If a 33-year-old man had been involved with a 14-year-old girl, there would have been a long, long queue of people ready to string him up. Yet many people seem to feel that somehow an affair between a woman and a boy, like the Whalin case, or that of Susan Nolan (the Wallsend woman given a suspended sentence last week for her affair with a boy of 14) is always going to be different from one between a man and a girl.
But if it is really so different, then how? In his novel In Praise Of Older Women, published in 1946, Stephen Vizinczey told the story of the affair he had as a 14-year-old with a woman 20 years his senior, for which he remains grateful to this day. Were there any damaging effects? "I'm almost insulted by your question," he says. "It's like asking if there were any damaging effects of winning the lottery." The greatest sin committed in the Whalin and Nolan cases, Vizinczey says, "is that the boys have been brainwashed into thinking that they are victims of crime. I wish my book could get to the boys. They could still be saved. And the parents should be educated as well. How much of their cruelty and insensitivity is due to what's expected of them by society?"
His view is shared by Alastair, a 27-year-old barman. When he told his mother about the affair he had had as a 13-year-old with a 27-year-old woman, "She went and battered her senseless." But he has no regrets himself. "I was on holiday with friends of the family. I was asleep in a caravan bed, and I woke up and she was all over me. It was a bit frightening at first, but I was more curious than anything." The affair lasted for eight months, and Alastair felt he was "lucky." But was there any long-term damage? "I can't see any problems it's ever caused my head."
Perhaps he was just lucky, then, in having the right person. "Ah no, she was a nutter," he says, and though he is undamaged, he believes she was in the wrong: "There are reasons for the age of consent, for both boys and girls." His mother, it's fair to assume, would agree. Mary, a solicitor, had an affair in the mid-Seventies with a 15-year-old. "He lived down the road from my parents. There was an obvious frisson - we would go on walks, chat. Then he started coming to see me after school. "It was mutual. It did feel illicit, but mostly in the sense that I was married. I was in my twenties, so it didn't feel like we were of different generations, though I was aware of the age gap, especially when I saw him in his school uniform. And he had that doting quality, wide-eyed, amazed at it all." There was no harm done, Mary believes. "We got on too well, and he seemed very clear about what he was doing."
Expert opinion is very divided. It has been hard to find many who will condemn Tracey Whalin's actions outright. An NSPCC spokesperson, for example, said that "it depends very much on the circumstances of each case - how long it's been going on for, the maturity of the individual, for example. And what effect it has on the boy depends on the support he gets."A therapist at the Psychotherapy Centre in London was prepared to go further. "It depends on the circumstances and the people involved," he said. There may still be control and manipulation in a relationship between a woman and a boy, but given the way society has ordered the relations between the sexes, he believes, the balance of power in the relationship is inevitably going to be different than if a man and a girl are involved. "I know that if when I'd been 14 an older woman had taken me in hand, I'd have been delighted," he said. "I only wish somebody had. The Whalin case is not the same as, say, an eight-year-old being sexually abused." In fact, he says, "If my son, who has just turned 14, had an affair with an older woman, and the circumstances were right, I wouldn't mind at all. If my 14-year-old daughter were to take up with an older man, I would feel very differently." He believes Whalin should not be treated harshly. "A suspended sentence would be right - a rap on the knuckles, but that's all."
Michelle Elliott of the charity Kidscape, an expert on child abuse, takes a harder line. "We just don't know the long-term effects on the young," a view with which Allan Levy QC, a barrister specialising in paedophile cases, concurs, believing the potential damage is just as great for boys."It may be that to a boy it's a feather in his cap, whereas a girl's reputation might suffer," Levy says. "But I don't think that protects boys from the psychological effects."
The only consensus is that every case is different and the long-term effects depend on the characters and circumstances. I have a theory of my own, however, that the key factor in these cases may be not the sex of the minor but the sex of the adult. I speak from experience. Two, in fact.
I hardly ran away to Florida, but the odd relationship I enjoyed with Pam demonstrated the thrall in which a boy can be held by a woman. She was about 15 years older than me. My parents' circle had lots of parties, and Pam's attentions began one night with "dancing lessons" alone in the hallway. She told me about dancing with a lecher who had pressed his groin into hers, demonstrating as she spoke.
Over the next couple of years, the parties followed the same pattern, lots of flirting and dirty dancing. Pam never took things further, but then, one evening, she and her husband had forgotten to bring one of their party tapes - Osibisa, it was. She wanted me to walk home with her to fetch it. I was a hormonal riot of hope. I don't know how she thought she could get away with it. A sotto voce but furious conversation ensued between Pam, her husband and my mum. Pam's husband fetched the tape while my mum pinned me in the corner, her eyes blazing, and said, "Don't you dare do anything with her." It always seems to be mothers who take it worst. It was never mentioned again. Pam's husband treated me as warmly as ever. I was the innocent. But that wasn't how it felt. Had things gone further, I would have been as willing a victim as Whalin's young lover.
Contrast how I felt about Pam's attentions with what happened a year or two earlier, 10 days before my 11th birthday. I'd swallowed lots of water doing my swimming certificate, and was feeling ill, so I was sent home. As I waited at the bus stop a man in a bread van said,"The bus has just gone, do you want a lift?" Stupidly, I climbed in.
He stopped near my house. He told me how brown my legs were and began to rub my thighs, then worked his hand inside my shorts. I was paralysed. He asked, "Do you like that?" "No," I said. "Do you want to meet me tomorrow, and I'll give you a lift to school?" he asked. I agreed, knowing I'd be off sick. He gave me some money and let me go. I ran home, numb, and hid the money away. I never spent it. And I certainly didn't tell my mother.
I've said I felt complicit in the minor shenanigans with Pam. And so I did with the bread man, but in a different way. I felt guilty and ashamed. I felt disgusting.
And while there have been problems in my life, I have never blamed any of it on Pam, whereas the bread man occupies a permanent place in the bad bits of my psyche. There is a difference, of course, between an 11- year-old and a 14-year-old, but I can't shake off the feeling that while Pam's attentions provided me with nothing more than a few pleasant memories, the bread man screwed me up good and proper. Different for boys? It depends on the circumstances. Different for men? In a patriarchal society, definitely. My experience leaves me with the conviction that when a woman is the perpetrator it's sometimes wrong. When a man is the perpetrator it's always wrong.
Some names have been changed.