Friday, 6 February 2009

What do you do with a convicted paedophile?

In my last post, I went to see the Ian Dury musical in London’s ‘exciting West End’. I’d seen Chris Langham in the audience and had posed the question: what do you do with a convicted paedophile?

It wasn’t the first time I’d seen Chris Langham in person. When I worked in the West End, I’d see him often, generally on the fringes of Soho, the southern end mostly where it hands itself over to Covent Garden. He always looked like a man on something of a mission.

I’d last seen him shortly after he came out of jail. Not in the Soho/Covent Garden interzone but in the men’s toilets on the upper level of the orange section at Arsenal stadium. I thought various things:
* this could go badly wrong, this being a roomful of male football fans emptying out their pre-match beers
* that really takes some front on his part
* he’s either brave or stupid
* and, finally, what would I do if it turns ugly?

As it happened, nothing happened. But what would I have done if it had done? Who knows what I would have done in the moment but I hope I’d have been brave enough to have come to his aid.

Some, I know, would be shocked that I’d have hoped that I’d have come to the aid of a convicted paedophile. Read the comments about Chris Langham’s involvement in the Dury musical on The Sun website. I think they’re a fair dip-test of the level of hatred that paedophilia can arouse. (Though not, it seems, in Arsenal fans — at least those ones in that toilet on that afternoon.)

It’s not that I think paedophilia is a good thing. My primary school headmaster went to jail for it. And died the day he got out. Tears were not shed.

But I do have various thoughts about it — and about Chris Langham, in particular.

The particular first. Chris Langham was convicted of downloading child porn, not sexual assault on minors. To my mind, there is a difference between act and thought. I don’t share the Christian belief that the thought is half-way to the act.

I’m more impressed by the Portman Clinic’s take on the relationship between the thought and the act. The Portman is a major — maybe the major — treatment centre for perversions. (Their word, not mine.) Paedophilia, violence, etc etc. But they’ll only treat people who’ve actually acted out their thoughts. Violent fantasies are one thing. Violent acts are another.

Some, I know, argue that because the creation of child porn inevitably involves — at the very least — an act of coercive violence, then downloading it is party to that violence. Well, kind of. It’s a meta-argument — popular but something of a stretch. There’s no actual act on the downloader’s part. He’s merely aiding and abetting at most. And if we jailed everyone who’d aided and abetted a serious criminal act, our prison population would quite likely outnumber our non-prison population.

Now to the general. To me, the splenetic hatred of paedophiles raises various thoughts.

One, judging by TV cop shows, child sexual abuse is the explanation for just about every wrong in human society. It’s got to the stage for me that I find myself groaning in displeasure when a cop show’s plot turns to sex with children. Then I switch channel. Once upon a time, it was always the butler who did it. Now it’s the child abuser.

Two, there’s an obsessive quality about our society’s obsession with it. Some say that virtually nothing was said or written about it before Freud’s late 19th century papers on it. His original thesis was that all neuroses were caused by it. Then he decided that the recollection of child abuse was actually a transmutation of the child’s wish to have sex with the parent. (It’s actually a far more subtle and complex theory than that but there is a kernel of truth in my grossly simplisticified rendering of it.) Certainly, Freud saw clearly that small children are not unsexual beings — which, of course, is no reason for adults to have sex with them.

Three, why are people so, so obsessed by it? Why are people so, so angered by it? I’m not actually suggesting that these anger-filled obsessives are actually abusers themselves — not even in thought. Nor am I saying that maybe they’ve been abused. Just that there seems to be some kind of particular mess swirling around inside them which seems somehow to hook on to abuse.

Four, particularly in the case of someone like Chris Langham, the hatred seems uncoloured by any real knowledge of the varieties and vagaries of human desire. Look at those people in Worthing trying to remove Oscar Wilde from the town’s history because he had sex with young male prostitutes.

Five, some analysts might wonder about where that hatred hangs its hat. There is a peculiar intensity to it that makes you wonder if it started life either somewhere else or as something else — or even someone else.

Six, one of the recent seminars on my course had a good deal to say about child abuse. My fellow students asked even more questions than usual. The seminar gave me a fair grasp of the psychoanalyst’s view of the workings of an abuser’s mind. It left me more than a little despairing and glad that I wasn’t the one who had them on my couch.