When the media began the latest phase of its witch hunt against Queensland District Court judge Susan Bradley last Friday it thought it had Her Hounour on toast. Judge Bradley has adjourned a sentencing hearing in a s-xual abuse case for three months so that the defence can call evidence to support their client, former teacher James Last’s instructions that he thought having oral s-x with an 11-year-old boy from Saibai Island in the Torres Strait was permissible in that culture.

Mr Last says he derived no s-xual pleasure from the act. He was, according to his lawyers, so imbued with the Melanesian culture of the Torres Strait islands, that he thought his actions were cutlurally acceptable.

The Australian in its editorial last Saturday scoffed at Judge Bradley. The “judge has given credence to the offensive, errant notion that the crimes to which Last pleaded guilty … might somehow be mitigated by the traditions of indigenous culture,” the newspaper said. And, says The Australian, it is “extremely unlikely” any anthropologist would back Mr Last’s explanation.

Whoa, not so fast! The ritual of young boys and older men engaging in s-xual acts is indeed part of some cultures. In the June 2000 edition of academic journal, Current Anthropology, Dr R.C. Kirkpatrick of the University of California, in a heavily footnoted article, The Evolution of Human Homos-xual Beahviour, deals at length with homos-xual practices in Melanesian societies. These practices include same-s-x alliances where “the younger client provides labor in the fields (and s-xual services) while the older patron provides food and education.”

Kirkpatrick is not the first to document these practices. He cites numerous previous studies in his article, particularly Gilbert Herdt’s famous Ritualised Homos-xuality in Melanesia.

In short, Mr Last will find evidence to support his claim. That does not mean the judge will accept it as a mitigating factor when it comes to sentencing, but to suggest that the adjournment should not have been granted because there was no evidence to support Mr Last’s claim is simply not true.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey