Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Paedophilia: Several details you probably didn't know

In the ancient world and the middle ages, it was common amongst the nobility for very young boys and girls to be formally betrothed, and even married.
    The man who was to become King Henry VII of England was born when his mother (Margaret Beaufort, the daughter of the Duke of Somerset, through whom Henry derived his very sketchy claim to the throne) was certainly no older than 14. There is a famous scene in Shakespeare's "Richard III", where Richard successfully woos Anne Neville, having killed her husband, Edward, Prince of Wales. In fact, Anne would have been about 16 when she met Richard: she had married Edward when she was 14 and he was 17. (He was almost certainly killed in the battle of Tewkesbury, aged 18; not murdered by Richard). Although very little is known about Anne personally, there is no reason to believe that she resented being passed like a trophy between the houses of Lancaster and York. As a daughter of the mighty Earl of Warwick, "Warwick the Kingmaker", she would have known what was expected of girls of her class.
   When Henry VIII married his fifth wife, Katharine Howard, in 1540, he was 49 and in poor health, and she was probably no older than 16 (her exact age is not known). She had previously been betrothed to Francis Dereham, and, it transpired, was not a virgin. She had even experienced sexual games with her music teacher when she was only 13. Her later flirtations with Dereham and with Thomas Culpepper led to all three being executed for treason in early 1542. She seems to have been a rather stupid girl, behaving so recklessly, but nowadays we would regard it as intolerable that someone so young should be placed under such pressure.

Before the Victorian period, there was no legal definition of the age of consent. It was generally assumed to be about 10 or 12, and Victorian London was reported as crawling with child prostitutes of both sexes. The campaigning journalist W. T. Stead drew the public's attention to the situation by a stunt in which he purchased a young girl from her mother and took the child with him to Paris; subsequently publicizing it in a series of sensational articles entitled "The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon". It seems that there was some knowing collusion from the girl's mother in the stunt, but it succeeded in attracting great attention. Shortly afterwards, the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act raised the age of consent to 16; and the radical M.P. Henry Labouchere inserted an amendment to make "gross indecency" between men a criminal offence. Up to this point, it was unclear whether such behaviour was illegal.

   In the USA the age of consent varied considerably between different states. When Jerry Lee Lewis, one of the great original rock-n-rollers, came to tour Britain in 1958,he brought with him his wife, who was said to be 15, but, it transpired, was really only 13. There was an outcry in the press and the tour was called off after a couple of concerts. 

   It was under the 1885 Act that Oscar Wilde was convicted, though since he was accused of indecency with teenage youths he would nowadays be branded a paedophile and would receive a much longer sentence and no sympathy from anyone. The same would apply to Sir Roger Casement; hanged as a traitor after the Easter Rising in Dublin, and now regarded as a patriotic hero and martyr in Ireland; but whose sexual proclivities were revealed in his diaries, which were deliberately leaked to the press before his trial.
   In any case, the word "paedophile" is misused by the media. It only means someone who likes, or is attracted to children; analogies being a bibliophile, who loves books, a philosopher, who loves knowledge, and a philatelist, who loves postage stamps. There is a different word, "pederast", for someone who has sex with children. As far as I know it was first used by the 17th century writer John Aubrey, where he applied it to Francis Bacon, the Lord Chancellor and philosopher (and according to some, the true author of Shakespeare's plays). Aubrey wrote the word in the original Greek, and called Bacon's harem of boys his "Ganymedes", after the beautiful boy beloved by the god Zeus - which, of course, is why one of the satellites of Jupiter bears this name.

   Is it too much to hope that a clear distinction between paedophiles and pederasts might be drawn by the media? 

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