Workers Hammer No. 226

Spring 2014


Down with age of consent laws!

Harriet Harman eats humble PIE

The vociferously right-wing Daily Mail launched an attack on 18 February against several Labour MPs, primarily targeting the deputy leader Harriet Harman and her husband Jack Dromey. Harman served as minister for women under Labour leader Tony Blair, who slavishly pandered to the anti-working-class, racist Daily Mail. But Harman is anathema to the Mail, which called her: “Treachery in high heels” when she ran in the 2009 Labour Party leadership contest, and warned about the “terrifying incompetence of the woman who would be leader” (Mail Online, 20 February 2009).

It turns out that Harman and Dromey (as well as former Labour cabinet minister, Patricia Hewitt) held significant posts in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL, now Liberty) and that this organisation allowed the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) to affiliate. PIE was open about its aims. For example a PIE leaflet for a 1975 gay rights conference stated: “We believe it is inhumane to children to outlaw their sexuality and we support moves to lower the age of consent” (Guardian, 26 August 1975).

In the 1980s, PIE was driven underground by state repression and its spokesmen were jailed. Nevertheless the Mail’s “revelations” unleashed a bigoted frenzy and the liberal press too wanted a piece of the action. The Observer demanded to know how the NCCL “in any way legitimised a gruesome group such as the PIE” (Observer, 23 February). An article on the BBC website (17 February) headlined: “How did the pro-paedophile group PIE exist openly for 10 years?” Harman issued a statement that she regrets that she (and Dromey) “had any involvement at all with NCCL”; that PIE was “a vile organisation” and that she “never did anything to promote their terrible cause” (Guardian, 28 February).

It is ironic that Harman finds herself on the receiving end of a hysterical anti-sex crusade which she, and the Labour governments in which she served, did so much to foment. When Labour came into office in 1997 they passed the Sex Offenders Act (replaced by the Sexual Offences Act, 2003) which meant anyone branded as a “sex offender” had to register with the police, effectively becoming a pariah for life. Harman called for tougher legislation on prostitution, which she equated with “human trafficking” and described as a “modern slave trade”. At the time we wrote: “The government is deliberately conflating horrific crimes against prostitutes such as debt bondage, sexual assault, beatings and other kinds of coercion with the fundamentally consensual act between a prostitute and her client to exchange money for sex” (Workers Hammer no 205, Winter 2008-2009).

We have a proud record of opposing reactionary “age of consent” laws, and are unique on the left in defending groups such as the North American Man/Boy Love Association. In December 1984 — when we had a readership in the coalfields as a result of our intervention into the miners strike — we wrote an article in Workers Hammer no 64 defending PIE which we are reprinting below.

Free the jailed PIE members!

On 14 November Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) members David Joy and Peter Bremner were sentenced to 18 and 6 months in prison, respectively. Their “crime” — advocating the proposition that youth under the “age of consent” should be allowed to screw. In declaring Joy “guilty” of publishing an “obscene” article, and the two of sending an “obscene” article through the post, the Old Bailey judge made clear that these two men were being thrown in jail purely and simply for giving “an intellectual respectability to acts which society as a whole regards as loathsome”. Now Joy and Bremner’s lives are in the hands of reactionary warders and prisoners; already they have been subjected to prison bashings and death threats. This “Moral Majority” frame-up is truly obscene and loathsome. We demand the immediate release and dropping of charges against Joy and Bremner! Smash the witchhunt against PIE!

This case is the culmination of years of vicious witchhunting directed against the PIE. In 1981 Tom O’Carroll, then chairman of PIE, was jailed for two years for conspiracy to corrupt public morals. Witchhunting reactionaries like headmaster Charles Oxley infiltrated PIE in order to finger them to the police. This creep who postures as a defender of children is among those named in a “Catalogue of Cruelty” issued by the Society of Teachers Opposed to Physical Punishment (STOPP) which noted “that some beatings are just crude sexual assault by sadistic teachers”. Thatcher’s reactionary “Victorian values” crusade and the anti-Soviet war drive have encouraged these vindictive moralisers. They shed no tears for the miners’ kids killed scratching for bits of coal to keep their families warm this winter. But god forbid youth should be allowed a bit of sexual pleasure in this grim society.

The outrageous attack on the tiny (now defunct) and relatively unpopular PIE is the sharp end of the wedge targeting all those whose sexual behaviour differs in any way from missionary position heterosexuality. The genuine bestiality and beastliness of public school life is deemed a necessary “test of manhood” for public schoolboys being groomed for the Tory establishment. But the masses of working-class and minority youth condemned to rotten schools and dole queues are meant to accept their fate as lower forms of human life without even a bit of sex to keep them warm. A current case, instigated by one Victoria Gillick (formerly a member of the ultra-rightist organisation Powellight) and backed by a menage ranging from Cardinal Hume to Thatcher, is trying to effectively deny contraceptives and abortion to any girl under the age of 16 by demanding clear parental consent. Gays are particularly under the gun: in recent months there has been an ominous and escalating series of attacks on gay rights, including Gestapo-style raids on gay bookshops which conjure up the scenes of book-burning in Hitler’s Germany.

As Marxists we do not presume to advocate any particular mode of consensual sexual behaviour. As we wrote when noted film director Roman Polanski was being persecuted for an affair with a l3-year-old girl in 1977: “As communists we oppose attempts to fit human sexuality into legislated or decreed ‘norms’. The guiding principle for sexual relations should be that of mutual consent — that is, nothing more than mutual agreement and understanding as opposed to coercion... the state has no business interfering” (Workers Vanguard no 192, 10 February 1978). This ought to be the guiding principle not just for Marxists but for any democrat on such social questions. Determining what is effective consent is always tricky, and particularly with youth there is a grey area. But such a judgement must be case by case, not categorical as it is with the age-of-consent laws. The act of sex in itself is not prima facie evidence of abuse or coercion.

The fact is that age-of-consent laws (which have their roots in the “bride-price” guarantee of virginity of women in arranged marriages) do not protect children. They are designed to repress the sexuality of youth with the power of the state. They enforce the reactionary morality of the bourgeois nuclear family, an institution at the core of the oppression of women, gays and children. It is within the nuclear family that most brutality and rape against children occur. It is precisely because groups like the PIE have so little social clout that defence of them against this witchhunt is the test of political decency. Defend the PIE! Free Joy and Bremner! Stop the attacks on gays!