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Escaping the Lolita myth: giving voice to the real Dolores Haze

This article was published in Issue 35.1 (January, 2024) of the Journal of The Society for Existential Analysis:

In an article for US Esquire entitled Brigitte Bardot and the Lolita Syndrome (1959/2015), Simone de Beauvoir saw in both Bardot and Nabokov’s 12-year-old heroine Dolores Haze (aka Lolita) a new type of female erotic object that was gaining in popularity at the time: ‘a new Eve,’ merging the ‘green fruit’ and ‘femme fatale’ (p.116). In this article, I argue that the characterisation of Lolita as a sexually precocious pubescent girl remains potent to this day, reflecting a cultural myth that continues to expose girls to sexual abuse and shame survivors of adolescent sexual grooming. Before presenting Nabokov’s novel and exploring why it has been so persistently misread, I give an example of its explicit relevance to today’s adolescent girls in the form of Tumblr communities constructed around the lyrics and imagery of the Lolita-inspired works of singer Lana Del Rey. I then consider Beauvoir’s reading of Lolita (1959/2015) in light of her phenomenological description of sexual difference in The Second Sex (1949/2011), as well as her own grooming of adolescent girls and her attitude to the age of consent. In the final part of the essay, I consider how the Lolita myth puts girls at risk, giving examples from celebrity adolescent experience and child sexual abuse cases, and referring briefly to my doctoral research into the lived experience of female adult survivors of adolescent sexual grooming.


Note: the ‘Lolita myth’ in this article denotes the stereotype of a sexually precocious adolescent girl who seeks sex with an adult male.


Lana Del Rey and the Lolita myth


Nowhere has the Lolita myth been more frequently appropriated than in the music industry. Celine Dion (Lolita, Plamondon & Lavoie, 1987), Alizée (Moi… Lolita, Boutonnat, 2000), Katy Perry (One of the boys, Perry, 2008), The Veronicas (Lolita, Origliasso et al., 2012), Ashh (Lolita, Ashh, 2017), and Lana Del Rey (Born to die, Del Rey, 2012) have all traded on this trope, while Swedish punk rock band, Dolores Haze, went so far as to name themselves after Nabokov’s 12-year-old heroine, describing their music as ‘dystopian teen noise pop’ (cessy5, 2015). Titles from their album The Haze is Forever include Touch me, Fuck the Pain Away, and Crazy about me (Dolores Haze, 2015).


Of all these artists, it is Del Rey who is the pop cultural gatekeeper of Nabokov imagery (Loftus, 2021), a ‘blend of nymphet and femme fatale transported from the 1950s and 1960s into today’ (Bertram & Leving, 2013, p.16). Appropriating the Lolita film aesthetic (including lollipops, pink roses, short skirts, bare feet, and heart-shaped sunglasses) to symbolise female adolescent malaise and its antidote in the arms of a sugar daddy styled on Nabokov’s paedophile narrator Humbert Humbert (HH), Del Rey has attracted a huge following, with her most Lolita-infused album Born to Die (Del Rey, 2012) becoming the world’s fifth best-selling album of 2012, turning over 7 million copies by 2014. Lyrics include: ‘I got a taste for men who are older’ (Cola (Pussy), Del Rey & Nowels, 2011); the opening lines of Nabokov’s novel, ‘Light of my life, fire of my loins’ (Off to the races, Del Rey, 2012); ‘You can be my full time daddy’ (Ride, Del Rey, 2012); and ‘Motel sprees… and I’m singing Fuck yeah give it to me… It’s innocence lost’ (Gods & Monsters, Del Rey, 2012).


Del Rey’s influence has been extraordinary in terms of growing a teen obsession with the Lolita myth, and it is on the micro-blogging site Tumblr that this effect has been most visible. Here, communities coalesce at the intersection of Lolita, Del Rey and sugar culture, sugar culture being an interest in sugar arrangements that consist ‘of three elements: (1) a sugar daddy, (2) a sugar baby, and (3) an allowance’ (Motyl, 2013, p.931). Dann (2012, para.5) writes that Del Rey ‘embodies the masochism inherent in Lolita,’ and ‘the Lolita aesthetic embodies an enduring duality of… would-be good girl knowingly the object of some malevolent man’s desire, except she desires him just as much’ (para.3). Tumblr is popular among girls precisely because it allows sexual content (unlike Facebook and Instagram); and anonymity, meaning users can connect on common taboo struggles such as depression, self-harm, suicidal ideation, and sexual experience and fantasy (Dobson, 2015; Cavazos-Rehg et al., 2017; Davis, 2017).


