Why I am so scared of Paulsgrove Woman

'There on TV were the mums (no dads), shoulders tattooed, faces studded. Never has the social divide seemed so wide'
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The Independent Online

That's Britain for you. Across the channel they got the French Revolution, liberté, égalité, fraternité (and a bit of head-chopping), and all we got were the Gordon Riots and mobs stoning Catholics. So when working-class women and their children take to Portsmouth's streets, it isn't in support of the NHS, or to demand better nurseries, but out of a desire to hang, burn or castrate some of their neighbours. This depressing failure of the proletariat to perform their historical task is slightly reminiscent of those days in 1968, when dockers and meat-porters marched - not for socialism or against the Vietnam war - but in support of Enoch Powell.

That's Britain for you. Across the channel they got the French Revolution, liberté, égalité, fraternité (and a bit of head-chopping), and all we got were the Gordon Riots and mobs stoning Catholics. So when working-class women and their children take to Portsmouth's streets, it isn't in support of the NHS, or to demand better nurseries, but out of a desire to hang, burn or castrate some of their neighbours. This depressing failure of the proletariat to perform their historical task is slightly reminiscent of those days in 1968, when dockers and meat-porters marched - not for socialism or against the Vietnam war - but in support of Enoch Powell.

Watching Paulsgrove Woman at work over the last few days has re-emphasised for me how scared I am of a certain part of our society - as terrified, certainly, as ever the Victorian bourgeoisie were of the poor of Seven Dials. There on TV were the mums (no dads), faces studded, shoulders tattooed, too-small pink singlets worn over shell-suit bottoms, pallid faces under peroxided hair telling tales of a diet of hamburgers, cigarettes and pesticides.

And they'd taught their three-year-old kids (on whose behalf all this was supposedly being done) to chant slogans about hanging and killing. Paulsgrove Woman, I felt, was of an alien race to me. No wonder the BBC employed anthropologists with cut-glass accents to interpret these people for the sake of bemused viewers. Never has the social divide seemed so wide.

And they were having fun. The glee with which two young women hurled telephonic abuse at a supposed offender put me in mind of the smiling faces you see in lynching photographs from the Old South. It's an evil pleasure, this - especially when there's very little interest in guaranteeing that the next victim is actually guilty of the (very general) offence with which they are charged. The sentiment exposed by one mother of three (where was her husband?) said it all. "I'd like to see 'em all castrated," she told the camera, "And I don't mean chemically." In other words, the enjoyment to be had from the offender's suffering was every bit as important as the objective of preventing reoffending. If not more. I was reminded of the scene in Zola's Germinal when the capitalist's genitals were ripped off by the mob.

Nevertheless the Paulsgrove phenomenon is interesting, if only because it involves one of the least listened to and inarticulate sections of society. I hear the atavistic hatred in the shrill voices, but I hear other things as well.

Many of these women have cause to feel dumped on. Almost all paedophiles are men; a significant number of the women are single mothers, some of whom have been mistreated or abandoned by men. They're used to feeling like the bottom of the social heap. Yet here are blokes living among them whom even they can despise, and on behalf of the one thing that does belong to them: their children. A telling comment from one interview was that drug-dealing had now become part of the scenery in Paulsgrove, but that paedophilia never would be; they may have failed in every other way to protect their families, but not in this.

If the women of Paulsgrove have lumped together the guilty with the innocent, they have only behaved in the same way as, and using similar language to, that of the popular chat-shows and newspaper columnists. This is not a discriminating age, interested in the tedious adumbration of fact. And for one brief moment - emphasised by their involvement yesterday in "negotiations" - they have been empowered, even if onlyto smash windows, terrify neighbours and alarm the police. They have also, whether they know it or not, been shown an unusual degree of leniency by the law. Those leading the campaign, which has involved car-burnings, assaults and threats to the local MP, should, if possible, be prosecuted and punished. Pour décourager les autres, as they don't say in Paulsgrove.

However, while we're chucking the book at them for the sake of civil order, we might take a longer look at their cause. Is it, after all, so irrational to be concerned about the number of sexual abusers of children who live among us? Or to be worried that a disproportionate number - on emerging from prison - might be housed by councils in areas with large numbers of children?

Here our tendency to lump together everyone who has ever committed a sexual act anywhere near a minor, doesn't help. Someone who downloads pictures of 14-year-old naked boys from the internet may be passively abetting an abuse, but that does not make them a danger to three-year-old girls. Analysis of the figures would show Paulsgrove Woman that her greatest fears should not reside in total strangers, but in close male relatives, or in men who woo single mothers in order to get access to their children.

Given that many who sexually abuse children were themselves abused, it may be that the best way of breaking the cycle is for social workers to take far more children away from the very families who constitute their greatest danger.

The real problem for us liberals however, resides in the recidivism of sexual offenders and (taking this into account) the laxness of their sentencing. Concern about "demonisation" should not blind us to the existence of demons. Many paedophiles simply don't believe that they are damaging children; they actually think that small children enjoy masturbating and being masturbated by older men. Some regard themselves as the homosexuals of the 21st century; people whose sexuality will one day come to be seen as normal.

The internet has become a fantastic resource for child abusers (or "child-lovers" as they style themselves), allowing a trade in images and experiences that effectively "normalise" child abuse for many paedophiles. Those callow twenty-something netniks, who roundly condemn the Government for seeking to monitor the Net, should consider what potential damage is done by allowing such contact to go unchecked. Meanwhile we're left with the problem of how the hell you can cure someone who fundamentally believes that they are well?

Nor have I seen anything that suggests that we're even remotely close to paying for a regime of counselling and surveillance that would vastly improve reoffending rates. So the demonstrators see (even if they mistake them for others) that there are men out there who have committed dozens - sometimes hundreds - of offences with children, and are at liberty. And who are extremely likely to do it again.

A Megan's Law, with a publicly available register of the names and addresses - as has been clearly demonstrated on these pages by Deborah Orr and others - will not help, but hinder the fight against child abuse. The same, however, is not true of longer sentences for repeat offenders. Just how many times can you let a man finger little kids before you put him away for good? Ten? Twenty? Five hundred? That's a question Paulsgrove Woman, for all her studs, is entitled to ask us.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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