Friday, 27 November 2009

A Tale of Two Journalists - Part 2

OK, after that cleansing rant, I get to discuss a writer whose work always gives me hope for its intelligence, passion and determination to fight for those without a voice.

Johann Hari is 30 years old, and if I could point to a career is journalism as emblematic of what I would have wanted to achieve, then Hari’s is it. He is an openly gay writer in an industry that is suffocatingly macho, who has taken on some of the most difficult and complex topics in modern society. For a taster of his work, read his recent piece in The Independent about the rise of a group of ex-Jihadists who are trying to turn young Muslims away from extremism. Like all his best work, it is wonderfully clear sighted, tough but empathetic. His archive at is a treasure trove of provocative, well written and impassioned journalism.

Plus anybody who can come up with a list of enemies like this must be doing something correct;

Since he began work as a journalist, Johann has been attacked by the National Review, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, John Pilger, Daniel '007' Craig, Peter Mandelson, Peter Oborne, Private Eye, the Socialist Worker, Cristina Odone, Jon Gaunt, the Spectator, Andrew Neil, Mark Steyn, the British National Party, Medialens, al Muhajaroun and Richard Littlejohn. 'Prince' Turki Al-Faisal, the Saudi Ambassador to Britain, has accused Johann of "waging a private jihad against the House of Saud". (He's right). Johann has been called 'Maoist' by Nick Cohen, 'Horrible Hari' by Niall Ferguson, "an uppity little queer" by Bruce Anderson, 'a drug addict' by George Galloway, "fat" by the Dalai Lama and "a cunt" by Busted.

Yet I find myself torn by his latest article, which concerns the continued downplaying of the effect of older men having sex with younger boys in the work of some famous gay writers.

This is dangerous territory for any gay writer to go into, and it is a mark of Hari’s own bravery and respect for those he admires that he criticises three gay cultural icons in such an honest fashion. Hari detects in the work of Stephen Fry, and especially Alan Bennett a deliberate insistence that young teenage boys who are fondled or abused by older men aren’t being damaged in any way, and further, that it is the adult who is really the victim in the power exchange.

I think it is worth quoting Hari at length so you can get a sense of what he is trying to say;

What I object to is not the compassionate depiction of these men, but the claim that the victims are unharmed, or even enjoy it. This suggestion has featured in the work of several writers I normally admire. In Bennett's previous play The History Boys, a 50-something teacher called Hector routinely gropes his 17-year-old pupils' genitals – and they react either with flattered amusement, or by longing to be the next to be groped. The headmaster who objects is depicted as a prejudiced buffoon…
In interviews, Bennett makes it clear he is on Hector's side, saying: "I've been criticised for not taking this seriously enough. I'm afraid I don't take that very seriously if they're 17 or 18. I think they are actually much wiser than Hector. Hector is the child, not them." He added that good teaching is inherently "erotic".
In his new play, Bennett takes this analysis further. Benjamin Britten, the composer, is one of the main characters. He was sexually attracted to young boys – 13 was his
perfect age – and throughout his life he picked out choirboys, gave them a special role in performing his music, and lavished adoration on them… Yet Bennett, in his introduction to the play, expresses only one problem with this. "A boy whose voice suddenly broke could find himself no longer invited ... which would seem potentially far more damaging to a child's psychology than too much attention." He also spares a thought for the "fat boys and ugly boys" who were never admitted to this sanctum.

If Hari is quoting fairly from the themes of Bennett’s work (and I have no reason to doubt him) then this is hugely problematic and he is right to call out a writer for what I would agree is a complete moral failing, even if that writer is one as beloved as Bennett is.

But I do find myself torn by this article, for two reasons.

Firstly, one of the age old canards that all gay people, but especially men, face is that we are a bunch of paedophiles, preying on young boys and recruiting them into a life of sexual depravity. However, a difficult reality for gay men is that a lot of us will have had our first sexual experience as a teenager with an older man. We like to think that this is something natural and that no harm between any party was done. We then extrapolate that to all such couplings without thinking through the power dynamics inherent in each situation.

A lot of gay men will defend Bennett by saying that as a teenage boy they were gagging for sex and that they were the ones who seduced an adult (most often an authority figure). And that’s fine for them if that was their experience, but as always, the plural of anecdote is not data. Just because their specific experience didn’t appear to damage them, does not mean that this holds true for others. There is a perfectly valid reason for concepts such as the age of consent, and abuse of trust and we shouldn’t seek to downplay these for fear of the results (just look at the latest reports of Catholic Church abuses in Ireland to see the end result of that particular mindset).

I don't believe that Hari should not have written the article, but there is a part of me which winces when I think of the reactionary dickheads who will read this and have their suspicions confirmed. But that isn't Hari's fault - he should not censore himself because others will miss the nuance and sophistication of his writing.

My second point is that I don’t think Hari makes a proper distinction between the different age groups he discusses. A 13 year old is different developmentally from a 17 year old – while the potential for abuse is present in both cases, the power dynamics are different. I have less of a problem with some of the material in The History Boys (where they are older teenagers) then I would with what Britten does with 13 years olds.

This is the type of area where I feel myself on really shaky ground. For example, I went to see An Education on Tuesday (brilliant film by the way!) which looks at the relationship between a 16 year old schoolgirl and an ‘older man’ in 1960s London. The relationship, which turns explicitly sexual on her 17th birthday, is shown as a complex entity, with the dynamic between both characters shifting at different points. There are emotional and social costs to the girl when the relationship implodes, but it is ultimately seen, at least I believe it is, as a positive experience.

I had sex with an older guy when I was 17. It was not with anybody who was in a position of responsibility over me, and it was something I initiated and wanted. And yet I am slapped in the face by my earlier phrase about the plural of anecdote not being data. I think ultimately it is a complex intermingling of age, maturity and the relative position of the older person which determines the appropriateness of something like this. But blanket statements that Bennett makes do have the effect of creating a chilling atmosphere for those who were damaged to come forward and face their abusers. That is a shameful blind spot for a writer who was so expert at placing himself in the shoes of a wide variety of characters.