My first year at university wasn’t an easy one – I’d made the mistake of being as open about my sexuality with my new friends on campus as I had been with my old friends from the sixth-form, who had been tolerant of, and amused by, my sexuality.
On this isolated campus it was possible to go for months only ever seeing students and teachers. So once a week I’d go to sing in the choir and steal glances at a blonde girl of about 11, the daughter of one of the music lecturers, who would sit in the front row of the sopranos.
She’d only be some ten rows diagonally across the hall in front of where I would croak my way through Handel’s Messiah, but she could have been ten miles away for all that she ever noticed my existence. Yet, I’d look forwards to choir practice just for an occasional glimpse of this angel – the only child I’d see all week.
I found myself increasingly isolated and lonely, and troubled by my sexuality. I’d quickly learnt that being open about my sexuality was not the fast route to popularity (though no one was openly nasty to me – not to my face anyway). I did find many of the female students around me attractive, but they seemed inaccessible, big and lacking in vivacity.
Maybe this was because of something that had happened during the long Summer holidays I’d spent with my parents at a cottage lost in the wilds of a hot, southern European country.
Our nearest neighbours there were a retired couple. My parents had invited them round, and they brought with them their three granddaughters (aged 6, 8 and 10), whom they were looking after for a few days. The girls soon grew bored with the grown-up talk and I found my hands pleasantly full keeping them entertained. Before long the younger ones were clambering over me, fighting over who was allowed to sit on my lap and kiss me. To calm them down it was suggested that I should take them to see the entrance to the system of caves lost in the seemingly endless woods which were part of the cottage’s purlieus.
So off the four of us went.
Before long the two youngest little girls, with only token opposition from myself, had decided to take off their clothes and continue the expedition naked, other than for their sandals. Getting to and from the caves involved lifts over walls and across a stream, and before we got back to where they had left their clothes, the two youngest had both had rides on my back and on my shoulders.
Even a non-paedophile must be able to imagine the dizzy, dazzled, and overstimulated state this encounter left my mind and my loins in. My very hands and fingers were bewitched by the tactile memory of the contact of their soft skin. Long after their visit ended, long after the end of the Summer holidays, indeed even now, decades later, those moments spent with those little girls feel like a beacon in the long dark night of restraint and celibacy that followed.
Nothing illegal happened: I behaved myself – partly out of confusion, partly because their elder sister was not too happy about their behaviour – but I never again came quite so close to the primal fire of joyous, sensual little-girlhood. My dreams and hopes and desires had been ignited, I was newly-burnt, branded and changed by what had happened.
So, to return to university – the charms of my fellow students seemed a little lacking in vitality when compared to what I’d experienced in the holidays. And if they looked a trifle big and heavy to me could that have been because, in comparison to a limber six-year-old, unencumbered of her clothing, they were.
So there I was in my digs, pining away, homesick, lonely, and little-girl-starved. Life was failing to live up to the promise the Summer had made me.
A year or two earlier a school friend, whose parents were readers of The Sunday People (a tabloid set on hounding PIE out of existence) had introduced me to the word ‘paedophile’ (I at first mis-heard him, and for a while thought of myself as a ‘fadophile’ – even now, whenever I hear Fado, that wonderful Portuguese music, I get a little supplementary thrill from this illicit association). By the time I started at university I’d certainly heard of PIE and maybe of Tom O’Carroll.
When I came across a copy of ‘Paedophilia: The Radical Case‘ in the university library the title must have intrigued me. It taken me some time to find the courage to even remove it from the shelf and probably several visits before I felt up to taking it out. But eventually I did, and when I’d got it back to my room I read it in one long, exhilarating sitting.
I sometimes wonder what I could have understood about my paedophilia before I read this book. Though I certainly never felt bad or guilty about it I can’t imagine that I would have been capable of working out, unaided, an ethical framework or arguments to counter the cultural narrative.
It’s must be at least 25 years since I last read ‘Paedophilia: The Radical Case’. Sadly I no longer have my original copy. In the early 90s I left home to spend a few years working my way round the world and had to dump it, along with a whole suitcase-full of other on-topic books and magazines, in a skip, not trusting my parents’ house as a hiding place.
If I’ve started this essay with a lengthy piece of biography it may be because I am finding this the hardest of my ‘Three Essential Paedo-Reads’ to write. What can one say about a book that seems to say everything? How can one really be impartial about a book that has profoundly shaped the way one thinks? Is there anywhere a more cogent, humane, well-informed and entertaining account of the case for the legitimacy and benefits of child-adult intimacy?
Unlike with “The Trauma Myth” and “Dream Children” I find that there is little here that needs elaborating, criticising or speculating about.
