A week ago, Neil Wilson, a 41-year-old man who had admitted having sex with a 13-year-old girl, walked free from court after the girl was described by the judge and prosecution as sexually ‘predatory’. The ensuing debate has flickered back and forth between those who are appalled at the description and see it as contributing to rape absolution, and those who, while not recommending its usage, are keen to highlight that some rape victims have shown ‘assertive behaviour’.
I was reading the comments on an article by human rights lawyer Barbara Hewson which argues the latter, when one of them struck home. The comment argues that girls under the age of sixteen can indeed behave in a predatory manner. This does not mean that ‘predatory’ is an appropriate word to use in a legal sense, loaded as it is with a sense of killer versus victim, but it certainly can be reflective of the truth.
I can confirm this first-hand. By the age of fourteen I already looked much older, which I exaggerated further with bleached blonde hair and eyeliner. I used to actively enjoy enticing men, only to crush them later on by informing them of my age. One memorable solo flight to visit my French exchange saw me, with sky blue nail varnish, consciously looking pensively out of the window, posing with my head cupped in my hand, flicking little glances at the unassuming-looking guy in his 20s or 30s across the aisle. I still remember the shockingly smug feeling when he told me on the shuttle bus that he liked my nail varnish; still more vividly the horrified look on his face when I informed him of my age after we’d chatted all the way through baggage reclaim. And that wasn’t the only occurrence of its kind.
Recalling such incidents got me thinking. What if I hadn’t told the truth about my age? Or what if the subject had never come up? It certainly shouldn’t have to, particularly within certain contexts. If two people are in a bar or club where the minimum age requirement is eighteen, it is customary for each to trust that the other meets this condition. We do not ‘ID’ potential love interests.
Before I am hit with a torrent of vitriol, I am not going to support the court verdict of last week. What Wilson did was rape, and always will be. The difference between a predatory fourteen year old and a predatory twenty year old is that the former is just a child. However, I find it baffling that the prosecutor’s description of the girl as ‘predatory’ seems to have induced more public hatred towards Neil Wilson. I think it should engender less. It was the wrong word to use in court, but we should let its usage, if remotely relevant, inform us as to how someone might be able to do such a thing. It by no means absolves him/her, but it is certainly an excuse in some form, and not a pathetic one either.
Last week, Brooke Magnanti drew an obvious but informative parallel between Wilson’s situation and that of Nabokov’s controversial novel Lolita, stating that ‘if you got to the end of Lolita and though Humbert was a hero, you have utterly missed the point.’ Nobody’s calling Humbert a hero, but unlike Magnanti, I believe that Lolita is controversial because we do empathise with its narrator/protagonist. Humbert Humbert is simultaneously vile and likeable; we both understand and are revolted by his plight, and we pity him.
Children are many things, and some children are indeed predatory. Crucially though, because they are children, the way in which they behave does not and cannot excuse actions taken by others - whether that action be rape, or another damaging act. It can, however, help us to understand these actions. We would do well to remember the extent of Humbert’s self-delusion, and the way in which he was affected by Lolita’s sexually precocious behaviour.