In response to the “witch-hunt” following the Jimmy Savile abuse scandal, Barrister Barbara Hewson has suggested lowering the age of consent to 13 and waiving anonymity for complainants in an effort to stop the “persecution of old men” in a May 8th article for the online publication Spiked.
Hewson, a senior human rights barrister, argued that “touching a 17 year-old’s breast, kissing a 13-year-old, or putting one’s hand up a 16-year-old’s skirt are not remotely comparable to […] gang rape. Anyone suggesting otherwise has lost touch with reality”. Referring to Stuart Hall who recently plead guilty to assaulting 13 girls between 1967 and 1986, Hewson stated that “ordinarily, Hall’s misdemeanors would not be prosecuted, and certainly not decades after the event. What we have here is the manipulation of the British criminal-justice system to produce scapegoats on demand”.
Her statements have caused much outrage and a flood of open letters and reactions by high profile organisations like the NSPCC. Jon Brown, the charity’s Head of Strategy and Development for Sexual Abuse, stated that while he agrees that the sexual offences listed by Hewson were less serious, the “impact on the victims can be huge. The implication here is that a reasonable defence for committing minor offences is that the person didn’t do something even worse. Following that line one could argue that it’s ok to go shoplifting because you could have committed an armed robbery, but didn’t”. Brown also criticised Hewson’s argument that the passage of time should be a reason for not pressing charges and her suggestion that “a strict statute of limitations for criminal prosecutions and civil actions” ought to be introduced. Currently, there is no time limit on reporting sexual assaults for the reason that many people who were abused at a young age did not recognize it as such at the time. Many are also threatened or shamed into remaining silent. Denying people the ability to come forward once they feel ready to do so further fuels fears of not being taken seriously or having experiences of abuse be dismissed.
An open letter written by a victim of sexual abuse who chose to remain anonymous reiterated this in telling Hewson that “it’s all very well from your privileged position to fire off soundbites about ‘fetishing victimhood’ and ‘persecuting old men’, but you cannot even begin to understand how damaging, disrespectful and false those statements are. As someone who has lived the majority of her life with the knowledge that she was raped when she was still a child […], your statements are just a another reminder of how society protects and excuses abusers and chastises victims”.
The statements made by Hewson are shocking and ill-informed. Reducing the age of consent to 13 would result in putting children and young people at greater risk of being assaulted and Hewson’s other suggestions reinforce victim-blaming and would make it even harder for victims to come forward. Hearing such views expressed by an experienced barrister who has a particular interest in reproductive rights is simply appalling.
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