Critics of paedophiliac relationships often become very ambiguous when they attempt to define an age or a period of life when meaningful consent to sexual relationships can be given. Two periods usually given where consent can legitimately be granted by the young person are puberty and adolescence. The two of course are not synonymous as puberty means quite literally ‘being functionally capable of procreation’, while adolescence refers not so much to a physiological change but to a social event that occurs between child-hood and manhood or womanhood. Both concepts, of course have enormous difficulties associated with them. The myth that children become sexual at puberty has been largely dispelled by an avalanche of research that shows otherwise. And the definition of what ‘adolescence’ is, is irritatingly vague as it begs the all-important question of what characterises childhood as opposed to adulthood.

According to Tom O’Carroll, the intellectual guru of the Paedophile Information Exchange, the question of what is maturity in terms of a child or adolescent giving informed consent to sexual relationships is really trivial. The issues to him are not so much ones of maturity but of wider matters surrounding the topic of paedophilia generally. O’Carroll considers that the major division between opponents and proponents of child-adult sex is the philosophical cleavage between people who believe that sex is good and natural and those who regard sexual activity as an area of special danger and difficulty. Indeed O’Carroll and other paedophile activists often reverse the argument of their critics and state that children are better equipped to sexually relate to adults with a spontaneous, unproblematic sense of pleasure, precisely because they are not mature: children in effect are less likely to have been damaged by society’s prevailing anti-sexual mores.

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Most observers of sexuality would agree that society seriously distorts the nature and discretion of sexual feelings and might well agree that childhood and perhaps adolescence are the only times in which people can act physically and erotically with a degree of naturalness. However, the imbalance in the power and experience between men and boys is not satisfactorily excused by referring simply to the naturalness of childhood sexuality.

In the case of paedophiles, as with parents and children generally, it is totally unjustifiable to assume that because there are some cases of child exploitation, all relationships between adults and children of a sexual nature are necessarily exploitative. Indeed, the evidence strongly suggests that the majority of paedophiles go to considerable lengths to look after and protect the child. In the Osborne case we have seen many examples of boys who came to him and continued their relationship over sustained periods of time in order to acquire his affection and knowledge of physical matters. In this sense Osborne represented an alternative to the strictures and narrow horizons of some of the parental homes that the boys came from.

Nevertheless, even with these caveats it must be admitted that the adult will generally have a greater power base than the child. Paedophiles are quick to point out that the child or adolescent often has his or her own power base — their sexuality — even though they certainly do not have the economic, social and experiential resources that the adult in a relationship does. Clearly though it is impossible to judge every case on the basis of this general principle and the individual components of power and exploitation in particular cases have to be considered systematically and carefully.

In a strange and somewhat paradoxical way Clarence Osborne was reinforcing society’s view that sex is tremendously important and therefore potentially destructive. The brilliant French philosopher and psychologist Foucault has often pointed out how in western societies sexuality has not so much been repressed as constituted or patterned in particular ways. Priests, doctors, psychiatrists and others have invested sex with magical powers so that, as a society, we often look to our sexuality in order to find out about ourselves.

Osborne is very much in this tradition. It is, for example, perfectly possible to see Osborne not as the bizarre sex monster he was so often painted as, but instead as a high priest of the prevailing Western sexual ethos. After all, in measuring thousands of boys’ penises and documenting his findings Osborne was doing in an exaggerated form what the doctors already do with sex. He was giving it an importance, ‘constituting it’ in Foucaultian terms, in a way that made it mystical and critical in people’s lives. Osborne was giving sex an importance it probably does not deserve.

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