The child as risk: precocious girls and sexual consent in late Victorian Britain

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Abstract

The figure of the precocious girl pervaded Victorian culture, yet is poorly understood. This article focuses on concerns about sexual precocity and their influence on age-of-consent debates in the 1880s. It shows that even this single form of precocity (sexual) took multiple forms and was a malleable concept, often used selectively in parliamentary debates to suit particular agendas. These different uses of precocity did have in common, however, a tendency to be situated against the normal as ‘ideal’ rather than only statistically ‘typical’. As
precocity was generally measured against the ideal sexual development and behaviour of respectable North European girls, it was as much a value judgement as a measurable concept. Medical, legal and social commentators identified undesirable social groups along lines of race and class for whom precocity apparently was the norm rather than the exception. These girls were excluded – mostly implicitly, but at times explicitly – from the protection of the new age of consent law in 1885. Overall, the case study of sexual consent law shows that the idea of precocity operated to include and exclude certain girls from the ‘at
risk’ framework. By embedding these social concerns into law, particularly in relation to girls aged between 13 and 16, the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act also had long-term repercussions. It provides an important backdrop to the continued challenges facing socalled ‘precocious’ girls up to the present day.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)126-144
Number of pages19
JournalLaw, Crime & History
Volume7
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 18 Jul 2017

Structured keywords

  • Centre for Humanities Health and Science

Keywords

  • Age of consent
  • Precocity
  • Puberty
  • Criminal Law Amendment Act
  • Sexuality

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