I wrote my dissertation on sexual assault against women and teenage girls in twentieth-century Ireland. I’ve published an article on the crime that used to be known as “unlawful carnal knowledge of a teenage girl aged 15 to 17” that demonstrated that Irish law did not really care about this crime. In fact, in almost all cases that were prosecuted, the girl in question had become pregnant as a result of the encounter. The law cared about pregnancy outside of “wedlock,” but did not really care about the trauma to the teenage girls in question, or their ability to say yes or no to sex. Jury verdicts reflected this–in large part, though not exclusively, because juries for most of the 20th century were all male, and girls were seen as tempting Eves.
How far have we come? Well, the following story appears in today’s Irish Times: “Man slept with underage girl his son was dating, court told”. The article describes a situation in which an adult man in his early 40s had repeated sexual encounters with a 15-year-old girl. He took pictures of her in “compromising” positions. She performed oral sex on him, and they had intercourse on many occasions. The man has been charged with 31 counts of having intercourse with a child (under the 2006 Sexual Offences Act). He has also been charged with 8 counts of “defilement of a child” for the acts of fellatio. The man denies all of this, despite the girl’s testimony and text messages that prove the relationship.
There are so many problems here that, as a historian, I’m not equipped to count them all.
- The Irish Times should be ashamed of itself for this headline. The man “slept with” an underage girl? No, the man raped an underage girl. There is no legal concept of a 41-year-old man “sleeping with” a 15-year-old girl. By definition, that act is illegal because a 15-year-old girl cannot consent to sex with an adult man. The editors of the Irish Times should know this and the paper’s headlines and writing should reflect this.
- The man took photos of the teenage girl in “compromising” positions. Why wasn’t he charged with anything related to child pornography? These photos probably still exist. They could have been uploaded to the Internet (or, more likely, the dark web), and they could still be used against the victim/survivor, who is now an adult woman in her mid-20s.
- The article focuses on the fact that the first time the man met the victim, she was wearing a very short white miniskirt, that turned him on. Why is this fact relevant to anything? It’s not relevant to whether the crime took place. It’s not relevant to consent, which is not a factor in statutory rape cases anyway. The only purpose served by the focus on her miniskirt is to sexualize a teenage girl and mitigate the man’s responsibility in the case because she was wearing an outfit that one could classify as “provocative.” [She was likely trying to turn on her boyfriend, the man’s son, not the 41-year-old man.] This harkens back to the old fashioned idea that women were tempting men, and that the male sex drive is so powerful that men simply cannot resist. Surely we’ve moved past that notion in 2019, right?
- Why does the law distinguish between sexual intercourse and oral sex here? Both acts are SEX. Both occurred with an underage girl and a man in his 40s. This distinction is absolutely draconian. The acts of oral sex should be classed as rape also. A teenage girl cannot anymore consent to fellatio than she can to vaginal intercourse, and the law should not distinguish between these offences.
Here we can see that there are enduring problems with the ability of Irish law to protect underage girls (and boys, too) from sexual predators. The law doesn’t take seriously the inability of teenagers to consent to sex with older men. Thankfully, the law does accept the legitimacy of consensual sex between teenagers. Progress has been made.
But the law, and apparently the writers for the Irish Times, still buy into gendered tropes about how a girl was dressed and different types of sex (vaginal, oral, anal). I am eager to see the verdict in this case, to see whether the Irish people accept these tropes. Will the jury acquit this man because of the girl’s miniskirt? Will they accept the idea that the 15-year-old girl consented to sex, and therefore the crime wasn’t so bad, even though the law says differently? The girl didn’t become pregnant from the encounters, so if things are basically the same as they were 50 years ago, the jury will acquit the man because without a pregnancy, the crime really wasn’t so bad.
Stay tuned for the verdict.