Our willingness to accept the Lolita myth

American radio DJ Dave Herman has been arrested for allegedly arranging to have sex with a minor. Source: Getty Images

American radio DJ Dave Herman has been arrested for allegedly arranging to have sex with a minor. Source: Getty Images Photo: Taylor Hill

Late last month, a prominent 77-year-old New York identity was arrested for attempting to arrange a seven-year-old girl’s transportation from New Jersey to the Virgin Islands so he could sexually abuse her.

This is how various news outlets headlined the story: 

“Dave Herman, Radio Personality, Tried to Arrange Sex With Girl, 7 :Feds” 

“Dave Herman, retired New York rock 'n' roll DJ at WNEW, busted in child sex sting” 

“Former Radio Personality Arrested in Sex Sting”  

All of these articles (and more if you care to find them) go on to detail how Herman, thinking he was communicating online with a single mother, was actually chatting to an undercover federal law enforcement official. He attempted to arrange for the mother and daughter to fly to the tropical islands, “so he could engage in sexual activity with the child there.”

What none of these stories say is what Herman actually planned to do: rape a seven year old.

I understand that there is legal jargon involved regarding what Herman is officially charged with (illegal sexual activity) but it is worrying that all the official news reports on this incident fail to specify that all “sexual activity” with a child is in fact statutory rape and child abuse.

“Sex” is a consensual activity. Under no circumstances is a seven year old capable of consenting to sex. Adults do not have sex with children. They rape them.

This may seem rather obvious until you consider how often it is forgotten by the lawyers and judges in child rape cases.

“The girl is predatory in all her actions and she is sexually experienced.”  So said Richard Colver, the prosecutor -yes, prosecutor- in a recent case in the UK involving the abuse of a 14 year old girl by a 41 year old man, Neil Wilson.

Wilson was found guilty but given a suspended sentence by the judge Nigel Peters, who was swayed to go easy on the now-convicted pedophile by “the prosecution's comments that the girl looked and behaved older than she was.”

“The girl was predatory and was egging you on”, continued the judge but “that is no defence when it comes to children”, he finished, right before he is used it to defend his decision to spare the man a prison sentence.

It was left up to the convicted man’s defence lawyer (!) to warn that Wilson, who was released into the community, still “poses a risk to children.”  

This case is not unique as the sad case of “Mary Doe” in Louisiana attests. Mary Doe, who is now 20, was raped at the age of 14 by one of her guards at a juvenile detention centre. The guard, Angelo Vickers is now in jail but the case before the District Court Judge, George Larke, concerns whether the victim qualifies for compensation. 

Attorneys for the local government insist she is not entitled to damages because “Vickers could not have engaged in sexual relations within the walls of the detention center without cooperation from the victim…Vickers did not use force, violence or intimidation when engaging in sexual relations.”

There it is again. “Sexual Relations.” Vickers is in jail for statutory rape. A 14-year-old girl in Louisiana, where the age of consent is 17, cannot legally give consent, as these laywers would be well aware.

Ignoring the obvious fact that the guard-prisoner relationship makes the power imbalance even more skewed, one official who wisely chose to remain anonymous remarked, “These girls in the detention center are not Little Miss Muffin.”

Not Little Miss Muffin? I guess he means they are “Sexually Experienced”, which presumably makes them veritable Lolitas, imitators of that fictional 12 year old hussy who shamelessly seduces her mother’s innocent husband after predatorily egging him on by pretending she was older than she really was “girl who is kidnapped and raped by a man who came into her life as a stepfather figure, for three years.” 

It’s not just lawyers and judges who employ the Lolita defence. After an 11-year-old girl was gang-raped in Texas, much of the community outrage was directed against the victim and her parents. "Where were they when this girl was seen wandering at all hours with no supervision and pretending to be much older?", one resident asked the local paper

This is the same victim about which the New York Times journalist James C. McKinley Jnr, notoriously wrote, “she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.”

“She” was an 11-year-old child who according to her mother, “still loved stuffed bears.”

Words are powerful. Language both drives and reflects our culture. When a government official says certain girls are not “Little Miss Muffin”, he is referencing and propagating the virgin-whore dichotomy, that reductive idiom that permits women and girls to be judged by past (irrelevant) behaviour rather than present circumstances.

