'Predatory' 13-year-olds: we've heard this one before


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The Independent Online

Where does this shocking language of "predatory" behaviour come from? Are such ideas just the "inappropriate" words of one individual (to cite the Crown Prosecution Service)? History indicates otherwise. So-called "rape myths" and "victim-blaming" of this kind have long roots. We need to look at the past to understand the nature of concerns about "predatory", "sexually experienced" and physically mature girls. By understanding the history of such ideas, we may be able to put an end to their use.

For historians of sexual offences, the comments made during this trial might seem disturbingly familiar. Girls at or near the age of puberty have long been deemed a potential sexual danger to men, particularly if physically mature for their age and sexually experienced.

A 13-year-old girl was not always an automatic victim in sexual assault trials. For most of the 19th century, a 13-year-old girl could be legally complicit in an offence against her. She had to show active resistance to a sexual crime for a successful legal prosecution. When the age of sexual consent for girls was raised from 13 to 16 years in 1885, many members of parliament raised concerns that girls were often mature for their age.

So has anything really changed? There are certainly echoes of the "it takes two to tango" argument in historical debates about sexual consent law. In 1885, Sir Thomas Chambers emphasised that sexual consent law should be grounded in "fairness to both sides" and that "it might be that a girl of 13 looked much older than she was; it might be that she was not the seduced but the seducer". In the same year, in the House of Commons, Mr Whyte commented that "some girls were at 12 years of age far more precocious than others at 14 and 15".

While consistent in many ways, the language of victim-blaming has changed over time. Coverage of the Snaresbrook trial has centred on the barrister's use of the term "predatory", but in Victorian Britain similar concerns were articulated through the language of "precocity". Precocity referred to early physical, sexual, behavioural or intellectual development and was a specific anxiety of Victorian Britain. The concept of precocity was appealing because it sat at the intersection of concerns about class, race, gender, sexuality and the future of the empire.

A sexually "precocious" girl upset the natural order of things and was expected to produce weaker children. She thus became a particular focus of the 19th-century courts, in which it was deemed noteworthy if a young girl was "well developed" or "forward" in her behaviour.

Indeed, in late-Victorian courts, prisoners were even known to complain that girls under the age of 10 were "forward". These claims were not always accepted or successful, but were relatively prevalent. The shock and uproar associated with the recent case indicate that such comments about young girls have become rarer over time. While victim-blaming continues, it has evidently been increasingly resisted in recent years.

So, why the greater uproar about victim-blaming now? There are already thousands of signatures on an online petition responding to this case. Many survivors of child sexual abuse have spoken out, many having long sought to end such victim-blaming. These responses may seem self-explanatory but history also has something to say here.

Second-wave feminist campaigns of the 1970s contested victim-blaming in its many forms. While feminist concerns about child protection were not new, they were certainly more explicitly organised to repute long-held rape myths and to raise consciousness about child sexual abuse.

History is central to understanding the law on sexual crime: a girl's sexual history; the history of blaming victims; the history of contesting and resisting victim-blaming; the history of "rape myths"; the history of sexual consent law. This history shows us that a concept of "predatory" (or sexually "precocious") girls is not new, but nor is it a given "reality".

Such concerns are enduring but are shaped and reshaped across time and place. This week, we have shown that they are being actively contested – perhaps, in time, the online petition and uproar over this case will become history itself.

From "precocious" to "predatory" – the language of victim-blaming has changed over the past 150 years. But how much have we really moved on?

Victoria Bates is a lecturer in modern history at the University of Bristol