Davis (2017) used textual analysis to explore Tumblr users’ understandings of Lolita, Del Rey and sugar culture in Lolita, nymphet and sugar culture communities, finding that ‘sugar culture was seen as a means of earning the money necessary to satisfactorily embody the type of consumer-oriented femininity exemplified by Lolita and Lana Del Rey’ (p.42). In the period from October 2016 to January 2017, Davis (2017) found 268,000 individuals active in Tumblr’s sugar culture and Lolita communities, posting over 1.4 million notes on Del Rey, Lolita and sugar culture (p.33). Andrews points to the risks inherent in such communities of ‘normalising child abuse’ and perpetuating ‘the misogynistic ideal that Lolita was in control of her exploitation, and, by default, that underage girls could consent to being groomed and sexually abused in lieu of their role as ‘nymphets’’ (2021, para.5). In her 2020 Revisionist History of the Nymphet Community on YouTube, Myeesa talks about her experience of being a part of this community as a teenager: ‘the problem was constant harassment by older men’ (6.42), and ‘a lot of the conversations around nymphets have a slut-shaming, you-deserve-what-you-got tone’ (27.14).


Reading Lolita


Having so far established the contemporary power of the Lolita myth in music and the vulnerability of female adolescent communities exposed to it, I now present a brief summary of Nabokov’s novel, followed by a discussion of the mis-readings that created the myth.


A thirty-six-year-old literary scholar born in Paris to an English mother and Swiss father, HH becomes a lodger in the American home of 12-year-old Dolores Haze and her mother Charlotte, marrying Charlotte to gain privileged access to Dolores. HH explains his obsession with girls Dolores’ age by the fact his teenage love Annabel died tragically in adolescence, effectively freezing his desire at that point. Women are physically abhorrent to HH. He provides possibly the most poetic and – by that token – most troubling description of paedophilia ever written:

Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as ‘nymphets’ (1955/1995, p.16).

Charlotte’s sudden death saves him from a life of hell, allowing him to play father to his ‘Lolita,’ as he nicknames Dolores, and take her on the road for two years, having sex with her nightly in motels. He buys her gifts like a sugar daddy to win her affections, including comic books, candy, clothes, sanitary pads, and a tennis racket. Throughout his first-person narration, HH portrays their relationship as a forbidden love story, even implying Lolita seduced him, but he also provides ample clues to the suffering of the child at his paedophile hands. Lolita escapes when hospitalised with a fever, running away with another paedophile, Quilty, who has been following them all along. At the end of the novel, a pregnant 17-year-old Lolita contacts HH for money. He visits her in poverty, meeting her working-class husband Dick, with whom she intends to emigrate to Canada. He hears of her abusive experience at the hands of Quilty, whom he goes on to murder, after which he is locked up and dies in his cell. We learn that Lolita dies in childbirth.


In the pages after his final visit to Lolita, HH writes a painfully honest admission of his crime:

I loved you. I was a pentapod monster, but I loved you. I was despicable and brutal, and turpid, and everything, mais je t’aimais, je t’aimais! And there were times when I knew how you felt, and it was hell to know it (1955/1995, pp.284-285).

This is not the only time HH expresses so clearly his awareness of what he has done. When ‘an expression of pain flits across Lo’s face’ (1955/1995, p.140) as she gets back in the car one morning, he reflects that, ‘This was an orphan… with whom a heavy-limbed, foul-smelling adult had had strenuous intercourse three times that very morning’ (1955/1995, p.140).


