Leading Article: No, your honour, children never ask for sex

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The Independent Online
SOME CHILDREN occasionally flirt with adults, particularly as they explore their own sexual identities. This flirtation involves children playing at adult roles in the same way that they play doctors and nurses and other childish imitations of adult behaviour. This in no way represents a real, conscious sexual desire on the part of the child.

The great danger is that adults may perceive childish behaviour as sanctioning sexual advances by them. They are mistaken: the gratification of adult sexual wishes is something very different from what any child has in mind when fantasising about sexual contact. It is terrifying and extremely confusing for a child to be faced with the full force of an adult filled with sexual excitement. This is not what they bargained for or wanted. It renders them powerless and transgresses very clear and necessary inter-generational boundaries. The consequences of this violation can be the wrecking of young lives.

The courts are called upon to enforce these boundaries when adults transgress them. Just such a case occurred this week when Karl Gambrill was convicted of attempting unlawful intercourse with an eight-year-old girl. In sentencing Gambrill, Judge Ian Starforth Hill QC rightly told the man that 'little girls are not there for you to indulge your sexual activities'. However, in mitigation, the judge pointed out that the girl was 'not entirely an angel'.

In other words the judge implied that flirtatious behaviour by the girl made her in some way culpable for the crime and reduced the responsibility of Mr Gambrill, who was 18 at the time of the offence. His comment could be taken as indicating that the little girl was 'asking for it'. The danger is that such loose language, despite the rest of the judge's comments, will endorse the views of paedophiles that children are willing partners in sexual abuse.

In fact, responsibility for sexual abuse of children lies squarely with adults, whose duty is to respect boundaries that young children are not powerful enough to set and enforce. Any blurring of this responsibility leaves children vulnerable to sexual abuse by those adults who are all too ready to find excuses for their actions.

There may now develop a tabloid-led lynch mob appalled that Mr Gambrill was sentenced only to two years' probation and a treatment programme for his sexual problems. The Attorney General, Sir Nicholas Lyell, is to review the sentence. However, although the parents of the girl may be angered at the leniency of this sentence, such treatment may be more effective than sending Mr Gambrill to jail where he would be with others convicted of similar crimes.

The real offence caused by Judge Starforth Hill is not the sentence but his failure to make crystal clear that the responsibility for sexual abuse belongs solely with adults, regardless of the way a child behaves.

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