child. Hunt’s parents, launching a campaign to free her, argued with some plausibility that the prosecution driven by an anti-gay witch-hunt.
Genarlow Wilson was seventeen when he had sex with a fifteen-year-old girl. Wilson was black, and his sexual partner was white. When video-tape emerged of the pair engaging in consensual sex, along with others, Wilson was arrested by Georgia cops. A number of his friends were also arrested, and plea-bargained. Wilson rightly did not accept that he was a child molester, and so went to trial. He was found guilty of aggravated child molestation by a Georgia jury, given a mandatory ten year sentence and put on the sex offender’s register. The fifteen-year-old, of course, had no say in this.
It is worth remarking that there are many countries in which this kind of sexual relationship would simply never have been treated as a crime. In most European and Latin American countries, the age of consent is either fifteen or fourteen. In Argentina, Japan and South Korea, it is thirteen. If this case had come up in France, Greece, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Poland, Romania, Austria, Colombia, China, or the Czech Republic, it would not have been tried. It is doubtful whether the police would even have been called. The necessary imperfection of the law is also necessarily shaped by history, culture and political struggle – in this case, the history of Jim Crow and America’s unique culture of sex panics.
When sexual moralism is weaponised by the legal system, its effects long outlast its action. Wilson, though he succeeded in clearing his name, believes, without having ever spoken to her about it, that he ‘harmed’ the girl he had sex with. Guilt is a terrible adhesive; it sticks to you even when it doesn’t belong to you.
There’s always a sense in which protection becomes persecution. Whoever is protected cedes a certain amount of power and autonomy. What is usually being protected in this case, though, is an idea of white childhood, linked to heteronormative family values. Kaitlyn Hunt and Genarlow Wilson – and their respective, necessarily silent, partners – are the living proof of the power of this. This is part of the reason why the discourse of protection has been slowly losing support among social workers and other child service professionals.
Another reason is that, by refusing to listen to children, which is what it does, and by assuming that they are spoken for by credible authorities (their parents, police, teachers), ‘protection’ overlooks the ways in which children often have strategies for defending themselves against predation, and for experimenting with their own sexuality. It leads to anti-abuse approaches which, rather than giving children knowledge to improve their self-defence and enjoy their sexuality, encourage children to defer to and trust adults as their protectors, or to defer to the authorities. This leads to overzealous surveillance and control on the part of parents and authorities, since the entire burden is on them to stop abuse. Consider the case of schools banning the photography of children by their parents, say at sporting events – the idea that a someone might get a hold of one of these pictures and be aroused by it, had to be pre-emptively crushed. And since the children who are most vulnerable to being abused are least likely to have good relations with adults or to have good access to the state, it also increases the likelihood of their being abused.
Fundamentally, however, the discourse of protection centres on the scapegoat. Child abuse is, in this view, something perpetrated not by average adults but by strange, exotic creatures called ‘paedophiles’ from whom children have to be protected. In all of the “Milo is a paedo” exultation, I am struck by the universal tendency to focus on the name for an orientation (paedophilia) and not for an action (rape). I doubt that there is a necessary overlap between the two. In fact, I would suggest that the majority of adults who rape children are not consumed by paedophilic desires, and are completely capable of having adult sexual relationships, and indeed do so – in some cases before procreating the children that they go on to rape. There are paedophiles and hebephiles, and many of them rape children; but the statistics suggest that quite a lot of other people do too.
This is enough to make one wonder what it is that the ubiquitous figure of the ‘paedophile’ might be doing for us. Although long surpassed in the professional literature, it continues to haunt the popular imagination. Might it, much like the resurfacing figure of ‘ritual abuse’ wherein Satanists are supposedly doing unbelievably and elaborately vile things to children, be performing some important ideological work? It’s as if we can only deal with this subject by means of either demonology or pathology: it’s either evil, or mental illness that does it. In its favour, this figure at least allows us to talk and think about these issues, albeit often in the tacitly prurient way that Brass Eye satirised with its Paedogeddon episode.
But of course, it’s also a way of not talking and thinking about certain things. Whatever questions you might have about your own sexuality, whatever discomforts you about it, matters a lot less when there are paedophiles to worry about. And whatever evil or violence you think resides in you can always be projected onto someone else, real or imaginary. You take whatever it is that you can’t deal with about yourself, put it on the other side of the fence, and close the gate: shouting ‘paedo’ as you do. All the performative peacocking and spite I referred to earlier is, in a way, a plea of innocence. There are a lot of things that are being protected by the discourse of protection.
This is not rocket science: it is the most obvious thing in the world when people do it. And yet, people do it as if it won’t be noticed that this is what they are doing. As if we all tacitly agree not to notice; as if moral panic is a contract of mutual ignorance.
To some extent, it is necessary to talk about Milo Yiannopoulos in order not to talk about him. We have to push him over into the margins in order to free up space for the kind of conversation we need. Having done that, we are bound to still find plenty of other obstacles to talking: the big guns are always on the side of silence.
It’s part of my unconscious hero myth that I never have to duck a difficult argument. The age of social media demolishes this kind of intellectual pride. It reminds you that writing is a social activity, and that to write convincingly is to have a public that can be convinced; to speak fluently is to have a culture that can hear what you have to say. But I am, like almost everyone else, powerfully drawn to this performative online ranting that I describe: in particular, the drive to respond to it with bitterly caustic ranting of my own is almost overpowering. And I can only resist the temptation to retort to online claques of belligerent moralists and bullies with an open invitation to come at me, if I promise myself to write on my own terms, in my own time. Writing is an antidote to testosterone-fuelled social media addiction.
There are, though, more urgent reasons to write on this subject. Part of the ongoing legacy of abuse is that it leaves you with a series of existential questions, not least of which is: ‘why?’. Childhood is, among other things, a research project. You are always asking big questions, about sexuality (“where do babies come from?”), sex (“am I a boy or a girl?”), and desire (what others want from you and for you, and what you want yourself). What does abuse do to the way in which you answer those questions? What does it do the way in which you answer those questions if you begin to think that you might have been abused? What does it do, if you’re routinely told that you were abused by parents or judges or teachers or cops that you were abused, even if you don’t think you were? What does it do, if you come to think that a lot of what is normal today might one day look like abuse – and thus, by virtue of how it is culturally recognised as such, be experienced in that way, be actually (more) harmful as a result? What does it do, if there is no way to articulate these questions, to speak about them, because discussing it is surrounded by so many invested taboos?
Whether or not we have been abused, we are all survivors of our own history in one way or another. And we all have questions about that, and we are all also the only people who can answer those questions – though not in isolation, and not with any surety of finding the right answer. Adults who know that they were abused are often left with questions like, “is that what I wanted?”, “did I deserve it?”, “did I actually enjoy it, and does that make me evil?” and so on. It is rather important that these questions are allowed to be heard, without anyone else pretending to know the answers. The culture that is so unreflexively, nihilistically invested in competitive self-righteousness and moral simplicity – the culture that feeds both troll and witch-hunter – can’t possibly hear them.