"Underage Girls": Victim-Blaming by Proxy

I always have these half-formed blogs posts that I never quite finish and then some journalist, in this case Deborah Orr, comes along and writes it. With this piece, it was partly my lack of confidence in my ability to explain what I meant but also the realisation that naming men, especially celebrities, would inevitably involve naming the young women they abused. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to write about child rape in a manner that would label another woman’s experience as part of the spectrum of sexualised violence. Do I have the right to do so without their consent? On the Relationships board of Mumsnet, there are frequently posts by women asking if their experience constitutes rape or some other form of sexualised violence. In those cases the answer is, inevitably, yes and the threads become both places of support and places to share stories safely. But, taking the story of someone famous (or identifiable in their own community) and labelling it as child rape without them using the term feels invasive. But, at the same time, is it not silencing to refrain from discussing these stories which leads to further normalisation of unhealthy relationships and sexualised violence? I’m loathe to label experiences for other women whilst simultaneously believing we need to. I’ve had these conversations before but I am never sure where the line should be drawn: insisting that we do not obfuscate or minimise sexualised violence whilst worrying about harming those who have not yet labelled their experiences.  


I’ve been thinking about the line between obfuscation and the power of labelling since the documentary on Jimmy Savile was first announced. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the use of language to label and define child sexual abuse since I’m increasingly concerned as to how language is being used to obfuscate both the sex of the children and their age in an attempt at victim-blaming-by-proxy. I think its important that we identify the sex of the victims. All to often the calls to remain gender neutral, designed to ensure that male victims of sexualised violence aren’t omitted, serve only to silence the fact that the vast majority of victims of sexualised violence are women and girls. It also elides the fact that the vast majority of sexual predators are male. Frankly, I’m getting more than slightly angered by the constant attempt to be gender neutral. No one disputes the fact that men are victims of rape. No one disputes the fact that male children are victims of rape. All we are asking is for the acknowledgement that the vast majority of victims of sexualised violence are women and children and that the vast majority of perpetrators are male. To argue otherwise, silences victims and lets perpetrators continue to get away with harming others. 


I’ve also become increasingly concerned by the the conflation terms of “paedophile” and “underage girls”. Now, I do believe that paedophilia is a psychiatric illness but I find it incredibly bizarre that every man who rapes a child is called a paedophile when it is simply not true. The term paedophilia is used indiscriminately to obscure the fact that many men, perhaps even most, who rape children do so because they want to without having any underlying psychiatric condition. In fact, men who are paedophiles also rape children because they choose too. A psychiatric illness does not always negate criminal responsibility. There are some which limit or restrict personal and criminal responsibility but paedophilia isn’t one of them and, technically, Savile wouldn’t be classed as a paedophile since the girls he raped were post-puberty. Conflating paedophilia with child rape allows rapists to elide and conceal responsibility for raping 15 year olds because they aren’t “children”.

The competing use of the term “underage girls” also feels like its obfuscating the fact that these are children. We can’t use the term “girl” anymore to label a female child since it now refers to adult women; effectively erasing the question of legality and the definition of child rape. The use of “girl” confuses the boundary between adulthood and childhood making it easier for male sexual predators to claim ignorance about the exact age of the child they are abusing. “Underage girls” puts the focus on the victim, not the abuser. The abuser makes it all their fault. It is not a compliment to be labeled a “girl”. It is a way of silencing criticism of male predatory behaviour towards teenage girls. If all women are “girls”, then there is no reason why an adult male can’t have sex with a 16 year old. 


The use of the term “underage girls” has simply evolved into victim-blaming. It is their fault an abusive man groomed and then raped them. It is their fault for looking 18 instead of 15. But, we never question why men who are 25 or 35 or 50 want to fuck 18 year olds. It is about power. It is about control. Why are these men worried about the very fine line between legal and not legal. A sexual relationship between a 15 year old girl and 35 year old man is illegal. A sexual relationship between an 18 year old and a 35 year old may not be illegal but it is still creepy.  The power dynamics are wrong. This isn’t about love relationships. It’s about fulfilling a desire for power and control. We should be criticising and questioning these men; not congratulating them for joining Hugh Hefner in the abuse of young women.

We need to stop obfuscating with language and start using words like child rape to refer to relationships between 15 year old girls and 35 year olds. We need to start asking men why they find an 18 year old sexually attractive because it isn’t just about women who pass the Patriarchal Fuckability Test. It’s about the real definition of the Patriarchal Fuckability test: being young, frequently malnourished, sexually available at any time but only to fulfil the male orgasm. The male orgasm is the only point that matters in sex. The sexual desires of adult women are eroded and subsumed into a rhetoric of domination. 

But, then we also pretend that teenage girls should be pleased that middle aged men find them sexually appealing rather than being utterly creeped out by it. We groom them into thinking that being desired by older men is something to aspire too; that their only value is in their sexual availability. We need to stop celebrating men who date young women barely out of childhood. We need to start asking these men why they can’t date women their own age. What is the difference between an 18 year old whose birthday has just passed and a 17 year old a week away from her 18th birthday? What makes adult men think this is reasonable behaviour? What are we teaching our girls if we are raising them to believe that having sex with a man old enough to be their father is all that they deserve. If women and girls were truly valued, we would not be obfuscating the line between consensual sex between two competent adults and the sexual abuse of young women and girls by older men.

And, let’s be clear here. The level of child rape in the Jimmy Savile case isn’t confined to the BBC. It’s everywhere. We’ve just been pretending it doesn’t matter for so long that we have completely silenced our childrenPretending that it was a problem for the BBC in the past is a vile lie which simply serves only to perpetuate and perpetrate rape culture. Our children deserve better than this. 

3 thoughts on “"Underage Girls": Victim-Blaming by Proxy”

  1. Excellent post SGM. It has really clarified a number of things in my mind. When you mentioned writing this post I didn’t understand what you were getting at. For example I hadn’t put two and two together and put paedophilia with a psychiatric condition (I also didn’t know that paedophilia only refers to pre-pubescent children – which is just mine an other people’s ignorance). But I personally wouldn’t have used the word paedophile to describe many men’s appalling sexual behaviour with children, before reading this anyway. Naming the abusive acts for what they are really brings home what they have done and helps focus on that rather than hiding it beind this blanket coverall of paedophilia, as well.

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