There is a fictional foreword to the novel, written by Nabokov’s parody of a self-important academic (John Ray, Jr., PhD). The foreword emphasises that the book ‘should make all of us – parents, social workers, educators – apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world’ (1995/1995, pp.5-6). From the time of Lolita’s publication, critics saw Ray’s foreword as an integral part of the ‘intricate enchantment and deception’ of the novel (McDonald, 1973, pp.356-357), reflecting a general tendency to disregard the suffering of Nabokov’s heroine. This interpretation was unfortunately reinforced by Nabokov’s confusing assertion in his 1956 afterword, ‘I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction… Lolita has no moral in tow’ (p.314). Over ten years later, when Nabokov was asked what he thought of the fashion in Hollywood and New York for forty-year-old men to date girls ‘very little older than Lolita’ (Gold, 1967, para.7) he claimed not to care for public morals, though his answer revealed his concern for his heroine:

Humbert was fond of ‘little girls’ —not simply ‘young girls.’ Nymphets are girl-children, not starlets and ‘sex kittens.’ Lolita was twelve, not eighteen, when Humbert met her. You may remember that by the time she is fourteen, he refers to her as his ‘aging mistress’ (para. 8).


Misreading Lolita


Sarah Weinman, author of The Real Lolita (2018), which explores the true story upon which Lolita was apparently based, is not the first to argue that the cognitive dissonance many a reader has experienced upon reading Lolita is the result of HH’s sophisticated, unreliable narration. ‘Those who love language and literature are rewarded richly, but also duped,’ Weinman writes (2018, p.19). ‘If you’re not being careful, you lose sight of the fact that Humbert raped a 12-year-old child repeatedly over the course of nearly two years, and got away with it’ (p.19).


I am not convinced by the unreliable narrator theory: any ‘serious reader’ (as the fictional author of Lolita’s foreword refers to us, in mockery or not) has ample evidence to extract the truth of Nabokov’s story. Revisiting the novel for my research, I have had to take long breaks from the text out of visceral disgust. Nabokov’s rich prose, replete with coinages and puns infused with his native Russian and fluent French, does not in any way distract me from Lolita’s reality. In fact, the effect is the contrary: I feel uncontrollably drawn into an abhorrent intimacy with HH’s dehumanising experience of lusting after and abusing a 12-year-old girl. I see the ruins of her life and am angered at society’s complicity. Today, I believe it would take an ignorant, misogynistic reader to ignore the fact that throughout HH’s famous road trip with Lolita, she is desperately mourning her mother, crying herself to sleep most nights, and tired of being used for sex.


With his 1964 film version – arguably more widely watched than the novel has ever been read – Stanley Kubrick did not help by casting a very self-assured 14- going on 15-year-old Sue Lyons in the lead role, making Lolita appear to have agency (Vickers, 2008, p.118). In the film, Lyons has the air of an even older teenager, perhaps explained by her troubled childhood: her father committed suicide when she was a baby, she experienced an attempted rape aged eight, had sex aged 12, and was married by 17 (Vickers, 2008, p.126). Brian Boyd, Nabokov’s biographer, points out that Kubrick was not entirely to blame for Lolita’s (Dolores’) miscasting: he ‘had good reason to be wary of film censors and so to minimise Lolita’s youth, maximise her readiness for Humbert, yet minimise the sexual element of the relationship’ (2011, p.291).


Whatever the reasons for Lyons’s casting, Kubrick’s film does an excellent job at eradicating any hint of vulnerability and victimisation in Dolores’ experience. James Mason plays HH as a hapless seducer, desperately in love with her, utterly under her spell. The 1997 film version by Adrian Lyne remains more loyal to the original text in terms of the coquettish innocence of Lolita (14-year-old Dominique Swain in real braces), but Jeremy Irons’ HH – though more sleezy than James Mason’s – is equally irreproachable. 


The problem with any film adaptation of Lolita is that we lose HH’s first person narration and, as a result, have no direct window on his perversion. While Lyne, like Kubrick, does selectively include HH voice overs, Jeremy Irons’ HH lacks irony and ‘is not as psychologically fragile or pathetic’ as Nabokov’s HH (Aronovich Aguero, 2007, p.113). In the novel, any time Lolita is presented to us, it is through HH’s perspective, which we experience as variously lunatic, narcissistic, playful, verbose, ironic, shameless, yet somehow always aware of his crime and how society will eventually judge it. When HH writes, ‘I am going to tell you something very strange: it was she who seduced me’ (1955/1995, p.214), we know to question, we know not to take Dolores’ (Lolita’s) guilt at face value. By contrast, when Sue Lyons’s or Dominique Swain’s Dolores is flirtatious and outwardly sexual, all we see is Dolores being flirtatious and outwardly sexual. The myth of Lolita the precociously sexual young girl is here embodied and eternalised as fact: there is no linguistic device to help us question it. 