When we frame child rape victims as cunning Lolitas and their adult attackers as hapless Humbert Humberts, then we perpetuate the rape culture -yes rape culture- that pretends to abhor rape but, when faced with it, find ways to excuse the rapist and implicate the victim. 

And when we refer to the abuse of children as “sex” it helps pave the way to the above by minimising the crime. It implies - even if unintended- a level of complicity from the child, a complicity that a child is just not mentally or emotionally or legally able to give.

It is incredible how often it has to be said but under no circumstances can a child consent to sex with an adult. Not when she is seven. Not when she is 11. Not when she is 13. Even the original Humbert Humbert himself knew this when, at the end of the novel, the character admits he deprived Lolita of her childhood.

When 77-year-old Dave Herman attempted to transport a seven-year-old girl to the Virgin Islands, he did not do so with the intention of having sex with her. It is with the intention of raping her.

 

40 comments

  • Anyone who tries to use the Lolita defence demonstrates the following:

    1. They haven't read the book.
    2. If they did read it, they completely failed to understand it.
    3. They know nothing about child sexual abuse, or the mechanisms by which abusers groom and coerce their victims.

    A salient quote from the novel in case anyone was still suffering under the delusion that she was in any way the "nymphet" that Humbert pleads (to himself);

    “We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night — every night, every night -- the moment I feigned sleep.”
    ― Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

    By the way, this article should be on the SMH front page. It's far too important to be competing for space with lifestyle pieces.

    Commenter
    Red Pony
    Date and time
    November 04, 2013, 9:45AM
    • A great article Ms Hamad and I agree Red Pony, the correctness of this article seems so obvious I am astonished and dismayed that it needed to be written and yet it did.

      Lolita is a horror story not a love story. The fact that so many people think otherwise is exactly what the article is about. The quote that has always stayed with me from it is when Humbert Humbert says "you see, she had nowhere else to go" to explain why Lolita couldn't leave. He knew he had trapped her and he knew he was destroying her childhood.

      Commenter
      Nick
      Date and time
      November 04, 2013, 10:14AM
    • To her credit, Lo even calls Humbert out the day after he first assaults her, and names it as exactly what it was:

      "I was a daisy-fresh girl and you raped me."

      Then asks to see her mother... oh, yeah, sorry kid, did I mention that your mother is dead?

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      November 04, 2013, 10:33AM
    • Anyone who uses the Lolita defence is desperately clutching at straws. Sex between an adult and a child is a very serious crime, no matter what you call it and how you see it.

      Commenter
      JohnA
      Date and time
      November 04, 2013, 10:48AM
    • The Lolita defence is indefensible. A child who is not "Little Miss Muffin" is still a child. A "sexually experienced" child is still a child. Where else would we argue that being robbed once is open invitation to be robbed again ?

      Commenter
      davros
      Date and time
      November 04, 2013, 11:05AM
    • Absolutely spot on Red Pony! The fact that so many people still misinterpret Nabokov's book (wilfully? Or inadvertently? Which is worse?) so many years after its publication is a really sad indictment on our society.

      Commenter
      Hazy and Dolorous
      Date and time
      November 04, 2013, 1:20PM
    • The 'Lolita defence' is not a defence. None of the offenders got off. It was just one of the considerations taken into account when sentencing.

      Commenter
      flo
      Date and time
      November 04, 2013, 3:54PM
    • Not a defence in strict legal terms, but a defence in the generic sense of mitigating factor. The point being that the "Lolita defence" is a lie to begin with.

      Commenter
      Nick
      Date and time
      November 04, 2013, 4:31PM
  • Part of the job of defense is to present mitigating circumstances. The role of judge and jury is to not only decide on whether a crime has been committed but also on the degree of severity and impact on the victim. It simply makes no sense at all to not acknowledge that there are differences in criminal intent and damage.

    Commenter
    mike basil
    Location
    hobart
    Date and time
    November 04, 2013, 10:29AM
    • So some child rapes are ok? There are never 'mitigating circumstances' for rape. In the case of children, that's made even more explicitly clear with age of consent laws. There is no 'mitigating' and adult assaulting a child.

      Commenter
      pb
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      November 04, 2013, 11:19AM

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