Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, section 5(1)

Prior to the passing of the 1885 Act a number of individuals and groups had been concerned about the need to protect of women and, in particular, girls; there were fears about girls being led into prostitution and about white slavery, worries about innocents robbed of their virginity and anxiety about seduction and the sexually motivated abduction. The Act therefore sought ‘to make further provision for the Protection of Women and Girls, the suppression of brothels, and other purposes’. Section 5(1) was aimed at protecting girls from male sexual exploitation, an area of law, policy and practice which was a matter of particular concern in the last half of the nineteenth century, as it is in the early twenty-first century. It did so by raising the legal age of consent to 16 in the then United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland – at least in respect of unmarried girls, where the activity in question was penile-vaginal penetration (‘carnal knowledge’ in the legal language of the time).

Some things have changed. Conceptions of the child and thinking around sex, sexuality and equality have shifted – and the figure of the teenager has emerged. However, there are also similarities which might be drawn between the background to and context of section 5(1) and the present day. Indeed, debates around Section 5(1) and, more broadly, the issue of male exploitation of girls, take on a different significance and a horrifyingly familiar hue in the light of revelations such as those relating to the sexual abuse of large numbers of girls in Rochdale (see Home Affairs Select Committee, Child Sexual Exploitation and the Response to Localised Grooming (5 June 2013)).  In this context, it seems facile but is nevertheless important to say that, whilst criminal law reforms which attempt to address these issues are important, changes to law alone do not alter attitudes and behaviours; and it is social attitudes which lead to these kinds of offences being committed (then and now), that result in girls (and boys) continuing to be preyed upon by men (and sometimes women) and that lead to the letter of the law being under or unenforced.

Lois Bibbings

The full version of this landmark is written by Lois Bibbings