British playwright, author, and critic.
Typewritten Manuscript Signed twice, By Bernard Shaw, below the title, and with his initials at the conclusion, nine pages, large quarto, January 27, 1923. On green paper, entitled The Unprotected Child and The Law. With extensive revisions and corrections in George Bernard Shaw’s hand (shown in italic). Bound by James Brockman in green quarter morocco and marbled paper over boards.
George Bernard Shaw’s substantial essay is a conspicuous example of the author ahead of his time, writing, in 1923, acceptable wisdom for the twenty-first century: “It is a curious feature of British civilization that our police arrangements, though they enable the adult male citizen to go about unarmed and the adult female to walk abroad unescorted, fail to protect children from the most detestable forms of molestation. The woman who goes shopping with a sense of complete security, and never has a moment’s anxiety as to the return of her husband from his work unrobbed and unbruised, cannot feel that her children, even at the smallest age compatible with independent locomotion, are safe in the broad daylight in a London park, much less in the camera obscura of the picture theatre. When the worst apprehensions are justified, she finds that her legal remedy, as far as it affects the child, is an aggravation of its wrong by the addition of a series of legal psychological outrages to the illegal physical outrage; so that she resorts to it only when she does not fully know what she is doing. When she realizes too late that the law, professing to deter the criminal, is really calculated to deter the prosecutor, she is sometimes moved to suspect that this effect is not wholly unintended.
“There is something more than motherly indignation to support that suspicion. The few publicly articulate people who concern themselves about the matter, and who form the so-called public opinion that finds expression on the bench, seem to fall into two extremes with no middle. Either they are psychopathically excited by psychopathic outrages, and frantically demand that the offenders be flogged or emasculated, or they regard the offence as an amiable weakness, and the notion that its consequences to the victim are necessarily serious as sentimental nonsense. They shew their reluctance to punish it by very light sentences, and by a resolute opposition to the raising of the age at which the consent (and by inference the enjoyment) of the child can be pleaded in defence. Thus between the flagellomaniacs who are making the offender’s vice an excuse for gratifying their own peculiar form of it on the one hand, and the sympathetic amorists on the other, the children have to thank their luck rather than the law when they escape molestation.
“The matter is further complicated by men’s dread of false charges, blackmail, and conspiracies between mother and child to ‘put away’ an inconvenient father. Such apprehensions seem ridiculous to people who have no experience of the subject; but practical acquaintance with it modifies that view considerably. Sir Basil Thompson humorously suggests that all girls should be locked up until they are eighteen to save the police the trouble of investigating the stories they invent. In fact the younger the child the more unrestrained the imaginative liar. Further, differences between child and child in precocity are so incalculable that we have Oscar Wilde giving sixteen as the age at which conscience of sex begins the net conclusion being that in the case of any individual child it is impossible either to accept any story on the ground that the teller is too young to have invented it, or to reject it as too grotesque to be credible.
“In view of these facts, it is impossible to exempt a child from the most searching cross examination when criminal proceedings are taken; yet from every point of view cross examination is as undesirable as its necessarily bad effect on the child can make it. In short, the remedy offered by the criminal law may easily be worse than no remedy at all. It rubs violently into the child’s mind an impression that had much better be obliterated, or minimized.
“The danger to children is at its gravest when popular ignorance and superstition on matters of sex are left undispelled because of the taboo which forbids their being mentioned. Take for example the case of venereal disease. Few people realize that children are in special danger of being infected by it: they regard them as specially exempt from it because of their innocence. The do not know that there is a belief, widespread in our most ignorant classes that a man suffering from such disease can be cured by intercourse with a virgin; and that consequently, as childhood is the surest guarantee of virginity, children are violated as a therapeutical measure, the only result, of course, being that the child is infected too. As far as I know, there is only one attempt being made to provide, by private subscription, a hospital for innocently infected children to which any sane mother would consent to send her child. That staggering fact illustrates the sort of consideration children get from our public authorities and from the public conscience behind them.
When we come to the remedies, we are forced to admit that what cannot be prevented cannot be remedied. Wherever you have overcrowding and overwork both of children and adults, you get a high rate of incest with children as certainly as a high rate of zymotic disease. People who have bedrooms all to themselves as a matter of course, and who have plenty of sport and music and reading and pictures to divert them, cannot conceive a life in which young girls boast of being the mothers of their fathers’ children; but this is an established modern industrial phenomenon; and the comfortable people may as well know that it exists and is part of the price of their comfort. Here there is no question about the remedy. Civilization progresses from one roof with no beds for the whole family to one room with one bed, then to one room with more beds, until finally there is a separate room and a separate bed for everybody. If the question of how much population the country can bear is ever faced as it should be, the first point to be settled will be, not one of heads per acre divided into wheat per acre, but of space available for separate bedrooms per head.
“When incest and promiscuity have been cut off at their source in poverty and drudgery, there will still be an irreducible minimum of criminal assault for which society at large is not responsible. For the decent and as far as possible harmless investigation of such cases we need special courts, women police, women jurors, judges, magistrates, advocates and doctors alongside the male ones, with none of them in any uniform recognizable by a child as a police uniform. The examination of the child should be completely detached from the rest of the proceedings, about which the child should know nothing. The publication of the child’s name, or of portraits of it, should be made a serious offence; and the publication of the name of the accused person unless and until convicted should also be prohibited. There are many things shamelessly featured in our newspapers which are forbidden by French law and should be forbidden in every decent country. I must add that the advocates of complete license for the press have one argument which cannot be ignored .
“As to punishments, when they are simply vindictive they are also simply wicked; and their effect on the imagination increases crime. Deterrent punishments do not deter unless they are certain; and nothing can make exposure, prosecution, and conviction certain in cases of this sort. Cases vary extremely in gravity from those in which extraordinary as it may seem, an adult is practically hypnotized and seduced by a child to those of pests who spend their lives pursuing and molesting children and young persons. It would be no harm to suggest to those human nuisances that as the community cannot afford to detach adults from productive industry merely to shadow them (which would seem to be the only adequate safeguard) it must regretfully dispense with their continued existence and dispose of them with due apologies, in a lethal chamber. In cases which are not chronic the appropriate course would be to make the offender pay heavy damages to the Public Trustee for the child’s benefit at maturity, a reservation which would not tempt the parents to provoke the offence for the sake of the penalty. It goes without saying that if a cure for the propensity be possible, it should be employed. Disablement of the offender is often suggested nowadays. The objection is that it is abominable, dishonorable, ‘not surgical’ in the opinion of the best surgeons by whom I have heard it discussed, and not a cure, as some of the people accused of the less serious forms of assault are already incapable of the more serious ones.
“It will be seen from these few notes that the question is difficult practically and complicated psychologically. Both the opposition to legal protection and the advocacy of it are carried to rabid lengths by people who see either a prowling past in every elderly gentleman who smiles at a child in the park or a prurient Mrs Pardiggie in every policewoman or welfare worker. Both must be bundled out of any sane discussion of the matter; but this is difficult as long as they are practically the only people who will concern themselves with the matter at all.”
George Bernard Shaw’s essay appeared, substantially as corrected in the present manuscript, in the February 23, 1923 issue of Time and Tide. In the Collected Works, it appeared in the volume of “Major Critical Essays,” in the section called “Crude Criminology.” There are minor textual changes in the printed version, as when in his own hand he wrote “frantically”, but that appeared as “frankly.”
This item is associated with the following category in our inventory:
- Literature – English/Irish