Home » Children » Slut-shamed: perpetuating mythologies of (underage) consent

Slut-shamed: perpetuating mythologies of (underage) consent

The inevitable media backlash against the trials and convictions of “celebrities” for the sexual exploitation of girls has begun in the UK.  The long-simmering idea that children could be complicit in, and indeed consent to their own abuse, has surfaced.  For example, Eddie Shah, a former owner of the Today newspaper, found not guilty of six counts of rape of a girl under the age of 16, said in an interview:

Rape was a technical thing – below a certain age. But these girls were going out with pop groups and becoming groupies and throwing themselves at them… If we’re talking about girls who just go out and have a good time, then they are to blame.  If we talk about people who go out and actually get ‘raped’ raped, then I feel no … everything should be done against that.

A column by Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail focused heavily on the dropping of sexual offences charges against another entertainer, Jim Davidson, accusing the associated police operation, Yewtree, of becoming a witch-hunt.  These public pronouncements, notably by men, have been matched by worrying developments in a recent sexual assault case in which the prosecuting barrister, Robert Colover, described the 13-year-old victim as “predatory in all her actions and she is sexually experienced.”  The defendant was found guilty of sexual activity with a child, among other offences, but was given a suspended sentence.  Criticism, including from the Lord Chief Justice, was levelled at the judge in the case for his comments at sentencing that the victim “looked and behaved older”, a factor he took into account when deciding the sentence. 

Relatively few media articles made it unequivocally clear that children under the age of 16 cannot consent to sex, as set out in the Sexual Offences Act 2003, with additional protection provided to those under the age of 13, to ensure the availability of the higher maximum penalties for the under-13 offences.  The prevailing subtext to the coverage was the question the existence of a legal and policy grey area that enables sexually experienced underage girls (never boys) to consent to sex with adults.

Children’s rights groups challenge this misconceived age/consent narrative, a battle already well-established by feminists in the context of rape (“she was asking for it”, “she was drunk”, “she was dressed like a slut”).  Barnardos, for example, issued a statement which said:

Children can never truly consent to their own abuse. It is plain wrong to imply in any way that the experiences of sexually exploited children are something they bring on themselves. … It takes immense bravery for these young people to relive their ordeal in a court of law and we must not forget that it is the abuser who is guilty and not the victim.

Though the use of the word truly is arguably unhelpful in that it leaves the door open to the consideration of misconstrued ideas about “partial” consent, the point is clear: victim blaming is not the way forward.  In the same way that a sexually permissive woman can be the victim of rape (as can a sex worker), a victim’s prior sexual experience does not waive an individual’s right to legal protection.  Indeed, there was no consideration of the fact that the sexual experiences of these girls under the age of 16 pointed to a history of criminal offences perpetrated against them.  The factors that should have served as triggers for protection by the state – for example, when assistance was sought from social services or the police for exploitation – initially prevented its application.

TTRP has written previously about the challenges faced by public authorities assisting underage sex workers.  Our post on underage sex workers was not intended to advocate sex work as an employment path but rather to highlight the existence and protection needs of this group, including relevant, tailored interventions.  These challenges should not be construed as a case for a change to the age of consent.  Why not?  Firstly, the law acknowledges the inherent vulnerability of children, to change the age is to deny this vulnerability; indeed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) considers a child to be up to the age of 18.  There needs to be a clear distinction set out in legislation which protects children from sexual exploitation.  The age of consent functions as this protection.  As the cases of child sexual exploitation in Rochdale and elsewhere showed, even where this protection exists, i.e. within the Sexual Offences Act, service providers still failed to prevent the abuse of children.  This brings us to the second reason to keep the established age of consent: the practical application of the law can be weak as it is dependent on individuals who arrive at situations with their own prejudices.  On occasion, and regardless of their best efforts, these service providers are influenced by these prejudices, which subsequently impacts the application of relevant protections.

Thirdly, the case for reducing the age of content to 14, floated earlier this year, has yet to be adequately made.  This is partially because the Crown Prosecution Service guidance relating to the prosecution of such cases recognises the fact that the age of consent does not deter consensual sex between teenagers.  Indeed, it appears that the UK is going in the reverse direction of other European states; Spain, for example, has recently raised the age of consent from 13 to 16.

Finally, the issue is being approached from the wrong angle.  Effectively, it appears that because some teenagers are sexually active, all children should have legal protections removed.  However, there is no examination of the experiences of sexually active children.  For example, a consideration of how these experiences are affected by the ease in accessing pornography or the ubiquitous nature of social media.  The latter of which has resulted in the rise of slut shaming and bullying of girls. In one case, a 17-year-old was photographed at a concert performing a sex act and the resulting images were on the internet in minutes; an experience made more worrying by the allegation that the girl concerned was the victim of assault.  The case is currently the subject of a police investigation.  The blanket statement that the age of consent should be lowered because more children are becoming sexually active is blinkered to the realities of growing up in the UK in 2013.  Significantly, this is often a world misunderstood by adults, and thus those developing and implementing policy.  The interpretation of sexual activity, vulnerability and protection manifests in a potentially dangerous way in the teenage world of Facebook and Twitter.

Such ruminations point to a broader public conception of consent and agency found in media portrayals of trafficking.  A Guardian article in June on asylum seeking children stated, “many of the children have been trafficked – willingly or less so.”  Such statements ignore the fact that children cannot consent to being trafficked, as set out in the UN Trafficking Protocol, the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings and in domestic protections.  While such an error may be a simple mistake on the part of the journalist, as the comments section highlights, this misinformation is unhelpful as it perpetuates the idea that children can be complicit in their own exploitation.  Attempts to have this journalistic error corrected have come to naught.  The potential impact of such messaging, which assumes children can choose to be trafficked, may include the denial of protection by law enforcement and others.  Overall, this perpetuates a message that marginalised individuals who appear to “consent” to exploitation can be excluded from legal protection, in much the same way, the theory goes, that sexually experienced children are denied victim status in cases of abuse.

Consent is politicised; the subject of misinformation and media hype.  However, the consequences affect the ability of children to be both adequately protected and, where these offences do occur, to effectively access justice and restitution for their experiences.  Children have to battle to vindicate the protections already afforded them in law, yet are often denied them by the rise of a narrative which says that they are to blame.


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