There has been controversy recently about what people see as overly lenient sentences for the sexual abuse of children. I feel it is important that we look more closely at the reasoning behind the verdicts to get a more balanced view. It is a very emotive issue, but merely fanning the flames of public indignation is not conducive to a rational debate.
The current debate centers around whether the abused gave their consent. While this is ostensibly to protect the child, we are rather selective in how we understand the volition of minors and their subjective understanding of events. When a minor “consents” to somebody having sexual relations with them, we generally disregard the child’s volition, which is considered invalid.
The question of consent, therefore, should not be placed at the heart of these cases.
Minors have little subjective understanding or awareness of sex, so they have yet to develop a sense of sexual autonomy. Sexual abuse, therefore, cannot violate their sexual autonomy. In terms of the nature of the offense and its consequences, sexual abuse of an individual at this stage of their sexual development is more akin to theft than robbery: While something is taken, it is not taken forcibly. This is the rationale behind the sentencing that many consider too lenient.
One might contend that sexual abuse is more traumatic to a child than to an adult, but this is not necessarily so. There are both psychological and physical aspects to sexual abuse, and the combined effect is greater than the sum of its parts.
Abuse involving one aspect in isolation is less traumatic. In the eyes of the law the trauma visited on a sexually aware individual is more consequential than that on a child that has yet to develop this awareness.
For very young children the effects of such trauma are relatively short-lived and less deep-seated and while it is true that the trauma might be more serious still for a slightly older child, it is not considered to be overwhelmingly serious in legal terms since the abused is still not yet mature enough to be fully aware of what has happened.
In fact, social attitudes stigmatize child sexual abuse such that events can come back to haunt the abused in later life, having retrospectively taken on a darker mantle.
Calls for heavier sentences have more to do with moral outrage of the observer than the extent of trauma felt by the victim. The heavier the sanctions we give for child abuse, the more weight we give it and the more we reinforce the psychological impact on the abused. The significance of the abuse is a function of the emotional import given it. We risk exacerbating the effects of the trauma on the abused.
Perhaps, then, we should re-evaluate the prevailing attitudes toward sex in our society and our emotional response. We hardly ever hear of the pain caused in later life to children born hermaphrodites who are forced, when still too young to have a say in the matter, to go through corrective surgery, simply to satisfy society’s strictly polarized model of male and female sexuality and our preoccupations with any deviance from gender norms. It is double standards like these that remind us of the importance of not getting carried away by the emotive language and moral outrage surrounding the issue of children and sex.
Will the introduction of heavier sentences protect children or will it expose them to more danger, or make tougher sentences less likely? If we are to keep our children safe, we must rely on more than simple retributive justice. Even if there is a need to satisfy the public’s sense of justice, any legal amendment must be done according to the dictates of rationality, not moral indignation.