‘Lenient’ rape sentence

Feel free to kick my ass if I’m way out on this, but the coverage of a ‘lenient’ rape sentence seems to be a little off-base. It’s being reported as “man who raped ten-year-old girl gets only two years in prison, after judge makes comments about her ‘provocative clothing'”. Various children’s groups are up in arms about it, as you’d expect. But there are more details: the defence apparently stated that the girl in question looked 16, and that doctors treating her thought she was at least in her mid-teens. Furthermore, the sex was ‘consensual’ so the ‘rape’ is because she was underage. This seems to at least require a little more thought, and the hysterical headlines aren’t helpful.

Just to be clear: I am obviously not defending the person involved. Clearly the ‘consent’ of a 10-year-old is meaningless, and the defendant committed a crime that deserves punishment. The charities are completely correct that any suggestion of blaming the victim should be nuked from orbit, and the guy may be everything he’s portrayed as – the coverage is spotty and I don’t know many details of the case. But nevertheless it does throw up an interesting thought experiment: there could be shades of grey here that don’t mean saying the victim did anything wrong, but equally don’t mean ‘lock him up and throw away the key’.

Let’s say the defence is true. If so, couldn’t comments about ‘provocative clothing’ be in reference to her looking older than ten? Yes, the phrase usually implies despicable she-was-asking-for-it sentiments, and that’s how it’s been interpreted by various charity spokesmen, but it needn’t. If a ten-year-old could pass for 16 physically (and that’s a big if) it seems reasonable that ‘provocative clothing’ could add to the impression – it’s at least a valid issue for a judge to raise. If true, though, doesn’t it raise a possible distinction between deliberate and non-deliberate child abuse? Does somebody who thought they were having consensual sex with with a 16 year-old deserve less punishment than somebody who knew her true age / forced it?

In this case the guy was 24, and it’s possibly tempting to make assumptions about the type of 24-year-old who goes after 16-year-old girls. But creepy isn’t illegal, and shouldn’t be equated with such. What if he’d been 16? If you want a black/white demarcation, isn’t the only way to require mutual proof-of-age before sex? Otherwise, the only reasonable solution I can see is to judge each case on its own merits, which is difficult when people ignore such merits and write headlines implying there are easy and obvious answers.

I’ve no clue what an appropriate sentence would be in this (possibly hypothetical) case. Two years may be too few, but the impression given by the broad-brush use of ‘paedophile’ is that he deserves life imprisonment, only some crazy misogynist judge has let him off. The suggestion that “[t]his sends out all the wrong signals to paedophiles” is clearly disingenuous, as it’s not necessarily sentencing a ‘paedophile’ in the colloquial definition of the word. Reporting it as ‘yet another paedophile gets light sentence’, however, might very well send out the wrong signals.

Like I said, feel free to yell if I’m talking crap.