Rereading ‘Paedophilia: the Radical Case’ has been a fascinating experience. The writing is, as one would expect, excellent. Back in the 80s Tom O’Carroll’s style is as witty, humane, lucid and passionate as now. Some phrases and passages are ingrained in my consciousness and rereading them has been like encountering old friends again:
“I felt as out of place in GLF company as I would sipping tea with Mary Whitehouse.” (chapter 11 – The Beginnings of Radical Paedophilia in Britain)
he writes, remembering a one-off visit to a Gay Liberation Front meeting “full of wonderful, gutsy, flamboyant queens”.
Writing about how some heretical thinkers have managed to get away with being largely unscathed, Tom O’Carroll speaks fondly of:
“…dear old Karl Marx, who could calmly set the world alight from a comfortable chair in the Reading Room of the British Museum!” (chapter 12 – The Big Bang)
Dreaming of a world in which child-adult love would be more and more accepted:
“In a few years time, when the trendy liberals had caught up, the really smart thing for the fashionable Hampstead hostess would be to gently drop into the conversation some tidbit about her little Julian’s ‘sensitive’ relationship with film director X or famous artist Y! “ (chapter 12 – The Big Bang)
And then there’s ‘Little Osgood’ – Tom’s first love – a ‘fuzzer’, or first-year boy from when Tom was in the sixth-form:
“The nearest I ever came to intimacy with him was at one remove, a voyeuristic experience. It was the day of the House play, and Osgood was a ‘native’, whose face and arms and legs needed lots of brown make-up. I was in the play too, but even with the help of that connection I was too timid to talk to him in a friendly way.
“’Can someone help Osgood black-up?’ said a teacher. ‘We don’t have much time.’
“What a perfect chance! But no. I just stood there, tongue-tied and foot-rooted, as the moment passed and a less inhibited sixth-former jumped at the opportunity. How they chatted and laughed, those two! How sensuously, or so it seemed to my longing eyes, the older boy daubed and rubbed Osgood’s young limbs, letting his fingers stray unnecessarily far up the leg of the boy’s shorts. I was sick with envy, of course, but also excited by the revelation that Osgood appeared to like being touched, seemed not at all offended by the older boy’s wandering hands.” (chapter 1 – The Seeds of Rebellion)
“a raven-haired little charmer of a boy,” (chapter 1 – The Seeds of Rebellion)
to whom, in a moment of folly, Tom confessed his love, setting in motion a distressing chain events.
“Paedophilia: The Radical Case” consists of 13 chapters. The first chapter – ‘The Seeds of Rebellion’ – is autobiographical and recounts Tom O’Carroll’s childhood, his gradual realisation in early adolescence that his attraction to little boys was not ‘normal’ and his early encounters with society’s ignorance and intolerance, and the painful process of adapting to it.
Tom O’Carroll is quite unflinching in this account, which includes a half-hearted suicide attempt after he’d scared the paper boy with a clumsy and unprovoked advance, and feared that, despite his best intentions and feelings towards children, he was conforming to the behaviour of the scary ‘strange man’ that society attributes to paedophiles regardless.
These kinds of episode happen, I’m sure, to many of us and it is right that Tom O’Carroll should have been so candid – though those seeking things with which to criticise him could undoubtedly latch onto such episodes and use them as evidence of how all paedophiles have the potential to be ‘monsters’.
Growing up a paedophile must be one of the hardest challenges any adolescent can face in our culture. At a period in life when the hormones are in their most turbulent state, when one’s body and personality is changing rapidly what guidance, what help, what role models does society offer young paedophiles?
Of course this is a rhetorical question. We know the answer. Society offers young paedophiles nothing but hate, stigma, loneliness and confusion. Given such a context how can adolescent paedophiles not occasionaly go wrong, misjudge situations and make mistakes?
Chapters 2 to 10 Tom O’Carroll considers some aspect of the philosophy of paedophilia: in chapter 2 (Children’s Sexuality: What Do We Mean?) he presents ideas and research on the nature of child sexuality; chapter 3 (The ‘Molester’ and His ‘Victim’) questions “some of the prevailing conceptions of what child-adult sex is all about, in particular the supposed dichotomy between two opposed parties – between ‘the molester’ and his ‘victim’”; in chapter 4 (Paedophilia in Action) he uses accounts of paedophilic relationships given by the younger partners to paint a more realistic, positive picture of such relationships; chapter 5 (Do Children NEED Sex?) considers the impact of society’s sex-negative outlook on children and the benefits of more positive attitudes; chapter 6 (Towards More Sensible Laws) presents and explains PIE’s proposed reforms to the Age of Consent laws. These reforms are based on the idea that children should have certain rights, which are currently denied them, and which he analyses in Chapter 7 (The Philosophy of Children’s Rights); in chapter 8 (‘Consent’ and ‘Willingness’) Tom O’Carroll looks at questions of consent, and in chapter 9 (Power and Equality) he deals with the idea that paedophilic relationships are inherently flawed because of the perceived power discrepancy between an adult and a child. Chapter 10 looks at Children in Erotica and Pornography.
