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Lords: Homosexuals? Aren’t they into child abuse?

2010-05-05

In the previous post on the second reading in the Lords of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill, I hinted that there were some crazy views expressed during the debate. They certainly deserve an airing. But first, what was the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill about?

Lord Williams of Mostyn described the purposes of the Bill in his introduction of the Second Reading as follows:

First, Clause 1 reduces the age of lawful consent for certain sexual practices, including buggery, to 16 from 18; that is, to the lawful age of consent for heterosexual intercourse.

Secondly, Clause 2 provides that a person under the age of consent no longer commits an offence if the other party is over the age of consent. Clause 3 introduces a new offence where a person of 18 or over has sexual intercourse or engages in sexual activity with or directed towards a person under that age if he or she is in a position of trust.

Now, some legitimate questions were raised in the debate over this third clause: some thought that the category of “position of trust” was not wide enough: it includes teachers, church ministers and the like, but not the adults leading Scout or Guide groups, and doesn’t include some “schoolmasters and schoolmistresses” (or as normal people call them ‘teachers’).

The majority of the fallacious reasoning was in regards to the first clause regarding the age of consent. There is a very simple justification for this clause: firstly, male homosexuals are discriminated against if the primary method by which they are to have sex (anally) has an age of consent two years higher than that of heterosexuals; secondly, the current law makes it so that a 16-year-old girl can consent to vaginal sex at 16 but cannot consent to anal sex until she is 18. Not only was there inequality between gay men and heterosexuals, there was also considerable confusion. There is enough to try and explain to hormone-addled teenagers in sex education classes without having to explain different ages of consent for anal and vaginal sex.

Throughout the debate, opponents of the changes brought up the Waterhouse Report which described the sexual abuse of teenagers in care in North Wales. There is, of course, one key difference between consensual homosexual sex and non-consensual abuse: that little issue of consent. In the Waterhouse Report cases, sexual abuse and rape were perpetrated by those who have a duty of care as mandated by the state to their charges. The age of consent is irrelevant: if you are not consenting to sex, it is still rape or sexual assault regardless of your age. Age of consent is about the age at which you can consent, not the age at which you are presumed to consent. Even if the age of consent were dramatically lowered to, say, 14, that would not mean that if you had sex with a 14-year-old without consent it isn’t rape. Seriously, this is not a particularly complicated thing to understand, but the Lords opposed to this bill spent a considerable amount of time going on about the Waterhouse Report despite it having nothing at all to do with consensual homosexual sex or consensual anal sex between heterosexuals.

Consider, then, Baroness Seecombe’s speech:

Since this Bill was last in your Lordships’ House there has been an important event; that is, the publication of the Waterhouse report. It made for disturbing and horrifying reading. In fact, I felt quite sickened when I read how young people were subjected to acts of such depravity and brutality when “in care”. How bizarre those two words appear in this context. We supposed that they were in a safe and caring situation when, in fact, the carers were abusers of the worst kind.

I cannot believe that such wickedness has taken place in this day and age. One had hoped that evil people would no longer be able to act in that way. I feel that all those young people who suffered were completely let down, particularly by those in authority, but also by all of us. So we must accept responsibility and do everything in our power to ensure that such ghastly events never occur again. That is why I find it inconceivable that this new Labour Government are going ahead with this Bill, and at this particularly sensitive time.

But, as I described, the age of consent has absolutely nothing to do with the abuses described by the Waterhouse Report. Why, then, would the publication of the Waterhouse Report change anything with regard to age of consent? Why would it make it a “particularly sensitive time”? The reason is simple: the opponents of the Bill are trying to equate homosexuality generally (or anal sex specifically) with non-consensual sexual abuse. Gay rights campaigners allege that it is all about anal sex and the ‘yuck!’ factor. This seems quite true.

Baroness Seecombe explains:

I am reluctant to go into detail, but I hope your Lordships will forgive me if I do so just a little. There has been extensive research on the effect of consensual buggery which makes for distressing reading. Anal intercourse carries particular risk for the transmission of disease and increased vulnerability to HIV. It also carries the risk of actual physical damage for the receptive partner as the soft tissues can become traumatised and impaired permanently. The use of condoms cannot offer adequate protection. Also, there is great significance in the fact that those who have ever had anal intercourse are not permitted to donate blood in the UK through the National Blood Service.

There is plenty to unpack here: firstly, the use of condoms does protect people engaging in anal sex from HIV transmission and transmission of other STDs. Obviously, a condom cannot protect one from the physical damage that can happen from anal sex. But painful sex is possible with any orifice you choose to use, not just anally. Seecombe is also wrong about the National Blood Service: it doesn’t exclude anyone who engages in anal sex, only men who have had anal sex with other men (regardless of their stated orientation). Men who have had anal sex with women are not excluded, nor are women who have had anal sex. Health screening policy is an even more blunt instrument than the law. Consider this: you can have a man who goes out and has unprotected sex with hundreds of women, and have a gay man who is in a monogamous relationship, uses condoms and gets tested for HIV transmission frequently – the latter is obviously less of a risk of contracting or transmitting HIV. But because it is would be very difficult to ask people to describe their intimate relationships when giving blood (remember: people lie), it is easier to have a blanket ban on men who have sex with men than a slightly more nuanced policy.

