Consent laws may vary but power is power
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Consent laws may vary but power is power

When I arrived in Greece to carry out fieldwork in social anthropology, I was 23. I knew I had to learn the language and immerse myself in the culture using the method called "participant observation". I'd done the theoretical work and was ready to "go native", adopting modest clothes and manners so as not to cause offense in a traditional Mediterranean community (we're talking about the late 1980s).

Logically, we know that in some countries, the age of consent is different to our own.

Logically, we know that in some countries, the age of consent is different to our own.

Photo: Archives

Jumping in at the deep end, I talked with anybody and everybody. I interviewed priests, politicians and prostitutes. I broke bread with communists and fascists, made endless house visits (eating too many of the proffered cakes), and I attended marriages, baptisms and funerals.

I was less well prepared, however, for the unapologetic pick-up techniques of a group of local men commonly known as kamakia or "spear-fishers". Their intended "fish" were visiting tourist women, considered easier targets than the more sexually conservative local girls.

When summer ended, they gathered in their Octopus Club to tot up the number of successful "catches". This was a widespread phenomenon at the time, but it was still hard to know how to react when these aspiring Lotharios approached me on the street and refused to go away. They evidently believed a resident anthropologist was fair game; my dignity as a researcher was fast disintegrating. This was not how men behaved in England!

Eventually, I found the perfect solution. "Ah, how interesting," I'd say, when they made their intentions obvious. Taking out my notebook and pen, I'd continue, "Now, tell me more about your kamakia club and how you operate." Some men disappeared in disgust, but others eventually gave me enough interesting information that I ended up writing an entire chapter of my thesis about them.

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These experiences stood me in good stead. They gave me an undying interest in the lives of others and taught me about how differently people think and behave. I learnt how to stand back from an issue and examine it from different angles – something which has been an advantage as a writer and novelist.

In recent years, I've been particularly struck by how child sexual abuse has become one of the most notorious and worrying crimes of our age. The kamakia "fishermen" were hardly scrupulous about the age of their foreign "prey", but having grown up in the easy-going atmosphere of bohemian 1970s London, I am well aware of how simple it was for British men to get away with things then would not be possible now.

Nowadays, children, parents and professionals are taught to look out for signs of abuse and, in the UK, there are record numbers of arrests for this offence, largely because of increased awareness. In particular, there are thousands of cases of "historical" abuse, where men are being arrested and prosecuted for having sex with underage girls (or boys) years, even decades earlier. Occasionally, the teen had appeared to consent – and nobody was checking birth certificates.

As an anthropologist, I learnt that sexual behaviour, restrictions and taboos are rarely universal (the main exception being the incest taboo). What is permitted in one place is elsewhere thought disgusting and what is de rigueur at one time is at another, illegal.

As a student, I studied two classic texts about sexuality. In Coming of Age in Samoa, Margaret Mead describes how adolescent girls went through none of the stresses and restrictions of their Western counterparts. Nobody worried when they had sexual relationships before marriage; virginity was not a "virtue" to be protected or lost, as it is in so many patriarchal societies.

Bronislaw Malinowski's seminal The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia revealed that among the Pacific Trobriand Islanders, children were allowed to start having sex whenever they wanted, with no stigma. When these books were published in the 1920s, they were deeply shocking to Westerners.

Logically, we know that in some countries, the age of consent is different to our own. There are places where it is normal for children of 11 or 12 to get married, or for men (and occasionally women) to take multiple spouses. Like anthropologists, we have to accept that our approach to almost anything, from food and clothes to religion and sex, is culturally specific. And it changes over time. Our current way is not automatically "better".

There is another side, however, to the anthropologist's suspension of judgment and in my novels, I try to come down off the fence at some point. We must do our best to protect vulnerable people, particularly where there is an imbalance of power in sexual behaviour.

It's all very well that things are done differently elsewhere, but we should take a stand for our beliefs. We know for example, that female genital mutilation is still a tradition in certain cultures, but we believe it is a horrific practice that should be banned. When a man offers gifts and treats to a young teenager and then seduces her, we call it grooming and rape of a child.

And even if the youngster believes she wants and desires the older lover, we say that she is unable to give consent. I feel privileged that social anthropology gave me the ability to stand back and make sense of our changing beliefs, customs and laws surrounding sex. As a novelist, I know they can make a fascinating story.

Putney by Sofka Zinovieff (Bloomsbury) is in bookstores now.

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale August 19.