After Lord Byron's death, his old lawyer wrote to a mutual friend telling him a "singular fact" about Byron's life which was "scarcely fit for narration". But he narrated it all the same, because he thought it might explain Byron's "propensities" (by which he meant the notorious sexual career): "When nine years old at his mother's house a free Scotch girl used to come to bed to him and play tricks with his person." Writing in 1970, Byron's finest biographer, Leslie Marchand, described this as "sex play" and calmly analysed its effect on his later attitudes towards women. In his classic book of the following year, The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny, Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy treated the case in a section on the nanny as seducer. "Byron inherited his sexual energies from his father," he concluded. "The free Scotch girl was merely the first to harness them."
There is only one surviving reference to the episode from Byron himself, in a journal entry which scarcely suggests lasting trauma: "My passions were developed very early - so early, that few would believe me, if I were to state the period, and the facts which accompanied it." Nevertheless, a new biography of Byron says starkly of this event that the young poet was "abused" (and goes on to make implausible accusations of abuse against Byron himself). Is "abuse" the right word? Were Marchand and Gathorne-Hardy complacent in describing the event without much apparent shock?
Obviously, I'm also talking about the two underage sex cases that have been so prominent in the media. Renate Williams, a former teacher, was acquitted of "sexually assaulting" a 15-year-old male pupil. And Gary Glitter was cleared of various sexual assaults, dating from 1981, on a 14-year-old girl.
But what if they had been guilty? It was clear from the conflicting evidence given by the schoolboys against Williams that they had concocted their evidence, but what was remarkable about the testimony given by the self-proclaimed victim was how it was couched in the language of trauma. He spoke of having been distressed at losing his virginity when he didn't want to. He had been so troubled by the experience that he had had to talk to another teacher about it. I wonder if he had seen The Crucible. The canny use of panic and intimidation is strikingly reminiscent of Arthur Miller's play. Did any teachers consider persuading the boy to drop the charge or to deal with it informally? If they did, they would speedily have anticipated the results if they had been exposed as covering up or colluding with a case of sexual assault.
What Williams was accused of was disgraceful behaviour, a sacking offence, but should it have been the subject of a criminal trial? Think of the 15-year-old boys you know, or remember yourself as a 15-year-old boy - even if you did have sex with an older woman, even if it wasn't a great experience, would you bring the police in? I can appreciate the impulse. There are women I've had dealings with whom I would like to have seen put in the dock, but I just did the mature thing and sulked for a few weeks.
One of the bizarre aspects of the Glitter trial was the response of the Children's Society to the judge's sensible summing up, in which he said that there are different kinds of 14-year-old girl: "The judge must reflect on the disturbing message he has sent out to child abusers and children - namely, that some children have only themselves to blame for their abuse." What country is the Children's Society living in? Almost every word in that sentence is problematic: "child abusers", "children", "have only themselves to blame", "abuse". What about post-pubescent girls and boys who decide to have sex and enjoy it? Look at Marguerite Duras' The Lover. Is that a tale of abuse?
Anyway, this had nothing to do with the Glitter case. The supposed "victim" in the Glitter case was an opportunist who was mimicking the language of victimhood in order to cash in on her liaison with Glitter for the third time. (The first was about their break-up after 12 years, the second was about how he was bald and she helped to stick his wig on.)
I'm certainly not trying to deny the potential pain and damage that can be a part of youthful sexual experience. My own, for example, was both ruinously traumatic and non-existent. I was going to say that I would have given my right arm to have had a female teacher who, as Williams did on a school outing, took all her clothes off and ran into the sea, but that would be an exaggeration. However, I would have given all my savings and a couple of non-essential internal organs.
Is there anybody left at any stage of the English legal system to say: "Come off it"?