This does not establish the conclusions sought. Or, rather, it goes too far. If you accept Baroness Seecombe’s statements about anal sex, and you accept the principle that people ought to be protected from this evil, ass-rupturing, HIV-transmitting curse, then not only should you oppose lowering the age of consent for gay or straight anal sex to 16, but to push for a complete ban on anal sex both gay and straight. If it is so terrible that 16-year-olds ought not be able to consent to it, why should 18-year-olds be able to? Or 21-year-olds or 35-year-olds for that matter?

An even more curious statement comes straight after Baroness Seecombe from the Earl of Longford:

Do we or do we not wish our children to be homosexual? Do we just laugh it off, as some people do? The strange fact is that, in the 50 years that I have been in this House, there has been only one man, and no women, who has got up and said that he is homosexual–Lord Alli. I salute him; I give him all credit, and we want men like him. If it is a normal fact of life that people are homosexual, why has no one here said that they are homosexual? We cannot see it in the same way as backing Manchester United rather than the Arsenal, or something like that. It is really very serious and it is very rare.

It is difficult to know where to begin. Firstly, this is irrelevant. The debate is about whether or not one ought to lower the age of consent for anal sex to 18, not about the desirability or not of people being gay. Not that the opinions of members of the House of Lords is going to change anyone’s sexual preferences! The Earl of Longford here is committing a gross statistical mistake: he is arguing that if homosexuality were a normal part of life then members of the Lords would be happy to state that they are gay. Since they have not, it isn’t. A hasty generalization indeed.

A similarly silly argument could have been presented in the upper house before 1957 along these lines: some claim that being a woman is a perfectly natural and normal fact of life, but how many of my fellow peers would own up to being a woman? Go on, hands up! Oh deary me, womanhood is not normal or natural at all!

Concluding the strangeness of homosexuality based on the lack of homosexuals in the House of Lords is to get things backwards: a much more sensible conclusion is to say that the House of Lords is strange. It certainly allows arguments of dubious logical merit to fly unchallenged. The House of Lords is certainly not representative of wider society in terms of class, race, sexuality or opinion. How could it be? And how deluded do you have to be to believe it to be so?

In the debate, Earl Ferrers gave us a slippery slope (greased up with a big jar of lubricant that he may or may not have purchased from a shop in Old Compton Street!):

I did say, as, indeed, members of that lobby have said quite clearly, that they wanted homosexual acts in public lavatories to be allowed to take place. I believe that that is quite appalling. I believe that no one should doubt that, should the lobby achieve what it wants today, that will be the next issue on the agenda.

A slippery slope, dear readers, is when you oppose one measure because you believe that it will automatically lead to another thing. Slippery slopes aren’t always bad arguments: if I told you that if we do x then there is a 95% chance that y will happen, you are not being unreasonable to decide that to avoid y one ought to avoid x. This is not one of those acceptable arguments. It may be so that gay rights lobbyists will move on to pushing for removing restrictions on sex in lavatories, but that does not justify opposition to lowering the age of consent. If one opposes making it legal for people to have sex in lavatories, then one simply has to vote against it if it were to ever reach Parliament (don’t be fooled: even the most liberal of Liberals is hardly chomping at the bit to push the ‘Cottaging Is Awesome Bill’ through Parliament!).

In a discussion of anal sex and homosexuality, what would really finish things off? If your answer is “an intervention from the Bishop’s bench”, give yourself a gold star. The Bishop of Gloucester’s speech was not rabidly homophobic, but was a totally pointless distraction:

I believe that Bills such as this one can so easily distract us from emphasising as strongly as we possibly can the venerable institution of marriage.

How? How does ensuring age of consent equality for gays and straights distract one from emphasising the venerable institution of marriage? (An institution that gays still cannot partake in, although there is marriage-in-all-but-name, ‘civil partnerships’.) Not putting 16-year-olds in prison for doing it up the backside doesn’t prevent the Bishop from singing the praises of marriage as much as he likes. This kind of argument gets brought up whenever homosexuality is discussed, and especially when marriage rights for gays is discussed. It is a frankly terrible argument: increasing gay rights doesn’t reduce the value of marriages among heterosexuals. Giving gays and lesbians the right to marry doesn’t mean that straight couples can’t get married or that their marriages are worth less.

One wit really grasped the silliness of it all a few years ago when they said something along these lines: gay people can’t destroy the institution of marriage – Las Vegas and Britney Spears have already done it!

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