March 2018 Research Update

Patrick, James, 1938-2005; Sunset on Snow
Sunset on Snow by James Patrick. Kilmardinny Arts Centre

I’ve missed a month out but it only takes a tiny bit of snow here in the UK to send everything, including my life, haywire! I’m catching up with myself now (although more snow is due). I am contacting people who volunteered for interview about ten at a time so I don’t become overwhelmed. So if you haven’t heard from me yet you may still do. Thank you to everyone who has responded so far.

In the meantime I’ve been continuing with some side research I’m doing and keeping up with the news around child abuse. Interestingly they have combined recently with this story about Florida banning child marriage, something that is shockingly common in the USA. As you can see here half of the US states have exceptions to their laws which result in no minimum age for marriage and it does actually happen. Between 2000 and 2010 248,000 children were married, most to adults, not their peers. The UK also has an issue with child marriage, particularly forced marriage.

As part of my PhD research I’ve been looking at the laws around child sexual abuse including marriage and the age of consent for sex. I’ve been researching the circumstances around the UK Criminal Law Amendment Act in 1885 when the age of consent was raised (for girls only) from 12 to 16. Before 1885 sex or rape of a child under 10 was a felony and between 10-12 was only a misdemeanour – which I would suggest demonstrates an attitude towards older children that continues today – for example see this French case. Such stories in the news show me, as if I didn’t know, that there is much work to be done and I hope I can contribute.

Teenagers and Consent

There’s been a lot in the news lately about the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA) denying compensation to victims of child sexual abuse (CSA) on the grounds that they consented. I wonder how many of these were teenagers because we do really seem to have a problem addressing CSA when teenagers are the victims.

There is a long history of this. Before the Victorian era the age of consent was generally set at the onset of puberty (between 10-12 years old) however children were engaged and married earlier, especially in the upper classes (1). In 1885 a new law was proposed to raise the age of consent to 16, for girls, to enable prosecution of people exploiting younger teenagers. However many MPs were opposed. Here’s a quote from Charles Hopwood, MP.

‘these girls who went wrong from an early age were just as familiar with the result of their actions as those of an older age. [“No!”] It was all very well to cry “No!” but those Members who did so were judging by their own families, who were carefully nurtured and preserved from contamination; but girls who went upon the streets came from a different class.’ (2)

So this isn’t just about the age of the victims but also class. Eventually the law was passed, thanks to a press campaign, but the exploitation of teenagers continued. In 1989 Wild (3) studied ‘child sex rings’ in Leeds and found 334 child victims in 31 cases with nine having a commercial basis. Thus we have child sexual exploitation (CSE) identified back in the 1980’s. I’m not sure what was done about this, if anything.

Now we have another opportunity to tackle CSE. I’d argue that the first step is to agree that a child cannot consent to sexual exploitation. Finkelhor (4) says that for:

‘true consent to occur, two conditions must prevail. A person must know what it is that he or she is consenting to, and a person must be free to say yes or no… children lack the information that is necessary to make an “informed” decision about the matter. They are ignorant about sex and sexual relationships…children have a hard time saying no to adults.’

Can we just agree this point, embed it in our government agencies and get on with sorting the actual issue out, rather than blaming the victims?

 

REFERENCES (apologies that these are not all available online)

  1. Ingram, M., (1987). Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England, 1570-1640, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Hansard, (1885). Commons Sitting of Friday, 31st July, 1885., London. Available here: http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1885/jul/31/criminal-law-amendment-bill-lords-bill
  3. Wild, N.J., (1989). Prevalence of Child Sex Rings. Pediatrics, 83(4), p.553.
  4. Finkelhor, D., (1979). What’s wrong with sex between adults and children? Ethics and the problem of sexual abuse. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 49(4), pp.692–697.