13 SEPTEMBER 2003, Page 20

I was 12, she was 13

Rod Liddle on government plans to outlaw the harmless fumblings of teenagers According to a survey reported last weekend in the Independent on Sunday, almost all homosexuals are barking mad. I am using the politically correct term 'barking mad' so as not to incur the wrath of the mental-health pressure groups, all of which become psychotically incensed and even violent when they read of mad people being described as 'nutters' or `doolally' or — an old favourite of mine purloined from the US demotic — 'crazier than a shithouse rat'. So I'll stick to 'barking mad' and thus forestall angry letters from Mind, et al.

In this survey, two thirds of more than 2,000 gays and lesbians admitted to suffering from mental-health problems, roughly double the rate of lunacy among those people who prefer to immerse themselves in the bodily fluids of partners of the opposite sex.

I don't know what this proves, exactly. When I lived in Camberwell, a few hundred yards away from the Maudsley asylum, I regularly saw vast legions of the deranged wandering the streets, punching trees, howling at the traffic and gibbering incomprehensibly to themselves. During the infamous Care in the Community scheme, when these people were suddenly let loose en masse, Camberwell became a giant madhouse, a sort of dry-dock Narrenschiff One mental-health pressure group successfully prevented Cadbury's from installing a huge advertisement directly opposite the front entrance to the Maudsley, where the seriously disturbed and wacko would arrive for their chemical dosages, their electric shocks and their psychoanalysis. The ad they objected to said, in huge letters: 'Everyone's a fruit and nut case.' It was the first and only instance of an ad being withdrawn for telling the truth.

Anyway, it never occurred to me then that these poor people were all homosexuals. And perhaps they weren't. It may well be that Britain's homosexuals have all gone mad quite recently, the sort of sinister and mysterious development that might occur in a John Wyndham novel, for example. Or possibly it's simply a result of overexposure to Graham Norton. Who knows? But somebody ought to find out.

One of the very few remaining sane homosexuals in Britain is Peter Tatchell. Not just sane and rational, but brave too, if one recalls his stand against Robert Mugabe (who is himself, one suspects, both mad and a latent homosexual). Mr Tatchell's latest broadside is directed against a particularly fatuous section of the 2003 Sexual Offences Bill, which is now going through its committee stage. The portion of the Bill to which Tatchell rightly objects exemplifies our current confusion and obsession with teenage sexuality — and also our quite insatiable appetite for more and more legislation, regardless of its efficacy or appropriateness.

The Bill seeks to introduce draconian punishment for children under the age of 16 who sleep with one another and, even more so, for people over the age of 16 who have sexual relationships with people under the age of 16. As it stands, it is quite spectacularly bone-headed and inflexible legislation.

If two 15-year-olds are deemed to have kissed or caressed in a 'sexual manner' (the courts will be left to decide what is sexual and what isn't, which should provide a few laughs, at least), they could face five years in prison, or its juvenile equivalent. The penalty for two 12-year-olds who indulge in the same sorts of immoral acts are even more swingeing.

Then there's this: an 18-year-old who engages in sex with a 15-year-old will be treated by the law in exactly the same way as a 58-year-old who engages in sex with a 13-year-old.

And finally, the parents are set to cop it, too. Mums and dads who are found to have 'facilitated' their children having sex could face 14 years in prison. In other words, if you allow your 15-year-old daughter to sleep with her 15-year-old boyfriend, having assessed her emotional and physical maturity and preferred, on balance, to retain her candour and trust rather than have her sleep with the boy surreptitiously, you could receive a sentence fairly close to what you might get for murdering someone. I'm not sure if facilitating also means allowing your 15-year-old son to hold a party in your house during which he has sexual intercourse with one of his classmates. Perhaps we'll find out, soon enough.

Of course, there are caveats. We are told that it is unlikely that two 15-year-olds who sleep with one another through mutual consent would be prosecuted. In which case, as Tatchell points out, why the hell enact a law which criminalises their behaviour? What, exactly, is the point of the legislation? What is the point of outlawing adolescent fumblings?

Just recently I spoke, for the first time in 25 years, to the girl to whom I surrendered my virginity at the age of 12. She was 13 at the time, I think: this was Middlesbrough, after all, where you start everything young. 'Alt, yes, you were absolutely bloody useless, as I remember; she said on the phone, with a commendable absence of rancour. But, bloody useless or not, we both agreed that it had been a staggeringly harmless copulation, more innocent and equable and devoid of guilt than most of what transpired when we reached our twenties. The act took place at a party, and I believe we were one of five couples, similarly aged, to have committed a crime which today would have us banged up, so to speak. I am not suggesting that evetybody should lose their virginity at the age of 12; merely that the might of the law is an inappropriate — and counterproductive — instrument with which to impose such confused notions of morality on our children.

We have become, of late, terrified of and maddened by paedophilia, quite out of proportion to the threat posed by kiddie-fiddlers. And our understanding of childhood has suffered accordingly: it has become, in our minds, this rather gloriously uplit, pristine place. Somehow we have managed to combine the moral hypocrisy and sanctimony of the Victorian era with the rampant thirst for legislation of our age. It is not a happy combination. We may wish that our children dedicate themselves to an ever increasing number of school tests and examinations and spend their spare moments attending the hideous, Blunkettordained, summer schools — but that is not what childhood, and especially adolescence, are about. They are at least partly about two 15or 14-year-olds touching each other in a sexual manner, whether the courts deem it to be so or otherwise. This government has done a lot to take the joy Out of being young. My hope is that in rendering illegal the adolescent kiss it will perversely add to its allure and excitement behind every bike shed in every school up and down the land.