THE BLOG

Barbara Hewson Misunderstands Operation Yewtree's aims

10/05/2013 15:08 BST | Updated 09/07/2013 10:12 BST

Barbara Hewson, a leading barrister specialising in reproductive rights, has caused controversy with her article on spiked stating that the age of consent should be lowered to 13. Now, had she presented a rational, well-formulated argument with this at the centre of it, providing reasons as to why she feels that the age of consent should be lowered then perhaps the article would have generated debate rather than outrage. Hewson, however, only provides the fact that puberty begins at an earlier age on average now than it did in the Victorian era when the age of consent was set at 16. Then, girls usually began going through puberty at age 15 whereas now it is around the age of 10 or 11. What Hewson appears to have missed in this statement, however, is that puberty is not an instant process. If a girl starts to go through it at the age of 11, it takes on average four years to reach full sexual maturity which would mean that the girl would be 15. So the age of consent being set at 16 still seems, to me at least, perfectly logical.

But Hewson's article isn't an explanation of why the age of consent should be lowered: she doesn't in fact mention this until the end of her final sentence. It is instead about how Operation Yewtree is doing nothing more than 'fetishising victimhood' and persecuting 'old men'. She claims that in its inquiries into the actions of Jimmy Savile and others accused of child molestation is being conducted by 'zealots' who 'pose a far graver threat to society' than those they are investigating. Comparing it to the operation of the Social Purity movement in the 1880s, Hewson states that 'Taking girls to one's dressing room, bottom pinching and groping in cars hardly rank in the annals of depravity with flogging and rape in padded rooms.'.

Obviously, comparing child molestation to the abuse of child prostitutes is going to end with the conclusion that one is worse than the other. But they are not the same situation. And we are not living in the Victorian times where there was a serious problem with child abuse. We have laws in place to stop this happening: and Jimmy Savile and the other men who have been investigated and arrested in the course of Operation Yewtree broke those laws. According to the Sexual Offences Act 2003, a person commits assault on another person if he intentionally touches another person in a sexual manner without the consent of that other person. Illegal sexual activity with a child is defined as a person aged 18 or over intentionally touching a person under 16, knowing their age, in a sexual manner.

So for Hewson to say that 'kissing a 13-year-old, or putting one's hand up a 16-year-old's skirt, are not remotely comparable to the horrors of the Ealing Vicarage assaults and gang rape, or the Fordingbridge gang rape and murders, both dating from 1986' is correct. It does not, however, make these actions any less of a crime. She goes on to say that the prosecution of Stuart Hall, who has admitted to indecently assaulting 14 girls including a nine year old between 1967 and 1985, was 'the manipulation of the British criminal-justice system to produce scapegoats on demand'. She refers to his crimes as 'misdemeanors'. I would invite Hewson to say this to the victims of child abuse.

Assault at any age can have devastating effects on its victims. For children, this is something that will be with them for the entirety of their lives. Long-term effects of abuse often manifest in substance abuse, eating disorders, anxiety, depression and self-destructive behaviour. Often these will continue way into adulthood. So for Hewson to refer to Hall's crimes as 'misdemeanours' is just utterly baffling. She claims that under normal circumstances he wouldn't have face prosecution. Surely rather than taking this as an example of the negative effects of Operation Yewtree, this should raise alarming questions into the state of the criminal justice system and its attitude towards assault. If the systematic abuse of 14 girls under the age of 18 over a period of years would not ordinarily result in legal action, we have to ask: Why? Why, according to Hewson, are the courts not following the laws set out in the Sexual Offences Act I mentioned above?

Hewson seems to have missed a fundamental point of Operation Yewtree: it is fighting to give victims of abuse a voice after years of being too afraid to speak out. She is merely adding to this fear in her article. Men like Jimmy Savile have committed a crime and that is why they are being punished. It is not misguided, over-zealous behaviour: it is a desire to protect the innocent.