Like a chill autumn breeze that sends you scuttling away for a cardigan, there has been a blast of puritan shrillness in the air in the past week.
And it’s enough to send a shiver down the spine of any sane individual.
First, the press has been full of both the conviction of a gang of men for the rape, abuse, pimping and drugging of girls in Rochdale.
Then there has been the case of Megan Stammers, a 15-year-old schoolgirl, who ran away with her besotted 30-year-old maths teacher and was eventually found in France.
And now, just as interest in these stories is waning, and with perfect timing, come accusations of rape and abuse against the late Jimmy Savile.
In the Rochdale case, the main cause of consternation doesn’t seem to have been the victims – who, by and large, appear to have been ‘troubled’ and rather ‘lumpen’ – but the ethnicity and religion of the convicted men.
Is there a particular issue with some men of a certain origin (parts of Asia) and religion (Islam) believing that white girls are useable because they are inferior?
At least one leader from within that community has said that it is an issue and needs to be rooted out and dealt with. Assorted commentators claim otherwise.
It is entirely possible that such a cultural problem does exist with some people: we have no problem admitting that cultural issues such as ‘honour’ killings and female genital mutilation exist and should not be ignored because of some idea of cultural ‘sensitivity’. This should be no different.
But it is also a red herring in terms of abuse as a whole. It can hardly, for instance, be used to ‘explain’ the likes of Fred West or countless other abusers – and it’s doubtful that anyone is going to claim that they were abusers because they were white or had dark hair or had a peculiarly Christian take on sin and sex and females.
But the point remains that it is the abusers who have been at the heart of the coverage – not the victims themselves.
Yet look at the Megan Stammers case and you see something quite different.
Now admittedly, she is not particularly ‘lumpen’ or ‘troubled’, so perhaps she is easier to feel sympathy with.
But you really could be forgiven for imagining that Jeremy Forrest is in the same league as the Rochdale abuse gang, whereas his biggest crime is probably being a self-centred, self-indulgent, immature idiot with a total lack of any sense of his responsibility as a teacher or a husband.
Because there is no suggestion, at this stage, that Megan herself was an unwilling party to the flight and what may (or may not) have happened, or that there was any coercion involved.
Yet the shrillness has punctured any efforts to look at the case rationally.
Peter Tatchell has been vilified on social media for having the temerity to point out that, even if it is the correct legal term, there is no suggestion that Megan was “abducted” in terms of how most of us would use that word in the non-legal world.
In the meantime, I was ‘told off’ on Twitter for pointing out that this case was not one of paedophilia.
Paedophilia refers to an interest in or sexual contact with pre-pubescent children. This, fairly clearly, does not apply to Megan Stammers.
Apparently, to point this out is to say that what happened in this case was “ok”.
Actually, no. It wasn’t. It was to point out that the correct word is actually quite important. After all, there were two reasons that some people harassed a paediatrician from her home:
1) they were too thick to know that paediatrician and paedophile are not one and the same;
2) they were knee-jerking little vigilantes who thought that they had the right to take the law into their own hands.
Well, three, if you add into that unholy brew the toxic News of the World and the equally toxic Rebekah Brooks, with her campaign to ‘out’ child abusers, which also triggered the Paulsgrove Estate riots, as residents used The Great Paedo Paranoia as an excuse to exact retribution in all sorts of unrelated situations.
In terms of ‘abduction’, there is a very great deal of difference between this case and what happened to, for instance, Sarah Payne. To pretend that the two are the same would, frankly, be rather insulting.
So words really are quite important.
My Twitter twit disappeared in a huff. Apparently when one doesn’t like something, one has to use the strongest possible terms to illustrate this. Even when those terms are incorrect.
Otherwise, the lack of a loud enough objection can be construed as condoning the original situation.
Well, I’d suggest that, on the basis of what we know, there’s a massive difference between Megan’s case and, say, that of the girls in Rochdale who were abused, raped, pimped and drugged.
I’d suggest that there’s a massive difference between what happened in Megan’s case and the rape, say, of an infant.
That doesn’t mean that there is no case to answer for Forrest: Megan was under age and he abused a position of trust.
That does not suddenly mean it’s the same as paedophilia.
It is interesting to note that, in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the characters Lydia and Wickham elope. She is 15 and he is 28 (two years younger than Forrest). They are found and marriage ensues.
And nobody accuses Austen of writing about – or condoning – paedophilia or child abuse or underage sex.
Goodness knows how Megan herself will fare now that she has, in effect, become public property by virtue of looming so large in the newstainment world’s output of the last week.
