Can heterosexuality be as tedious as our clergy and politicians believe?

Is Carey's concern that gay vicars will turn from the basses to proposition the altos in the choir?
OVER THERE, in illiberal Britain, they have been getting their (baggy and unrevealing) knickers in a right old twist. In the run-up to last night's vote on equalising the heterosexual and gay male ages of consent, the howls and growls of outraged moral majoritarians have filled the pages of the Mail and the Telegraph. They are not, of course, homophobes, perish the thought. Some of their best friends are gays, charming men - with a passion for tapestries and collecting Toby-Jugs - who wouldn't harm a fly (let alone open one).

I have passed forty, but the attitude of many on the right towards homosexuality still surprises me. Male right-wingers are personally affronted by lesbianism (perhaps it is the loss of opportunity they deplore), while both men and women seem to be fixated on anal sex. So, according to Lynette Burrows in yesterday's Telegraph, "the defining activity of homosexuals is buggery". The evidence for this is some study in which 92 per cent of male homosexuals were said to have taken part in anal sex. One might as well argue that the defining activity for heterosexual couples (as judged by St Valentine's ungay Day) is calling each other by ridiculous pet names like Wuggles and Rumpkin.

Perhaps the horror the authoritarian right feels for this one sexual act blinds them to the flaws in their arguments. Take Leo McKinstry, once a Labour councillor in Islington, who now writes, in the Sunday Telegraph, that the equal rights amendment is nothing less than "state sanctioned encouragement to embark on a gay sexual career in the mid-teen years".

This bonkers proposition (that if something is not banned, then it is encouraged) gives rise in my mind to a public service TV ad in which a boyish figure turns to the camera and whispers huskily, "Hi! I'm Tony. You've just turned sixteen and I bet you're tired of strumming your own guitar. Why not get another guy to do it for you? It's a whole lot of fun, and it's not even illegal any more. Thanks to New Labour".

Let us leave poor McKinstry for a moment and pop over to the Mail, where we find Labour stalwart Stuart Bell MP arguing that the amendment will "undermine family life". And goes on to ask whether, "if we adults reduce the age of homosexual consent, are we saying to teenagers it is OK to try it?"

Yep. That's what we're saying, Stuart. But are you saying that heterosexuality is so tedious, so unattractive that, given half a chance the more red- blooded of today's teenage boys would soon find themselves cracking whips over PVC-clad musclemen in Berlin night-clubs? Stuart and Leo seem to believe that most of us are repressed homosexuals, nailed with difficulty to the narrow board of conventional family life. Speak for yourself, boys.

Nevertheless S and L's little problem is still preferable to the arguments of those who see themselves as in loco everyone's parentis. Lynette Burrows (the very name suggests a pathological need to hide from the truth) is sure that only paedophiles and men in macs will benefit from the change in the law. "When I think of my own four boys," she writes, "who were slender and beardless for four years beyond the age of 16, I know that the law was right to protect them."

If they'd been fat and hairy (like many of my classmates) the little Burrowses would presumably have been fair game for every passing pervert. But here, of course, Ma Burrows is showing that delicacy of concern for her teenage sons' sexual innocence that only a person who has never actually been a late teenage boy can possibly feel. Take it from me, Lynette, in 20 years time one of the beardless ones will turn round and tell you stories that will make your hair curl.

After its passage through the Commons, the amended bill will go to the Lords where many are promising a fight. And joining them, apparently, will be the mitred ranks of the bishops of the Church of England, who issued a statement over the weekend, stating that, "we are concerned that the proposal ... may give wrong messages to young people and to our society as a whole."

What wrong messages? That we value gay teenagers as much as straight ones? That we believe that equality before the law will turn happy hets into homos? Or is George Carey's concern perhaps that a whole load of those notoriously gay vicars will suddenly - and embarrassingly - turn from the basses and begin to proposition the altos in the church choir? Much parentis, very loco.

Let me warn their Reverences not to fight it in the Lords. Many will wonder at the sheer cheek of C of E prelates in telling Jewish, Methodist or Zoroastrian wooftahs what to do. Tony Benn's campaign for disestablishment would find itself with millions of new supporters.

It could be that the church hierarchy secretly knows this, which is why they have been making such friendly noises about an amendment tabled by veteran Labour MP, Joe Ashton. This amendment (which was either passed last night, or was taken under the Home Office's wing for further refinement) seeks to outlaw sex between those under the age of 18 and people in a "position of authority, influence and trust". The suggestion is that the passage of this amendment would temper church opposition to the ending of age discrimination.

Odd, this, because the two things are completely unrelated. Ashton, taking his cue from the Utting report on Children Living Away From Home, is concerned that youngsters in circumstances that render them especially vulnerable should be protected against sexual predation by those appointed to watch over them. He cites 200,000 children living away from home, of whom 60 per cent are in boarding schools, and the rest are living with foster parents, in prison establishments, and in children's homes.

This is a genuinely difficult issue. If you are deemed to be an adult above the age of 16 then why are you less of an adult because you are at boarding school? Why should you, uniquely, require the protection of the criminal law? And are sexual relations with, say, a teacher or (most famous of all) matron, necessarily abusive? Long-term and relatively equal relationships are clearly imaginable between, say, 17 year old girls in care, and 22-year-old care workers.

Imaginable, but highly undesirable. The distinction is that it would be deeply unprofessional for a carer to indulge in such a relationship. Yet it is very important that the young adults should not see themselves as having taken part in a criminal act. Rather, the worker should be viewed as having transgressed a strict professional code. Doctors may be struck- off for sleeping with their patients, but there is no criminal trial. So those who look after teenagers could be dismissed and blacklisted, without the need for the police to be involved.

I may be wrong on this. But even if I am, it is surely worrying that such a complex measure should be being used as bargaining chip to neutralise opposition to a measure - equal rights - whose merits are so obvious to all but the purblind and prejudiced.

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