The cancellation of Dolores Haze


Nabokov’s Russian version of Lolita offers us an invaluable clue to Nabokov’s true intention: that intention being to reveal how adult desire for a pubescent or post-pubescent girl essentially subsumes her into the male gaze, depriving her of agency, voice, and point of view. Nabokov had no choice but to do the Russian translation himself, because he feared that ‘every paragraph, pockmarked as it is with pitfalls, could lend itself to hideous mistranslation’ (Bielak & Pawlak, 2011, p.228). Though he was not happy with the result and nor were many of his Russian critics (Shigaeva, 2012), Boyd argued that ‘the translation will prove a useful sourcebook for the English Lolita, for it often makes explicit what is left only strongly implicit in the original’ (1991, p.490). Similarly, Gennady Barabtarlo’s (1988) comparison of the English and Russian versions found that ‘many of the Russian Lolita’s emendations help to unravel the riddles of the original; some even provide ready solutions to those cruxes that Nabokov thought might baffle… the contemporary Russian reader’ (Barabtarlo, 1988, p.240).


With Barabtarlo’s and Boyd’s observations in mind, I sought out the Russian translation of an English phrase in Lolita that I believe encapsulates the Lolita myth. In a 535-word description of the first (semi-hidden) orgasm HH has in Lolita’s presence – before she is orphaned; before her explicit sexual abuse becomes a daily happening – Nabokov writes, ‘Lolita had been safely solipsized’ (1955/1995, p.60). It is a phrase that is easily missed, not least because it is surrounded by a florid description of paedophile sexual ecstasy, but also because it requires quite considerable mental work to make sense of. ‘Solipsize’ is one of Nabokov’s several coinages in the novel – a verbal version of solipsism that does not exist in the English dictionary. Solipsism is extreme egocentrism: ‘a theory holding that the self can know nothing but its own modifications and that the self is the only existent thing’ (Merriam-Webster, 2023). ‘Solipsize’ as verb assumes a subject, and in this case the subject is HH. Lolita is the voiceless object who has been swept up in HH’s ego, merging with him as he ‘prolong(s) the glow’ of ‘the ultimate conclusion’ (1955/1995, p.85).


In Nabokov’s Russian translation (1989, p.77), the phrase ‘Lolita had been safely solipsized’ becomes something else entirely: ‘реальность Лолиты была благополучно отменена’ (‘real’nost’ Lolity byla blagopoluchno otmenena’), meaning, in literal translation, ‘the reality of Lolita had been successfully cancelled.’ In the replacement of ‘solipsized’ with a more explicit turn of phrase, Nabokov does the work for us. With the fulfilment of HH’s desire, Dolores is once and for all eradicated, and Lolita becomes the myth, owned by HH, controlled by him – the extension of him.


How Simone de Beauvoir read Lolita


In her article for US Esquire on Brigitte Bardot and the Lolita Syndrome (1959/2015), Beauvoir observes that,

The adult woman now inhabits the same world as the man, but the child-woman moves in a universe [that] he cannot enter. The age difference reestablishes between them the distance that seems necessary to desire (p.116).

It is the mystique of Bardot in And God Created Woman (Vadim, 1956) that is Beauvoir’s focus here: a hypersexualised teenaged orphan in Saint Tropez who seduces older men. The ‘Lolita syndrome,’ as Beauvoir refers to it, adds a pathological quality to the myth of Lolita that Lana del Rey came to embody. But Beauvoir is careful to clarify that Bardot is the construction of a male director who has ‘distorted her image’ (2015, p.123).

Bardot is the most perfect specimen of these ambiguous nymphs… She is without memory, without a past, and, thanks to this ignorance, she retains the perfect innocence that is attributed to a mythical childhood (2015, p.116).

By contrast, Beauvoir has heard from those who know Bardot personally that the real Bardot is entirely other. ‘She is neither silly nor scatterbrained, and her naturalness is not an act… She loves animals and adores her mother’ (105, p.123).


But in the second volume to her memoir, Force of Circumstance (1963/1992, p.187), Beauvoir considers only HH’s experience in Lolita, and there is a note of pity in how she views it. Nabokov’s masterpiece is ‘a new embodiment of the idea of love-as-fatality, love-as-curse’ (p.187); ‘from the very first moment that he sets eyes on Lolita, Humbert Humbert is in hell’ (p.187).


