Paedophiles are in the news in Britain again (not that they ever really left it). This time the nation’s concern is focused on the activities of the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) in the 1970s. All too predictably, the media are more interested in scandal-mongering than in asking serious questions about the motives and ethos of PIE. Yes, PIE was in the business of promoting the ‘virtues’ of paedophilia. And, yes, its rhetoric was dominated by a self-serving and self-deluding fantasy that sought to frame the predatory appetites of its members as an expression of a genuine ‘love’ of children. However, the uncomfortable fact is that PIE was part of a wider movement that assumed to speak on behalf of the child. It was to this child-saving movement that PIE’s approach to childhood bore an affinity.
The nineteenth-century child-savers movement was driven by a powerful sense of humanitarianism, justice and altruism. It sought to protect children from the many inequities confronting them. Unfortunately, significant parts of this movement, including the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), sometimes expanded their remit from protecting children to claiming moral authority over childhood itself. As a result, child-saving entrepreneurs often started to perceive their main aim in terms of saving children from their parents. And this has been the main intellectual and political legacy of the child-saving movement: it popularised the assumption that the interests of parents and children are either potentially or actually contradictory.
Such sentiments are rarely expressed explicitly, of course. But they are implied whenever child-savers speak of, or demand, action on behalf of the right or the interest of the child. This is a nifty move on the part of the child-saver. The assumption that what is in the interest of the child is different to the interests of the parent creates a conflict that can only be mediated by those possessing the moral and expert authority to pronounce on the dispute; namely, the child-saver.
Up to the 1960s, this tendency to counterpose the interests of children to those of their parents and family was relatively restrained. It was still widely assumed that parents did the right thing for their offspring. The focus of child protection at this point was on a minority of rogue working-class mothers and fathers, and sometimes on parents from immigrant communities. But during the 1960s and 1970s, things changed: the cause of the child assumed a new and, as it turned out, politically destructive form. This, then, was the moment when small groups of adults invented the idea of ‘children’s liberation’. Moreover, the 1970s was also the decade when the idea of children’s rights was articulated and gained cultural influence.
Some commentators on the PIE scandal have suggested the tolerance towards PIE from the National Council of Civil Liberties (NCCL), and other bodies and professionals, can be explained by the influence of post-Sixties radical liberationist politics. The social scientist Liz Kelly pointed out that: ‘These were the days of gay liberation, women’s liberation and, yes, children’s liberation. “Children’s rights” was an oxymoron in those times, which also created a space in which their “right” to sexuality could be articulated… So PIE literature at the time focused on this, and their status as a sexual minority, which in some peoples’ eyes was legitimated through the alliance with [the Gay Liberation Front (GLF)].’