Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Sex crime

This is partly a response to The Burd's new Herald blog article, in which she argues that we need zero tolerance on child abuse; but it's also a worried sigh at the general outpouring of commentary on the recent Craig Thomson sex offence conviction.

Taking that conviction first, the simple fact is that none of those passing public comment on this case knows the whole details. I have seen Thomson described as a "pervert" and a "paedo", and seen messages calling for him to be maimed and killed, and none of those commenting knows the full facts. Neither do I. The one person we know does, the judge at his trial, has passed sentence. Why on earth do folk think they know better?

Let me set that aside for now and tackle the more substantive point. Zero tolerance for sexual offences against minors sounds like nothing more than common sense. After all, who could possibly want to tolerate such behaviour? It's for precisely that reason that decent debate on the subject is thin on the ground, because anyone who puts his/her head above the parapet to question such an initiative is likely to be shot down with the same ferocity as that described above.

So let me throw this out here. I have committed sex crimes involving an underage partner, though I was never caught; and I have been the victim of sex crimes when underage, though I never reported it. Come braying mob, descend on me.

We all grow up protected by the age of consent law, which says that under a certain age we are unable to give informed consent to sex, and anyone who has sex with us (or tries to) can be prosecuted. The age of consent is currently 16, and as laws go it's probably the least worst option, since while it unnecessarily inhibits some who are mature enough to give informed consent before 16, it protects and gives clarity to many more.

But when I was growing up, the age of consent for the sex I wanted to have - with other men - was 21. At 19 years old, my first boyfriend and I were deemed underage. I have to confess now, however, that we did have sex. Quite a lot of it actually. And if we'd been reported and convicted, we could have gone to prison for it, never mind being fined.

Am I therefore a pervert? Twenty years ago my crime might well have met with such commentary, albeit not facilitated by the present medium. Twenty years before that and it would have been illegal at any age. Did the mobs bray in those days? You bet they did.

Sex crime is not a black and white issue. Even sex crime that involves a judgement that the victim is underage is not straightforward. There are degrees of seriousness, degrees of harm done, degrees of future threat posed. Had I been prosecuted and convicted I would today just be a sex offender, or even a child abuser - the nuances of the case, the similarity of ages, the fact that the law since changed, would not affect that.

Fast forward to the mid 1990s and we saw, in tandem with the age of consent reduction to 18, the introduction of the sex offenders register. A long accepted fact of life now, but did you know that when it was first introduced it would have seen people convicted of consenting acts, like S&M where both parties consented, forced to be registered alongside rapists and child molesters? It took long and difficult campaigning to cut through the tabloidese to change that.

Zero tolerance is an ethos which removes discretion from policing and from sentencing, which says if you do this sort of thing then you are this sort of person, without the possibility of mitigation, without differentiation of culpability. Even worse, it encourages and generates the sort of responses to crime that we have seen in the Craig Thomson case. It hides yet more of the fact from the public, leaving only the conviction. Good versus evil. Indeed it could be argued that this veiling of detail is part of its raison d'etre. We do not want to hear the details of the worst sorts of crimes. It suits us to say "bad man" and put every such case in a closed box.

All I know about the Thomson case is that a man was found guilty of a sexual offence and was fined and placed on the sex offenders' register. But it is desperately important to me to also know that the judge who sentenced him had the full facts at his disposal, could listen to the statements of the victims and take them into account, had the opportunity to adjust the punishment to fit the specifics of the crime, and could do so without any reference to the political or social winds blowing at the time.

Please let's keep that precious element of our justice system. Let our judges assess victim impact, future risk, mitigation and culpability. Let the punishment fit the crime, not the fear. Zero tolerance only empowers the braying mobs.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

A knighthood for Brian Souter

The human brain works in amazing ways. A smell can transport us into a vivid memory; a taste can envelop the mind in reverie. Sadly the same is true of traumatic recollections. Sometimes it take just one trigger to take us almost bodily back into the feelings and stresses of a time of pain.

