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
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
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
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
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
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
another semi-naked photographs
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
children who sext, and threatening them with the sex
, 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
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
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
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
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
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.