A couple of weeks ago, I was due to speak at an all-girls boarding school about feminism, relationships, and sexual consent. The girls, I was told, were already heavily interested in gender equality, and were excited to talk to someone who wrote about feminism for a living. All the same, I was anxious: teenage girls, I had been told, were different now. They read more; they knew more; they had terrifyingly good contouring skills; they had Youtube channels and endorsement deals from Nike. They were, basically, adults by the time they were 14. What could they possibly learn from me, someone who has downloaded and quickly deleted Snapchat seven times because I just couldn’t “get” it?
And then I met them.
They were smart. Unfathomably, puzzlingly, inspiringly smart: they were reading Angela Carter, they were critical of the corporate feminism that seemed to be diluting the true nature of the cause. They had started their own feminist Instagram account that – they were only too pleased to tell me – was called VaginalWoolf. They fired questions at me, and backed up their arguments with stats they had read on the UNICEF homepage. They were beautiful and funny and frantic with the bubbling fizz of their own potential.
But they were still children.
They had braces and anxieties and vulnerabilities. They had sore spots and weak spots and plain-old-teenage spot-spots. And none of them were capable of having a “lover”.
They see the pictures: the heavily-filtered, glossy photos of young girls, taken tentatively in their own bedrooms, and they see women
This is something, I think, that people forget. They see the pictures: the heavily-filtered, glossy photos of young girls, taken tentatively in their own bedrooms, and they see women. They think: anyone old enough to pout like that is old enough to deal with the responsibilities of what that pout means. Anyone who pouts like that knows who that pout is for, and what they want. This is always the defence assembled against the underage girls who are raped by adult men. The second most common criticism of a rape victim – right under “Asking for it”, which might as well get its own gold plaque in every crime museum in the world – is “she knew what she was doing”.
And that’s the implication today, in The Times. The headline, which reads “Abuser jailed after girl, 13, listed lovers on her iPad”, is among the most oddly assembled sentences I’ve ever read. Can a 13 year old have a lover? And if we are calling the man an “abuser”, does that mean he also qualifies as one of her “lovers”?
The report of the story doesn’t get any less bizarre. “A 13-year-old girl named seven lovers aged between 14 and 27 on a list that she kept on her iPad, a court was told.” There’s that word again. Lover. It’s something we associate with romance novels found at car boot sales, not the sexual abuse of children. The story goes on to describe the reaction of the child’s mother (who has, apparently, “lost her little girl”) and the supposed guilt of the girl’s family. There is no clarification as to what or who this guilt is for. Were they guilty for leaving their child vulnerable to abuse? Guilty about the imprisonment of her rapist – sorry – lover?
Gary Sheridan – the “lover” in question – was found to have “begged” the girl to come for a drive with him, following “lurid sex chat”. He has been jailed for six years.
There is no clarification about the nature of her relationship with the other men on the list, whether they were her friends, boyfriends, or abusers. We do not know about the mental of physical state of the child in question.
“Lovers” is the only word we are given to speculate on. She knew what she was doing is the implication we’re supposed to take from it.
The report itself is only a couple of hundred words long, and yet, a thousand years in the making. It’s a story we have seen a lot – the one where a child is held accountable for the sins of an adult – and it is a story that clings and waits and strikes again. It’s a story we became used to, last summer, when the underage victim of Adam Johnson told a judge that she lived in fear of violent attack after the former partner of the footballer's sister, Steven Knox, posted photos of her all over social media. “I don’t care if I get locked up, I stand by my beliefs,” wrote Knox. “Does this look like a girl who is scared to leave the house, who has bragged, lied and pursued, could not give the slightest care in the world?” Knox was later charged with harassment.
I write this, and I can’t help but think about those girls I met, those brilliant boarding school girls, brimming with enthusiasm and determination to change a society they already knew was broken. I want to wrap them all in my scarf, and protect them from a world that – as the writer Heather O’Neill put it – brings women down before they turn 23. I hope they’re ready. I hope they’re resilient. And I hope – for the love of god, I hope – they know what they’re doing.