Trigger Warning for rape apologism. Linked articles contain descriptions of sexual assault.
Out of the U.K. comes an extremely disturbing case in which two young boys, aged 10 and 11, have been convicted of attempting to rape an 8-year-old girl.
I’ll let that sink in for a moment.
The case raises numerous ethical conundrums and requires a nuanced response. At one point during the trial, the victim recanted and claimed that she had invented the story — whether she was telling the truth during this recantation or responding to pressure from the defense’s cross examination is unclear, and was ultimately up to the jury to decide. Many are also arguing that the case was dealt with hugely inappropriately, that a full fledged criminal trial for boys so young was absurd, ugly, a display of society’s worst impulses, and a travesty of the judicial system.
And on that last point, I actually pretty strongly agree. I believe that the ideal goal of all judicial processes should not be punishment, but rehabilitation. Rehabilitation is not always possible. And the systems we currently have in place for rehabilitation are frequently flawed or abysmally failing. But if there is anyone, anyone at all, who is capable of being rehabilitated, any sex offender who can successfully make the decision to not commit sexual violence again, a child of this age has to be it. That doesn’t minimize or excuse the violence committed against the victim — in fact, I believe that it is a much greater dishonor to a victim’s suffering and trauma to throw up our hands and say that we can’t prevent the same thing from being done to somebody else, when there is indeed a very, very great chance that we can.
Trying these children as adults and ultimately putting them on the sex offender registry list instead of working with them through various means to ensure that they realize that what they did was wrong and lose any desire to ever do it to anyone else ever again, I think, was absolutely the wrong move.
I also think that my stance is a vastly different one from that displayed by many commentators, who seem to think that these boys were treated inappropriately by the judicial system not because of their age and high likelihood of being able to be successfully rehabilitated, but because they think that the boys’ ages mean that what they did wasn’t a big deal, doesn’t count, or couldn’t have possibly happened.
One writer who expressed this view in a rather notable way is Philip Johnston of the Daily Telegraph. In his column, he opines:
Consider: the two boys must be pre-pubescent, so how could there have been any sexual motivation behind what happened? The cause, surely, was nothing more than the curiosity that young boys and girls have always shown towards each other’s bodies. And even if there was what adults would consider to have been an unhealthy interest shown in the sexual organs, that is most likely due to the imagery that rains down on our children every day from television or the internet.
The first thing that strikes you about this case is how incredible it is that it even came to a trial at the Old Bailey – or anywhere else, for that matter. Which part of “they were children” does the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) not understand? Why, indeed, did the authorities respond to a story of rape from an eight-year-old, who cannot possibly know what it means?
Oh, Mr. Johnston, your privilege is showing. I assure you, there are sadly countless eight-year-old girls all over the world — and eight-year-old boys, and children of other genders, too — who may not be able to define the word “rape” for you, but know a hell of a lot more about what it means than you ever could. And you should be infinitely grateful for that, rather than using it as the basis for snide remarks. I think that “children are too young to know about sexual matters, so why should we believe them when they report sexual violence to us?” is the most shockingly irresponsible thing I’ve seen in print in a very, very long time.
Johnston also seems terribly confused about what constitutes sexual violence, and is under the impression that the perpetrator must glean sexual satisfaction from hir crime in order for it to “count.” I’m not being sarcastic when I say that I’m confident that in his world view, crimes such as obstetric rape, rape committed by straight men against other men or by straight women against other women, sexual assault by gay men against women, and so on, fall under the category of something else entirely. Because clearly, it is the view of the perpetrator that matters most, not the experience of the victim. I also wonder how far into prudish denial he is, if he thinks that children at that age do not have sexual selves or ever masturbate or experience arousal.
Skipping over the section where Johnston argues that kids who use bigoted slurs should be protected more than the marginalized children who are harmed by them (and coyly expresses his view that homophobia is an invented phenomenon), he goes on to argue:
The boys were virtually under the legal age of criminal responsibility, and while children can of course act in a criminal way, when it comes to sexual behaviour we must surely be mindful of motive. Rape is carried out both to exert power and for sexual gratification. Since when has idle, child-like interest been a sex crime? If they had hurt the girl then they could have been charged with assault. Now, astonishingly, the boys are to have their names placed on the Sex Offender Register – though, as Mr Justice Saunders, the trial judge, said, it is not clear what that will mean for children of this age.
The two are the youngest boys ever charged with rape in this country (and possibly anywhere else). There must be an explanation for that: previous generations would not have put children on trial in this way. We seem to cosset our offspring more than ever, yet treat them as though they were grown-ups for merely behaving like children.
Again, I disagree with the way that this case has been handled. I think that better methods for handling this type of situation, which unfortunately will undoubtedly occur again, need to be developed right now. But the fact that this case was handled very, very poorly does not in any way suggest that non-consensual sexual touching of another person is merely children behaving like children.
Indeed, the vast majority of us get through our entire childhoods without sexually assaulting other children. And those of us who really are as genuinely curious as Johnston seems to think that these boys were managed to express and act out such natural curiosity in a way that didn’t infringe on another child’s rights or force another child to grant unwanted access to hir body.
There is a line — a really big, bright red one, actually — between acknowledging that there is not a one size fits all appropriate response to sexual offenders regardless of specific circumstances, and outright rape apologism. It is possible to say that 10 and 11 year old boys probably don’t deserve to be branded for life without completely excusing what they did. And it’s absolutely necessary to say that while they don’t deserve to be branded for life, they desperately do need help, rather than to just brush aside what they did as acceptable because of age and all the sex on TV.
We can argue that this case was handled inappropriately — and as I believe that if the boys are forced into detention their likelihood of recidivism will skyrocket, even dangerously — without claiming that certain bodily violations are inconsequential. Indeed, I argue that we must, if we actually desire to stop sexual violence, rather than simply decide who is and isn’t worthy of being punished.