It is time we were more grown-up about children

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hen we read the erstwhile Mrs Chris Woodhead is threatening to sue her ex-husband, we can be perfectly sure that she is not doing so because she is vindictive. It is merely because she cares so passionately about vulnerable sixth-formers who might or might not have affairs with their teachers. The teaching unions, who have had such a hard time at the hands of Mr Woodhead, only share Mrs Woodhead's desire to rake up an affair which the man did or did not have with Amanda Johnson when she was his pupil at Gordano School 25 years ago because they too care so much about kids. Likewise, you would surely not be so cynical, would you, as to suppose that the Lords have only rejected the Government's bill to lower the age of consent for gay boys because they wished to make political capital out of the situation?

Whatever your views, these two cases are two more examples of our current obsession, as a society, with the question of sex and the very young. And because they both hinge on the question of age, they are timely reminders of what moral illiterates we have become. It is so very easy to say that something is good at 15 and bad at 16. Much more difficult to ask ourselves what we mean by good and bad in the first place.

The trouble with an Age of Consent when sex is in question is that it immediately invites contradiction. Laws which are designed to "protect" children end up by having the effect which is very nearly the opposite. Instead of saying that this behaviour is depraved, or dangerous, we merely congratulate ourselves by saying that we have stopped 14-year-olds doing it.

Introduce an age of consent into any area of human activity and you are begging persons of common sense to make objections. What? You can marry at 16, join the army at 16 but not go to bed with a chap?

On this particular question, incidentally, the Peers - many of them educated at boarding schools - must have short memories. The argument against lowering the age of gay consent would appear to be that many boys go through a "phase" when they are uncertain of their sexuality. The further implication is that it would be much better if they veered off eventually in a heterosexual direction rather than being corrupted by "older men". But if this argument were followed to its logical conclusion, and if it were weighed against what actually happens in real life, two pieces of law would be enacted at once by the Lords. First, they would ban grown-up homosexuality again. Secondly, they would recognise that the only sort of gay sex which is, in their sense, harmless, was the teenage variety, since, like teenage socialism, it is something which nearly all of us in England go through and outgrow.

We already have laws against rape, abduction, indecent assault, incest: these laws apply whether the offences are committed by minors or by grown- ups. Introduce an age of consent into the picture and you are immediately asking someone else to reduce it. Having a baby without adequate preparation or family support is disastrous at any age. Doing so aged 13 in a happy family environment is not necessarily the end of the world. But - and this is the important point - no one in their right mind would recommend young girls of 15-16 to have babies. By having "ages of consent" you somehow imply that once they get beyond a certain age, foolish behaviour is perfectly OK.

We have failed our children by failing to think this through unsentimentally. It is so much easier to say that we believe in a grown-up person's "right" to do this or that idiotic thing, while sentimentally wishing to "protect" the young.

We seem to have reached the position as a society where we deem almost any form of sexual behaviour to be (in the cant term of the age) "acceptable" so long as it does not hurt kiddies. This must be mad.

Some people have tried to devise theories about this, and attempted to demonstrate that there is some dark paedophile strain in a society whose films, advertisements and even political discourse is swamped by nauseous and saccharine sentimentality about children. We demonise - so the theory runs - what we secretly yearn for.

But this is too clever. I think we are simply in a muddle. Once you abandon the old idea that sex is wicked (in the grown-up, old-fashioned sense of the word) unless performed by monogamous married couples, it becomes logically very difficult to distinguish between one form of the activity and another. We all know that some children have sexual experiences and it is hysterical nonsense to say that this will always "scar them for life". Some 11-year-old fumblings would be far less likely to scar you for life than an unwise love affair aged 45.

What we all need, as individuals and as a society, is a sane, unpriggish and good-humoured recognition that most forms of sexual activity are best kept private. By all means let us prosecute paedophiles who go on holiday to islands populated by unwilling catamites. Let us imprison those who rape or threaten children. But in those confused cases of consensual sex between those under or over an age limit, no useful purpose is served by bringing in the police and the newspapers. Let the housewives who fall in love with boy scouts have a row with the boys' parents, but don't let's bring the matter before a magistrate. Decide what we think about homosexuality, and then recognise that most 16-year-olds can look after themselves in this department. Policeman Plod won't help him do so. Recognise that sometimes teachers fall in love with pupils and vice versa. If, years later, the teacher becomes a famous, union-bashing educational reformer, find some other stick to beat him with, and leave his emotional life out of the picture.

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