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Sex, lies and undercover police officers

If someone agrees to an intimate relationship on the basis of lies, can they really be said to have given meaningful consent to sex?

Almost 20 years ago, a woman known as Alison began a relationship with a man she met via an anti-racist organisation in east London. Mark moved in with Alison and even appeared in family wedding photographs, but strains emerged over the question of children. Alison wanted a baby but Mark didn't, and for 18 months they saw a counsellor. In the spring of 2000, Mark disappeared and Alison began to suspect something was very wrong. Years later, she discovered that he was an undercover police officer who had assumed a false identity to spy on left-wing activists.

Alison's evidence, which she gave in a private session to the Home Affairs Select Committee last month, has just been published. Her story is almost beyond belief – the Labour MP Bridget Phillipson said she was "stunned" when she heard it – but Alison is one of 11 women who are suing the police for damages. Another witness, "Clare", told MPs that her partner also disappeared abruptly, and how her desperate attempts to find him led to a stunning discovery: he was an undercover officer who had assumed the identity of an eight-year-old boy who had died of leukaemia. Another woman is said to have had a child with an undercover cop without knowing the father's true identity.

This is a scandal of monumental proportions. It began to emerge two years ago, when a criminal case against six people accused of a conspiracy to sabotage a coal-fired power station was halted because of the involvement of an undercover police officer. Two days ago, the select committee produced a damning interim report condemning the practice of officers entering into sexual relationships under false identities unless they've obtained "prior authorisation", which should be granted only in "the most exceptional circumstances". Some of the MPs' most scathing remarks are reserved for the practice of "resurrecting" dead children to provide documentation for undercover officers, which they describe as "ghoulish and disrespectful".

But these cases raise another issue. If someone agrees to an intimate relationship on the basis of lies, can they really be said to have given meaningful consent to sex?

Last year, a strange, troubling case came before Guildford crown court in which a 19-year-old woman, Gemma Barker, posed as a boy on Facebook to trick female friends into having sexual relationships with her. She was convicted of sexual assault and fraud, and sentenced to 30 months.

Lawyers say this is a "grey area", but there are striking parallels between the Barker case and allegations that undercover officers had sex with women who'd been deceived about their true identities. Nor is there any doubt about the impact on the victims. Another woman, "Lisa", told MPs she was "shocked and devastated" when she discovered the truth about the man she had shared a bed with for six years. "I cared deeply for somebody whose life was intermingled with mine," she said, bleakly, "and that person's life story is a fiction."

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