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  • “Is He a Licentious Lewd Sort of a Person?”:Constructing the Child Rapist in Early Modern England
  • Sarah Toulalan (bio)

When in April 1747 the judge presiding over the trial of John Hunter for the rape of Grace Pitts, aged ten, at the Old Bailey, London’s central criminal court, asked a witness called to testify to Hunter’s character and reputation, “Is he a licentious lewd Sort of a Person?” he clearly had in mind that a particular kind of man was likely to be guilty of the rape of a child.1 Such a man would have demonstrated through his behavior that he was likely to behave in a sexually immoral and immodest fashion—but not necessarily that he would direct his sexual attentions primarily toward children. Unlike the modern pedophile, who is understood to have a primary, if not exclusive, sexual interest in children that he is likely to conceal, the early modern child rapist was a man whose immorality would be clearly visible as someone who frequented “lewd women” or who acted in an “unseemly” fashion with other women. This article investigates how individuals living in early modern England may have understood and thought about the behavior of those who engaged in sexual activities with children below the age of consent and especially whether they were regarded as having a particular, and abnormal, sexual desire for children. It examines how such people were characterized and represented in prosecutions of sexual crime involving children in late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century London and to what extent such characterizations and representations conformed to later [End Page 21] sexological categorizations. It argues that, as suggested by the quotation above, such men were thought to be a particular “sort of a person,” but not one whose identity was defined by whom he had sex with. He was, rather, a man who was characterized as generally immoral, lewd, lustful, and loose-living, notable for his debauchery and lack of self-mastery, and therefore inevitably coming to a very bad, and untimely, end.

Categories of sexual deviation—or perversion—emerged with the development of psychiatry and sexology in the late nineteenth century, particularly from Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s exhaustive cataloging of such behaviors in his Psychopathia Sexualis, first published in German in 1886.2 Krafft-Ebing did not, in his brief discussion of those who engaged in sexual activities with children, employ the term pedophilia or pedophile to describe such individuals but rather referred to the “violation of individuals under the age of fourteen.”3 The term paedophilia, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “sexual desire directed towards children,” appears to have first been used by Havelock Ellis in his Studies in the Psychology of Sex in 1906.4 The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) first used the term in 1980 “to describe a specific subset of child molesters who displayed particular characteristics.”5 By 1987 the DSM definition had been revised to define pedophilia as characterized by “recurrent intense sexual urges and sexually arousing fantasies involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children.”6 One of the major narratives in the history of sexuality since Foucault has been the shift in understandings of sexual behaviors, particularly homosexual, between the early modern and the modern worlds. Sexual acts that were previously understood as subject to religious and legal regulation and that anyone might commit now became understood as integral to sexual identities. The [End Page 22] rise of sexology and the medical categorization of sexual behaviors defined primarily by sexual object choice gave birth to “the homosexual” as well as to other sexual types such as the pedophile.7

The early modern period predates these formulations, so it would be anachronistic to use the term pedophile for those who engaged in sexual activities with children. It would also be next to impossible: there are few diaries, letters, or autobiographies recording sexual thoughts or fantasies, let alone sexual behavior, including with those who today would be under the age of consent. Sir Simonds D’Ewes and Samuel Jeake both recorded marriages to girls of thirteen and that these marriages were consummated, but these marriages...


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pp. 21-52
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