How to reconcile these two positions: on the one hand, an understanding that the girl herself is deprived of agency, formed and defined by male erotic fantasy; on the other, pity for a man who is obsessed with underage girls? This question takes us to the heart of one of the most troubling aspects of Beauvoir’s own life and work: her exploration of adolescent sexuality – in her writings, in her attitude to the age of consent, and in her sexual relations with teenagers. It also pushes us to consider why the Lolita myth has endured for so long in existential psychotherapeutic circles.


Beauvoir’s solipsism and the adolescent girl


‘This world has always belonged to males, and none of the reasons given for this have ever seemed sufficient,’ Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex (1949/2011, p.74). In this male-owned world, ‘One is not born, but becomes, woman’ (1949/2011, p.293). In her chapter on the girl, Beauvoir argues that up until the age of 12, girls have the same intellectual and physical abilities as boys. The difference kicks in at adolescence, by which stage a girl has learnt that ‘to be happy, she has to be loved; to be loved, she has to await love’ (p.352). The girl ‘feels herself to be an instrument: all the freedom is in the other’ (p.408). No matter how ‘deferential and courteous a man might be, the first penetration is always rape’ (p.406). Crucially, even when the man is neither deferential nor courteous, as in the cases of outright rape that Beauvoir describes in her chapter on the prostitute, she dismisses the girl’s ability to reflect, writing that,

…one would like to know what psychological influence this brutal experience had on their future; but ‘girls’ are not psychoanalysed, they are inarticulate in describing themselves and take refuge behind cliches (1949/2011, p.616).

One cannot help but conclude that Beauvoir sees the girl as not fully formed, and, as a result, incapable of offering any valuable perspective. Is it this very dismissal of the girl’s point of view that underlies the adult’s ­– and Beauvoir’s – capacity to abuse her?


Beauvoir’s emphasis on the woman as ‘the Other’ draws on Hegel’s concept of self-consciousness and the master and slave dialectic (Butler, 1990). When a self-consciousness is faced by another self-consciousness, ‘it does not see the other as an essential being, but in the other sees its own self’ (Hegel, 1807/1977, p.111). Similarly, Beauvoir writes, ‘humanity is male, and man defines woman, not in herself, but in relation to himself; she is not considered an autonomous being’ (1949/2011, p.5). Not only does this positioning of man as ‘the One’ and woman as ‘the Other’ explain sexual inequality within a patriarchal society, but it illuminates the dynamics in an adult’s abuse of an adolescent girl: the adult dismisses the girl’s point of view precisely because he sees in her only the object of his desire.


In an interview with her biographer towards the end of her life, when asked about her own sexual relations with Bianca Lamblin, a Lycée pupil of Beauvoir’s whom she groomed from the age of 16, Beauvoir explained that ‘if she had to help persuade reluctant women to be with such an ugly man (Sartre) who had bad breath and body odour, she did what had to be done’ (Bair, 2020, p.290). Despite Beauvoir’s disingenuousness in referring to Lamblin as a ‘woman,’ her response here is telling: she admits to having been Sartre’s puppet, feeding his sexual needs, perpetuating the male positioning of the girl as object. In the same vein, Beauvoir’s later signing of a petition (le Monde, 1977) to abolish the age of consent and release three adult men who had sex with children as young as 12 suggests a tendency to prioritise adult choice over child wellbeing. But in her reflections in her Wartime Diary (1990/2009), Beauvoir not only expresses intense sexual pleasure and connection with the girls she groomed, but frequently appears touched by them as people. Meanwhile, in response to Lamblin’s breakdown after Sartre dropped her, Beauvoir shows deep remorse in a letter to Sartre (1990).


Beauvoir might be said to have elaborated the complexity of her feelings for adolescent girls in the character of Françoise in her first novel, She Came to Stay (1949/2006). In Françoise’s threesome with her lover Pierre, and Xavière – the teenager she and Pierre seduce for their own fantasy of relational freedom – Françoise struggles to see Xavière as ‘an essential being’ (Hegel, 1807/1977, p.111). She cannot tolerate the way Xavière comes to dominate Pierre’s affection. There is a brief moment, however, when she recognises the girl as ‘a sovereign reality,’ (p.469) with ‘a conscience like (hers)’ (p.475): after Xavière purposely takes a cigarette and burns her own hand.


