The trial — and conviction — of Ghislaine Maxwell produced one useful outcome: it shone the light on the scandal of young girls, some under the age of consent, being sexually exploited.
It’s welcome news that the topic of “consent” in sex education is to be introduced in RSE (Relationship Sexuality Education) in Ireland from next year. But not only should consent be taught: so, too, should the law about the age of consent. Too commonly, the law stipulating that it’s illegal to have sexual relations with a minor — in Ireland, aged 17; in the UK 16; in New York, 17; in Florida, 18 — has been slackly interpreted.
This is partly because individuals differ — some are mature at 14, some vulnerable at 20 — and so, the definition of the age of consent has been a moveable feast. For a time, the Netherlands reduced the age of consent to 12 so as not to criminalise “Romeo and Juliet” romances between youngsters, but they raised it, subsequently, to 16 because young people were being put at risk of exploitation.
And the bar still varies in different countries and states: in Germany it’s 14, so long as a partner isn’t older than 21, and in Japan, surprisingly, it’s 13, as it is in the US states of Connecticut and Minnesota. In the Philippines, it’s 12.
Some believe young people can make up their own minds about their own life choices from the time they enter adolescence, but the Epstein-Maxwell saga has shown, too, that young girls can be manipulated, exploited, impressed by money and glamorous surroundings.
The fact the aeroplane in which Epstein transported — or trafficked — young girls was dubbed “the Lolita Express” is revealing in itself: the fictional Lolita was 12 in the famous novel by Vladimir Nabokov (although when it was turned into a movie, it was thought wiser to make her 14). Lolita is an ambivalent character, however, for she is seen as the seductress, albeit naively so.
Since concepts of the age of consent vary, there has sometimes been a tendency to turn a blind eye to the sexual activities of under-age young people.
In Britain, this was exposed by the Rochdale child sex abuse scandal in 2012 when a gang of older men were convicted of sex trafficking, rape and sexual acts with a child: 47 under-age girls were identified initially as victims.
Similar crimes also occurred at Rotherham in South Yorkshire. A report estimated that 1,400 under-age girls had probably been sexually abused by older men. The situation was ignored for some time, partly due to racial sensitivities — the men were of Pakistani-British heritage.
But there was also some complacency around the idea that girls of 13 or 14 could be allowed to make their own sexual choices — even though, legally, these young people were not in a position to give consent to a sexual relationship.
No society likes to make criminals of “Romeo and Juliet” lovers if young teenagers have taken their relationship into a full physical expression. But there’s a reason, all the same, why we have a law defining the age of consent: because young people can be reckless, volatile and thus vulnerable to a number of tragic outcomes.
In Ireland, the pitiful and terrible tragedy of Ann Lovett, who died after giving birth in a grotto in 1984, might well have been prevented if the young couple, who started their physical relationship at 14 and 16, had been cautioned about the age of consent law.
Consent in sexual relationships is a wide field, and it’s important it should be upheld to reduce the risk of abuse, sexual violence or any form of coercion — and to teach respect.
The parameters of sexual mores and manners have changed over the decades, especially with the introduction of social media, and the iteration of the consent principle surely needs amplification.
British sociologists Simon Szreter and Kate Fisher have chronicled how such changes started with the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Before then, their researches found, courtship and flirtation were based on a recognised choreography where males “pushed the boundaries” and females “resisted”. But increasing ideas of equality between the sexes changed all that — and nobody quite knew where they were.
Consent can be taught clearly as a principle, and yet, when it comes to real life — as between individuals over the legal age of consent — it isn’t always so straightforward. The human story includes many a tale of seduction and persuasion. Movies, songs, ballads, love poetry and novels all feature themes of swains pursuing the object of their desire, courting, coaxing, cajoling, beguiling, bewitching.
The slogan “No means no” can be dishonest as well as simplistic: it’s evident that the great charmers have usually found a way of getting to “yes”.
Consent: a short word with a lot of serious implications.