The last three chapters are a fascinating account of the Realpolitik of paedophilia in the years leading up to the book’s publication (1980).
Chapter 11 (The Beginnings of Radical Paedophilia in Britain) gives an account of the emergence of PIE (The Paedophile Information Exchange) out of a context that, though far from friendly to paedophilia, might seem like something approaching a pipe-dream for paedophiles living in the West today: a context where children’s sexual rights were considered as an integral part of a general movement towards a more tolerant and loving society, where a paedophile could make an impassioned speech at a Campaign for Homosexual Equality conference and it be well received, and where the then home secretary (Roy Jenkins) was said to have been impressed by PIE’s proposals for age of consent reforms (though he also said that ‘Of course, it hasn’t a hope in hell’).
The next chapter – ‘The Big Bang’ – is an exhilarating, if sometimes terrifying, account of PIE’s attempt, under Tom O’Carroll’s leadership, to be a campaigning organization – an attempt that would be bloody, both metaphorically and literally, and would eventually turn out to have been counter-productive.
However, there is a delightful moment to relieve the terrible events of this chapter: Tom O’Carroll, having become infamous as the chairperson of PIE, was attending a conference on Love and Attraction at Swansea University. His presence attracted a lot of press attention and vitriol, leading to the university’s porters, kitchen staff and other auxiliary workers threatening to go on strike if he was allowed to attend. The university, shamefully, caved in to their demands.
However Eric Trimmer, writing for ”Medical News’, reported the following exchange:
‘Up in the Press room at the university one day, I met a very charming and lively little boy who was passing his time making paper aeroplanes out of abstracts of delegates’ papers. I asked his father, one of the Department of Psychology, if he was hiding him up there in case Tom O’Carroll was about. “Good God no, man,” he replied in an accent straight out of Milk Wood, “he’s such a little horror at home I’m hoping they do meet up. Might cure both of them.”‘
In the last chapter (A Wider Perspective) Tom O’Carroll looks at the struggles of paedophile groups in Holland and the United States in the 70s, though where Holland is concerned ‘struggles’ doesn’t feel like quite the right word. Whereas in the previous chapters we see the UK somewhere near the top of the slippery slope that would end in the rabid paedophobia which grips it today – Holland seemed on verge of becoming a truly tolerant and sex-positive society, accepting children’s right to have a sexual life.
Tom O’Carroll gives many examples of the enlightened attitudes that existed in a significant proportion of the Dutch back then, including groups such as Netherlands Order of Attorneys and the Protestant Union for Child Protection apparently believing that in the case of consensual child- adult sexual activity, prosecution of the adult was not justified:
“One paedophile [..] put up a big, pro-paedophile poster in the front window, just like an election poster, regardless of what the neighbours might think. He has not had his windows smashed. ”
“The Rotterdam group* , and others, hold regular open meetings, to which paedophiles are not afraid to take their child lovers, despite the fact that press and police are free to attend, and sometimes do.”
*of NVSH – the Netherlands Association for Sexual Reform
“a […] petition calling for the abolition of the age of consent, presented to the Government in June 1979 [was] signed by the Trade Union of Teachers, the Union of Probation Officers, the Protestant Trade Union of School Teachers, and the Protestant Union for the Family; this last-mentioned group […] published a completely-positive pamphlet on paedophilia, replacing an earlier one in which the emphasis was on ‘child molesters’.”
Thirty-six years later the optimism of this last chapter has a bitter-sweet poignancy to it.
Indeed, the whole book is informed with an optimism born out of enlightenment values and a belief that love and tenderness can not be anything other than a force for good.
Both this book and the three little girls I mentioned earlier in this essay presented me, in my youth, with a vision of a future filled with love, beauty, fulfillment and happiness. But things have only got worse for paedophiles since 1980, when this book was published, and, in the west, children are living more disconnected lives, alienated from nature and their geographical communities, increasingly ‘consumers’ rather than ‘citizens’ and increasingly imprisoned in the nuclear family.
But this is a visionary book -a book of wisdom and truth written against the grain of a society. It may not have changed society, but it has, I’m sure, given many a lost, lonely and confused paedophile hope, a sense of not being alone, and a powerful scaffolding of ideas upon which to build a strong, positive identity and code of ethics.
This book’s time will come.
[digital copies of ‘Paedophilia: The Radical Case’ can be found, in a variety of formats, here)