I was thinking about the role of the Internet in certain sections of today’s society.
When I was a child, our infants school backed onto some woods and there were tales of a nudist camp and of a man who used to lurk and peer out of the trees through the mesh fence at the children. Then, we just used to treat the idea of him as some kind of bogeyman – a bit like the Cybermen or other baddies from Dr Who. Nowadays, of course, the word paedophile would raise is ugly head at the very second a strange man looking at children was mentioned.
In those days, people who were arrested and sentenced for child abduction and molestation were very few and far between. I don’t know if that’s because it just wasn’t reported in the same hysterical way it is today or if it really was a less frequent problem. Then, we were warned about not talking to strangers, not accepting sweets from strangers and not getting into cars with strangers. We had so much more freedom. I was walking home from school with my sister and our friends with no adult from the time I was in Junior School – that’s year 3 in today’s money. School was a mile from our house and we thought nothing of it. In the holidays, aged 10 or 11, we would cycle down to the park opposite our school, leave our bikes unpadlocked near the edge of the field (and still expect them to be there when we returned several hours later), cross the stream and go and chase each other through the cornfield behind. Playing Kisschase and Spin the Bottle and Postman’s Knock. Climbing trees, jumping the stream, hide and seek. Staying out from breakfast til teatime with no sign of a responsible adult.
By the time my teen was 11, I was quite surprised to learn that kisschase was actually banned in their playground and that their birthday parties were all trips to the cinema, bowling, team laser shooting, discos, that sort of thing. No one had birthday parties at home with jam sandwiches and fondant fancies, nor did they played Postman’s knock, or Spin the Bottle any more.
These days, just the whiff of what might be considered an unnatural interest in children is punishable by trial by neighbourhood gossip and vigilante action. A complaint can be registered seemingly without there being any actual physical evidence with untold damage done to reputations, both personal and professional.
Because of the recent highly publicised cases, we seem to live in a climate of fear today. All school assistants, both paid and voluntary have to have CRB checks – even if it is only to help out on a school trip by making up the required number of adults to children. Carers in nursery school or primary school – even female ones – are not allowed to take individual children to the toilet on their own. Men have to think very carefully about helping out in any capacity at events involving children. I can remember my own dad piling about ten of us (aged between four and eleven) into his car on a Sunday morning, no seat belts, to take us all swimming at the local pool. Over the course of two or three years, he taught at least five of those young friends, both boys and girls, to swim by letting them rest their bellies on his arm and getting them to kick and swim with their arms. As their confidence grew, he gradually let the air out of their armbands and removed the support of his arm. Today, people would look askance at such behaviour.
Whilst I believe that these new measures to protect our children in both school and afterschool activities are positive steps to ensure their safety, I do worry at the amazingly high numbers of convicted offenders who appear to have been able to get jobs in close proximity to children in the decade before these restrictions were brought in. Was there always this volume of paedophiles or has there been a sudden proliferation in the last 15 years due to some other external factor?
Back then, the child molester was seen as a dirty old man in a raincoat, who shuffled surreptitiously along in his shame, thinking he was the only individual in the world who had these unnatural urges. Trying to hide himself away and keep his distance from any temptations, although sometimes unable to resist the urge to lurk and peep.
With hindsight, of course, we now know that he was far more likely to be a respectable family man with a houseful of either his own progeny, step or foster children that he could interfere with at will; or a highly respected professional with access to young people through his work with organisations relating to children; or even wear the uniform of an ordained religious man. This person had no need to abduct children for his own devices, he had a whole pool of them from which he could select and groom. And he could persuade himself that they had tempted him, coerced him into his actions.
Today, things are slightly different again because he can stay in his house and download images from the Internet to satisfy his cravings – up until recently with total impunity. He has access to photos and data and, worse, to forums because, through them, he can interact with other people of a similar persuasion. Instead of feeling guilty and sickened by his desires because no one else feels the way he does, there seems to be a whole bunch of people out there who have similar compunctions, encouraging him that his desires are not as unnatural and perverse as he originally thought and can be satisfied and acted upon. According to the media, it would seem now that there are gangs who will procure you a child to your set specifications, providing you have the money to pay for it and your computer will grant you an entree to them.
The Internet may have a lot to answer for.