It happened to me this morning.

I saw on Twitter the name "Brian Souter" and a reference to a knighthood. I thought it so unlikely that the Brian Souter I know of, the architect and funder of the Keep the Clause campaign, could possibly have been knighted, that I went in search of corroboration, flicking past a picture of Brucie and a list of celebrities to the full list of Birthday Honours recipients and searching for "Souter". There it was. For services to transport and to the voluntary sector.

I swore. My husband asked me what was wrong and I genuinely couldn't answer for a moment. My brain was rushing me back to a time of trauma and hurt and I could only express anger and pain.

I know that more than a few people reading this will be scoffing at this point. Just because I have a political disagreement with someone, they may be thinking, this reaction to him being given a gong is laughably over-baked. I need to explain. I was there, you see.

In late October 1999, in the first optimistic flush of the new Scottish Parliament, a fax (remember them?) arrived in my little spare bedroom study. It was from the office of Wendy Alexander, the Communities Minister in the Scottish Executive, and it contained a draft of a speech she was due to deliver the next day announcing plans to repeal section 28. The reason this potentially explosive document arrived in my spare bedroom was that of the small group of volunteers who constituted the Equality Network, a campaign group we had set up a few years earlier, I was the only one with a fax machine.

We knew the speech had gone to two newspapers too, and we quickly convened to discuss strategies, since though we had long demanded action on repeal, the speed of the Executive's action was a surprise. One of the newspapers was the Daily Record, and when the next day dawned its headline heralded the start of one of the most intense, challenging and damaging campaigns of our lives. "GAY SEX LESSONS FOR SCOTS SCHOOLS"

Gay rights groups and the government were on the back foot from the very start, as homophobic ex-tabloid hack Jack Irvine found common cause with evangelical fundamentalist millionaire Brian Souter and the leader of the Catholic church in Scotland Cardinal Tom Winning, with the Daily Record as the cheering section. The campaign they unleashed was of unimaginable ferocity, and backed with seemingly limitless funds. Billboards sprang up across the country deriding the moral worth of "homosexual relationships". Lies about what repeal would mean, and lies about the threat to marriage and children, became the common currency of debate.

All over the country, LGBT people felt the chill of homophobia permeating society. Instead of being able to welcome the shaking off of the shackles of section 28, we found ourselves hunkering down against an onslaught of negative images of our lives, and damning indictments of our hopes. On the front line this effect was oddly both magnified and deflected, because while the issues were all-consuming we were all in close contact as a team, and that team had broadened from just LGBT groups to a cross-section of society under the banner "Scrap the Section".

And then came the nationwide "ballot", in which every household in the country was sent homophobic propaganda and asked to vote to protect their children from the homosexual threat. Suddenly we could not even feel safe in our homes, as Souter's money gave him the opportunity to send his bile directly to every one of us. As a confident, out, well-supported gay man in Edinburgh, I felt threatened. Across the country those less fortunate were effectively under siege from this campaign of lies and vicious piety. We began to hear increased reports of gay bashings and, in some ways far worse, that support lines were swamped and suicide attempts and self-harm in the LGBT communities were on the increase too.

This went on for months.

In the end, of course, we won; and I'm still inspired by some of the political bravery shown in that victory. The predictions of Keep the Clause were shown up as the lies they were, and today you would find almost no-one who would argue that children are in need of "protection" from information about the existence of successful same sex relationships.

But the echo of that millionaire's homophobic campaign lasted long after it was defeated. LGBT people could not forget how exposed and threatened we had felt, and every further step towards equality was taken in the knowledge of the existence of a constituency of hate that would only need some more carefully constructed lies to be reawakened.

Such is the legacy of Brian Souter. That is why I, and I'm sure many others, reacted with such revulsion to this morning's news. He inflicted great pain on our lives. He caused us to be beaten, and took from us some of our most vulnerable. And our government just rewarded him with a knighthood.