Melanie Phillips

20 November 2006

The crumbling of the thin blue line

Published in: Daily Mail

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Our police are much more than merely a thin blue line protecting us from disorder in the streets. They also act as the tangible outward expression of a society's commitment to uphold the difference between right and wrong. If the police falter in that very clear objective, it is the surest sign that a society has lost its moral compass.

That's why it was so very disturbing to read the remarks by the country's top child protection officer about what should or should not constitute paedophilia. Terry Grange, the Association of Chief Police Officers' spokesman on child protection, said that only those who targeted pre-pubescent children deserved to be labelled and treated as 'paedophiles'. Having sex with children should not be classed as paedophilia, he said, if the child was aged between 13 and 15, and similarly 'child pornography' should apply only to images of children aged 12 and under.

So is a 13-year-old not really a child? The suggestion is absurd; yet Mr Grange appears effectively to be saying that, as soon as puberty arrives, childhood departs. This is a real betrayal of the young. Sex offences rob children of their childhood. Now the police appear to be doing precisely the same thing.

Mr Grange describes the current age of consent as an 'artificial barrier'. But it is not artificial at all -- it marks the point at which we think someone attains adult responsibility for sexual acts. What is Mr Grange implying, that we should have no age of consent at all?

The age of consent is set at 16 for the protection of children. When they hit puberty, they need even more protection in some ways than younger children. This is because although their outward appearance may excite sexual desire, physically and emotionally they are nowhere near ready for sexual experiences and can be damaged by such activity.

Clearly, the younger the child the more depraved such acts become -- something the law recognises. Thus the offence is classed as 'unlawful sexual intercourse' if the child is 13 years old or more and consenting, but as rape if the child is younger.

This difference is designed to allow for a measure of pragmatism. If, say, a 16-yearold boy has sex with a 14-year-old girl who has given her consent, it would obviously be oppressive to treat this as rape. But it remains a crime, since a 14-year-old girl is still deemed too immature for such activity and thus to need protection from it.

According to Mr Grange, however, sex with under-age children is unacceptable only when they have not yet come to sexual maturity. He appeared effectively to be saying that 13 or 14 year-olds were to be deemed responsible for a sexual encounter merely on account of their outward show of sexuality, and so it was only before that point that they deserved protection.

He did not want, he said, to 'mix up kids who are just the wrong side of 16 with paedophiles'. Few would disagree with that; an 18-year-old having sex with a 15-year- old is not a paedophile. But Mr Grange seems to be confusing some arguably questionable terminology with the need to protect under-age children.

Thus he said that a 30-year-old having sex with a 15-year-old girlfriend was not paedophilia. But what if the 30-year-old was not a boyfriend but a teacher having sex with a 15-year-old pupil? The issue is surely the abuse of sexual power arising from the breach of trust between an adult and a child.

Yesterday, Mr Grange appeared to be having second thoughts when he said he supported the prosecution of any man over the age of 20 having sex with a girl aged 13 to 15. But the confusion generated by all his remarks creates an uncertainty which can only assist those who prey upon children.

His remarks about child pornography were, if anything, even more disturbing. His suggestion that sexually exploitative images of children aged 13 to 15 should not be classified as child pornography doubly victimises children: first by condoning the use of them to create such images, and second by provoking men to view other children of similar age as sexual prey.

Pornography degrades and violates everyone who is used to produce such images, and coarsens and brutalises society in general. Using children of any age is even more vile. For a senior police officer to suggest that it doesn't matter if children who have hit puberty are used to produce such depravity is deeply dismaying.

The law is all about drawing up moral lines and then holding them. The age of consent is just such a line, and blurring it is effectively to destroy it. The outcome is a green light to child molesters, the abandonment of children and the undermining of the rule of law.

It also powerfully assists one of the most dismaying aspects of our society, the premature sexualisation of our children. Only this weekend Clarissa Farr, the High Mistress of the exclusive St Paul's Girls' School, expressed her concern at the marketing of sexually provocative clothing to prepubescents and warned that the sexualisation of young girls was a real worry.

Across the commercial board, from music to magazines, from crop-tops to cosmetics, there is a multi-million pound culture which replicates the perverted paedophile 'grooming' of children as sexualised beings in order to make money.

This feeds off the general breakdown-in moral rules and authority over children at all levels, from the erosion of parental discipline to the outright refusal of schools to give clear moral guidance and the provision instead of contraception and abortions even to under-age children.

This has been assisted by the failure of the police to enforce the law on the age of consent, thus bringing it into disrepute. Now Mr Grange would have us give such failure an official stamp of approval.

This is the process by which we have progressively unravelled our society's whole moral tapestry. Instead of enforcing the law and thus policing moral boundaries, the law merely adjusts to accommodate the mass flouting or transgression of those laws or boundaries. Thus we have legitimised babies born out of wedlock, cohabitation or cannabis use -- and now we are being invited to do the same with under-age sex.

In the late 19th century, the age of consent was raised from 12 to 13 and then to 16. This was considered a great act of social reform. Now it is suggested that we should turn the clock back to a less civilised age.

This is the outcome of the sexual and values free-for-all, in which rules that once governed behaviour have been torn up and the moral markers that once enabled us to navigate a moral course have been destroyed -- and with the thin blue line of policing having itself disintegrated into a jumble of fast-fading dots.

Mr Grange himself is no stranger to controversy. He has previously criticised the Government for bowing to media pressure over allowing parents access to information about sex offenders living in their area. He has also attacked the Government for its 'hairy-chest' approach to law and order in the search for an unattainable goal of 'absolute safety'.

Wouldn't it be a relief if our police were to concentrate on actually enforcing the laws passed by Parliament, rather than trying to usurp its function by seeking to influence those laws? When the police stop enforcing the law and instead promote an agenda that undermines our basic values, they cease to be the defenders of a society and turn instead into its potential nemesis.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography

Books

  • The World Turned Upside Down
  • Londonistan
  • The Ascent of Woman
  • America's Social Revolution

Contact Melanie

Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
Northcliffe House
2 Derry Street
London W8 5TT

Contact Melanie