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Unlawful Carnal Knowledge of Teenage Girls: Performing Femininity and the Myth of Absolute Liability

From: Éire-Ireland
Volume 49, Issues 1 & 2, Spring/Summer 2014
pp. 69-91 | 10.1353/eir.2014.0005

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In 1967, only a few years after the launch of Raidió Teilifís Éireann on New Year’s Eve 1961, Oliver Flanagan famously remarked, “There was no sex in Ireland before television.”1 Although television had undoubtedly helped to bring sexuality into the public arena in Ireland, historians have demonstrated that Flanagan’s comment was highly misleading. In response to revelations about sexual abuse of children by Irish Catholic clergy, scholars and journalists have written widely on sexuality in Ireland in an attempt to historicize and explain the widespread mistreatment of children by priests and brothers. Irish people had sex—legal and illegal, enjoyable and unpleasant, consensual and coerced—but talk about sexuality aside from condemnations of sex outside of marriage had been absent from public discourse. Censorship and cultural norms had led most Irish people to believe that sexual deviance—that is, nonmarital sexual activity—was almost unheard of in Ireland. But even those scholars who have addressed the issue, notably Diarmaid Ferriter in his lengthy book Occasions of Sin,2 have not plumbed the depths of crimes against postpubescent girls and women, including rape and the crime of unlawful carnal knowledge of girls between the ages of fifteen and seventeen. The latter, also called statutory rape,3 was created as a misdemeanor offense by Section 2(1) of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1935.4 The crime of unlawful carnal knowledge of teenage girls was common in the twenty years following the Second World War, was prosecuted more often than rape, and occurred within the same historical context as the clerical abuse of minors.

While not as sensational as other sex crimes that involve extreme violence or victimize very young children, the crime of unlawful carnal knowledge of fifteen- and sixteen-year-old girls is an important topic for historical investigation. The history of this crime provides valuable information about female sexuality in Ireland, since victims were also lead witnesses for the prosecution and spoke in their own words about sexual experiences. Many feminists prefer the more positive term “survivor” to “victim,” and some of the complainants did not view themselves as victims. Still, I refer here to the complainants as victims for two reasons: first, because unlawful carnal knowledge was considered a crime; and second, because unwed mothers were frequently victims of social reprobation and marginalization, and thus “victim” applies even if the girl in question was not in favor of prosecuting the perpetrator. In addition, studying statutory rape of these girls contributes to the study of gender in Ireland, as the girls gave their testimony in front of a courtroom that was usually populated exclusively with men; the dynamics of these trials demonstrate ways in which Irish society was strictly gendered. Analysis of this crime also shows historical disparities between professed national morality as illustrated by legislation and the actual practices of Irish people: while having intercourse with fifteen- and sixteen-year-old girls was illegal, men of all ages engaged in sex with girls in this age group, and the courts tended to view the crime as frivolous. Despite the fact that the Irish government upheld independent Ireland as a bastion of Catholic morality, the reality of some Irish people’s sex lives was quite different.

Historians have demonstrated that the church/state alliance in Ireland created incentives for individual girls and women to conceal sex crimes that were committed against them. Regardless of female complicity or resistance in a sexual act, Irish women were viewed as “damaged” if they were not virgins when they were married. Rape victims were included in this phenomenon, causing most women not to report such crimes and thereby creating a “dark figure” of crime that historians can never explore.5 This pattern was especially true of middle- and upper-class women, who had much more to lose if their virtue were impugned.6 The Catholic church had an obvious incentive to conceal abuse that occurred within its institutions, and the same forces that acted on female victims acted on child victims of both sexes, compelling them to hide these crimes; because most sex crimes were never reported, Irish individuals were inclined not to believe people who made...

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