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.