Juliet, as in Romeo and Juliet, was thirteen at the time she was immortalized by Shakespeare; of that there is no doubt because Shakespeare told us so, but how old, then, was Romeo? We are not told, but he was probably older because girls of that age prefer older men, or boys. And anyway, girls are much more mature than boys in their early teens, don’t you think? But that’s not really the point, is it? There is something called the ‘Age of Consent’ when, supposedly, young people are ready for sex and, presumably, well prepared to face the consequences of a roll in the gutter or a romp in the back seat, and nine months later accept the responsibilities of caring for a new life in this world.
The age of consent easily becomes a moral issue for some but, then again, morality is really a question of geography; in some countries, consent is not required; young people are bought and sold, traded if you like, whenever their parents or guardians think fit. Pop down to Bordelais on any given day and wander around and you’ll be sure to bump into quite a few inmates who are whiling their lives away after having had sex with under-age girls. Now, if a 42-year-old has consensual sex with a 12-year-old girl he can end up in the slammer, but if, just eight years on, the 50-year-old man he has now become has a relationship with a 20-year-old woman, then his buddies will all consider him quite a MAN. It helps, of course, if he is a pillar of society or a person in power. The same might be true of a 50-year-old woman who finds herself in a very satisfying relationship with a 20-year–old man. Thirty years is an impressive age gap in any relationship, but what about 45 or 50 years? Can a 25-year-old and a 75-year-old really find mutual attraction and satisfaction of any and every kind?
Well, it worked for Charlie Chaplain! Chaplin was 54 years old and Oona was 18 years old when they married in 1943. The couple had eight children together. The youngest was born when Charlie was 73 years old. Oona and Charlie remained together until his death on Christmas Day in 1977, proving, I think, that if it is consensual and what they both want, why not?
Of course, if it is a question of force, of rape, most of us would publicly denounce it, I suppose. But as of 2006, you might be surprised to learn, there were still 53 countries in the world – that’s about one in every four – that did not recognize rape within a marriage; the woman was the man’s property to be used as he wished. It even took Germany until 1997 to create a category of marital rape. The husband had complete control over his wife’s sexuality. She was his chattel.
Historically, women have been the property of men, most often their fathers, brothers or husbands. Rape came under the heading of violence against property in many legal regimes, which meant that the victim was not the woman who was raped, but the male who owned her. Amazingly, the remedy for rape was the transfer of ownership in which the rapist paid the “bride price” to the father or brother and she became the rapist’s property.
For many who seek the truth in the Bible, the truth is there to be found. Deuteronomy tells us in 22: 28-29 that the ancient Hebrews had no quarrel with this arrangement: “If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife.” I wonder about the phrase “and they are found”; did that mean that if the woman kept quiet about it nothing ever happened? If so, she was setting one helluva precedent! You see, raping a woman who did not belong to any man was not considered a crime at all. It was like picking up a lost coin from the dirt.
In June 1972, Werner Braun, a German living in Ireland, sued Stanley Roche for “debauching” his wife Heidi at various locations. Werner told Dublin’s High Court that he’d been tipped off about the affair in an anonymous Christmas card that accused him of “pimping” his wife. At one point the angry husband had “struck” his wife in a row over her affair. On hearing this, the judge remarked, “No man of spirit would have done otherwise.”
Awarding Werner £12,000 in damages for what was deemed the theft of his wife, the judge pointed out: “In this country a wife is regarded as a chattel, just as a thoroughbred mare or cow, and the jury is concerned merely with compensating Mr. Braun for the value of the loss of his wife and the damages to his feelings.” Changing the climate of respect between men and women is not just a matter of a degree or two, it is going to take a massive effort and commitment in all segments of global society to eradicate the effects of millennia of abuse.