Was Lady Justice Butler-Sloss right when earlier this week she returned the nine-year-old son and six-year-old daughter to a mother who had allowed her fiance to walk around the house naked and to bath with her children? Or had the "shocked" Judge James Wigmore, who she over- ruled, only been doing what we expect of him in these troubled times and protecting the children from a potentially risky situation when he gave custody to the father, in June, after hearing of the fiance's behaviour (even though he said very clearly that there was no suggestion of abuse)?
These are difficult questions at a time when, day after day, we hear yet another chilling story of paedophilia and child abuse. And when research done by Kidscape, the child protection agency, based on interviews with 91 paedophiles shows us that a very high percentage, and this includes natural parents as well as outsiders, will build up trusting and loving relationships and propitious opportunities in order to abuse.
But it is important that we stop and think about whether nakedness and the cosy intimacy of sharing a bath with children in a family situation is necessarily the sign of a depraved family. Certainly if it were my brother and I who, when children, had been the subject of a custody hearing, we would have been whisked into care - for our psychiatrist father regularly wandered from bedroom to bathroom without clothing. He did it absent-mindedly, or because he couldn't be bothered to put anything on for so short a journey, rather than in any spirit of display. And now my partner and I have likewise been unworried by our sons seeing us au nature, if they come into our bedroom or bathroom. I'm sure there is a Polaroid photo lurking somewhere of them in the bath with their father.
I know that in both these instances, as in the households of many of my friends, that the nakedness, the sharing of unclad body contact in games, cuddles and showers, has been just one dimension of an easy intimacy that extends into all areas of life. It has also been an important way of helping children to feel at ease with their bodies. These days, we do not have to be, as Bernard Shaw bemoaned: "Ashamed of everything that is real about us ... ashamed of our naked skins."
This is not a small consideration, as Peter Wilson, director of the Young Minds children's mental health charity agrees, in a country such as Britain where we have a frankly perverse attitude to nakedness. We seem to have no problem with Page Three girls and rather more lurid representations of men and women clad in what Marshall McLuhan called "sexual flags" (clothes that make the genitals conspicuous and often eroticised, while purporting to disguise them). Nor are we unduly bothered by the kind of sensual nudity or semi-nakedness that gets on to our television and cinema screens with little trouble. Yet we whisk a streaker at Wimbledon into custody quick as a flash. And, we all remember the almighty hoo-hah when photos of news reader Julia Somerville's children, photographed in the bath by her fiance, were discovered.
Of course, there are exhibitionists who reveal themselves to children because they get a kick out of doing so; and they frighten children in a way that cannot be tolerated. And equally there are people who photograph children in seemingly innocent domestic situations and then stoke paedophile fantasies with the resulting pictures. But as Gaby Shenton at Kidscape says, it is important that we find a way to protect children and enable them to resist paedophile advances without wrecking healthy innocence, fun and intimacy within families. She points out, too, that there is a great difference between a parent or step-parent who goes out of their way to display their nakedness before children and persons like my father, for whom nakedness is simply not a problem.
What Peter Wilson calls the "new puritanism" was already well entrenched in the days of my father's naked cavortings. My dad used to tell of a psychiatric colleague who, knowing nothing of our domestic situation, once observed to my father that he was treating a family where the father was clearly mentally unstable, because "he goes round the house in the nude". This is a puritanism that stems from the wretched feeling that we can trust no-one and nothing. If we allow our children to think that a member of the family who is allowed to appear naked in front of our them will see it as invitation to abuse them, then we are effectively telling our children that naked bodies equate with danger. That is a very sinister message.
The cunning of the determined paedophile is not predicated on being allowed to appear naked before children, nor is there any evidence that this familiarity predisposes a person to abuse. In fact, persons who want to abuse children will find a way to do so, even if they have to wear a head-to-toe boiler suit every time they are seen around the home.
If there is anyone who understands these distinctions it is surely Justice Butler-Sloss, who adjudicated at the Cleveland sex abuse inquiry and hear ream so evidence. If after gaining as good an understanding as anyone in the country of when and how abuse occurs, she returned the children to their mother this week, she must surely feel very confident in doing so.
But there are other issues besides the fear of abuse that are raised in considering the idea of adult nakedness before children. Firstly, it is important that what we do should be appropriate; and that the children should feel comfortable with it. Small children who have always known nakedness may well be unconcerned; but then as they reach puberty, they may suddenly find it uncomfortable or distasteful. I remember, once I reached adolescence, that I avoided walking around the landing whenever my father appeared in his natural state. And after my sons' hormones went into orbit, they had no hesitation in telling me, and their father, that they didn't care to see our privates on display. Fair enough. In just about every psychology book I have read, it is stated that children discovering their own sexuality do not want to know about that of their parents - at that stage naked bodies do represent the potentially erotic. We both invested in dressing gowns.
Nor is it unreasonable if a child does object where a new partner is brought into the family and parades around starkers. If children feel uncomfortable with someone who feels strange to them naked, or sharing a bath with them, then surely their feelings must be respected. But whether this respect is given or not will depend a good deal on the attitudes and sensitivity of their parents. A situation in which children might be subject to a succession of naked partners is obviously very different to that in which a person planning to be a permanent part of their family, and to share caring for them, is naked.
The central dilemma of our time with regard to child sexual abuse is how to protect our children from predators whose presence does seem to constitute a real risk. The only way to do this, it seems to me, is to encourage our children to feel able to act on their instincts and to protest at anything and everything that feels uncomfortable to them. If we encourage them to tell us how they feel, no matter how difficult that is; and if we listen to things that may sound absurd or overstated to us as adults, and take that seriously, we will find a way to make them safer.
The child who knows if they will be taken seriously if they tell us a new "mummy" or "daddy" is popping up everywhere with no clothes on, and is touching them, urging them into the bath, and wanting to be alone with them, can then feel safe and comfortable with the way of life they share with us. But if we pooh-pooh what they say; laugh and tell them they've got it wrong, or turn away and refuse to hear because it is too uncomfortable for us, then we will certainly put them at risk. In Scandinavia and Holland, nakedness is everywhere - on beaches, in mixed showers and saunas and certainly in families with all kinds of permutations. And child sex abuse is no higher in those countries than here.
We must shift the balance away from fear of being able to show, in an innocent and natural way, what we are, what we were when born - naked beings. Bodies, even imperfect ones like mine, are comforting, cuddly, amusing things. they should not be seen as our dirty secrets, something children are taught to be ashamed of. I cringe when I hear parents on beaches, while urging diminutive kids into even more diminutive swimming costumes, telling them it's not right to be seen naked. We do better to help them to love their bodies, to value them and to know how to protect them.Reuse content