Perhaps the best she can hope for is that the media – and the section of the public that laps this sort of thing up – gets bored with her story and/or is diverted onto some new sensation.
But over at Conservative Home blogs, all this was causing family solicitor Martin Sewell to quiver with moral indignation as he announced that "the age of consent is worth defending".
He invoked Victoria Gillick – moral campaigner against contraception and mother of 10 children – and talked of his mate the priest, with whom he has few agreements – except on this issue.
Actually, the entire Gillick things is interesting, since her crusade against a girl under 16 being prescribed contraception without parental knowledge argued that nobody under 16 could consent to their own medical treatment.
It actually led to the House of Lords deciding that, in some circumstances, a young person could do exactly that – without parental interference.
Which, if that is the case, raises intriguing questions as to contraception and consent.
However, back to Sewell’s argument.
Not least because we all know that the Netherlands has the lowest age of consent in the West – and also the lowest rate of teenage pregnancy in the West.
For clarity, in the Netherlands, the age of consent amongst peers is 12, and then without such limits from 14.
In France, it’s 15. In Spain, 14. And so on.
In recent years, we have even seen a situation where a boy (but not the girl, obviously) of 15 was prosecuted and put on the sex offenders’ register for having consensual sex with his girlfriend of the same age.
Yes, Sewell: having one of the highest ages of consent in the West is working so well it’s “worth defending” because it’s so clearly, err, ‘working’.
The age of consent (which didn’t apply to Lydia Bennet) didn’t stop Forrest and Megan running off.
Abuse – whether paedophile in nature or not – occurs irrespective of an age of consent.
Yet we criminalise (on a sexist basis) people who should not be criminalised.
And we have the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe.
Research into the relationship between the age of consent and the age at which young people start to sexually experiment with others is hardly even in its infancy, so we don’t know yet why it seems that countries with a higher age of consent (the UK and US) have the highest rates of teenage pregnancy (and high rates of abortion and also STDs).
We do, however, seem to be horrified at the idea that children are not sexless, but are ‘innocent’ until they can no longer be ‘protected’ from some sexual corruption as late as possible in their adolescence.
So, for instance, infants do not play with their genitals.
Perhaps the key – in part at least – is in the shrill tone of the debate, and a culture where the UK has an unholy mix of extreme prurience and Puritanism, and sex is still viewed through a prism of religious concepts of sin and guilt.
A sense of the latter may help to explain why there seems to have been less concern about the victims in the Rochdale case than Megan: in being ‘troubled’ and ‘lumpen’, there is the suggestion of some element of blame on their part.
How ironic that such an attitude really is little removed from one that demands women dress ‘modestly’ in order not to tempt poor men who might otherwise leap on them, and that those who do not obey this rule are morally inferior.
In the meantime, allegations about the late Jimmy Savile have started flying, provoking comments on assorted websites that the women who say that they were abused/raped are only doing it after his death in order to make money.
Then, there’s the cult of ‘We’, as illustrated by blogger and Mirror columnist Fleet Street Fox, who suggests that we all ‘knew’ that the creepy Savile was an abuser, and are all, therefore, complicit.
It has more than a hint of religious guilt – and is as ungrounded in reality as the idea of original sin.
As it happens, I heard the allegations about Savile some 18 years ago – from a senior journalist at the Daily Mail, which is now using the whole business to try to smear the BBC, claiming a cover up.
Well, at least one Mail journalist ‘knew’ – and possibly more, so why didn’t that upstanding organ launch a campaign of investigative journalism to get at the truth?
Oddly enough, when I’ve attempted to ask this exact same question on the Mail’s website forums – twice in the last 24 hours – neither post has appeared.
Censorship at the Mail: who’d a thunk that?
It goes without saying – or it should – that I no more have proof that Savile being an abuser than almost anyone else has. My instincts may tell me that it’s true – and a number of things fit the pattern of abuse cases – but that does not automatically make it so.
It’s also worth noting that, when I heard, I had no more opportunity or resources to ‘do something’ about it than pretty much anyone else.
But the allegations keep coming and also apparently involve girls at an approved school that Savile visited – and at the Haut de la Garenne orphanage in Jersey, which was the subject of an investigation a few years ago.
Similarities with the Rochdale victims, perhaps?
If it is the case that any of these allegations are true, then the only really important thing will be that disclosure will allow any victims a sense of closure.
But in the meantime, why does it seem to be so difficult to have sensible discussions about such cases, without hyperbole and moral panic intervening?