Extreme suffering appears to soften Françoise to Xavière’s humanity. Ultimately, however, she murders Xavière. King Scheu (2012) argues that She Came to Stay (1949/2006) reveals ‘unique insights into one of philosophy’s most pressing problems: the problem of solipsism, or the belief that nothing exists outside of my mind’ (p.793). The murder of Xavière is the ultimate assertion of Françoise’s consciousness: a perfect expression of her solipsism. To echo Nabokov’s Russian translation of Lolita, the reality of Xavière is successfully cancelled.


I return now to Beauvoir’s reflections on Lolita in her memoir (1963/1992, p.187): why is it that Beauvoir ignores Dolores’ (Lolita’s) suffering, emphasising that it is HH who ‘is in hell’? Interestingly, Beauvoir’s understanding of HH’s predicament reflects Nabokov’s own reflections on his inspiration for writing the novel in the first place. He claimed in the afterword to the American edition that he had been prompted by a newspaper story ‘about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage’ (Nabokov, 1959, p.73). It seems that Nabokov, like Beauvoir, understood HH’s impossible desire as a form of captivity; but he also saw the captivity and abuse of Dolores, something that Beauvoir appears to have been far too ready to disregard.


The ongoing significance of this debate in existential psychotherapeutic circles


In The Right to Sex (2021), Ania Srinivasan gives a compelling argument for why university professors should not sleep with their students (i.e. students old enough to consent), clarifying that, 

…when the teacher takes the student’s longing for epistemic power and transposes it into a sexual key, allowing himself to be – or worse, making himself – the object of her desire, he has failed her as a teacher (p.131).

She points to ‘something akin to transference’ in a student’s admiration for their teacher, quoting Freud’s warning that the ‘patient’s falling in love is induced by the analytic situation and is not to be ascribed to the charms of his person’ (1915/2002, p.67, in Srinivasan, 2021, p.129). Where Srinivasan recognises the perils of the power imbalance in intergenerational relationships, such as those between a teacher and student, in existential psychotherapeutic circles I have observed a worrying lack of understanding of the abuse inherent even in adult-adolescent sexual relations.


A couple of years ago, an older male supervisor questioned whether a client’s experience of rape aged 15 by a middle-aged male stranger was ‘real rape’ (which he defined as ‘a knife in a bush in the dark’), because she was drunk at the time. The same supervisor, when asking about my research topic, commented that of course there are ‘two people’ in the grooming relationship, so it is not that straightforward. Months later, a fellow doctoral trainee compared an adult’s sexual preference for adolescent girls to homosexuality: like homosexuality, she said, it might eventually be accepted. A year later, the same student suggested an adolescent girl was as much to blame as her adult teacher for their sexual relations. While articles in Hermeneutic Circular in 2022 and 2023, and a June 2023 seminar organised by Anthony Stadlen, show there to be growing recognition today of the need to question existentialism’s historical attitudes to adult sexual relations with children, the fact is that there is still a widespread tendency not to see the oppression of the adolescent girl in sexual assault and sexual grooming, and this is deeply concerning.


Meanwhile, beyond the world of existential psychotherapy, the vulnerability of adolescents to sexual grooming, and the impact of grooming on mental health, are topics that are attracting huge interest both in research and everyday news stories. Older sexual partners have been found to increase the likelihood of unwanted sex, emotional and physical victimisation, STIs, unwanted pregnancy and mental health issues (Leitenberg & Saltzman, 2000; Langille et al., 2007; Koon-Magnin et al., 2010; Oudekerk et al., 2014). In 2020, the most comprehensive report ever published on the safety of British adolescents found them six times more likely to be sexually abused, and nine times more likely to be groomed online than younger children (NSPCC, 2020). Two years later, the NSPCC found online grooming had increased by 80% in the four years prior, with four out of five victims being adolescent girls aged 12 to 15 (NSPCC, 2022). It is important to clarify that grooming risks exist both online and in local communities: a 2011 Barnardo’s survey of 786 teenagers found only 27% of those groomed were first approached online; the rest were approached in face-to-face settings (Barnardo’s, 2011, p.42).


Sexual grooming stands in stark contrast to violent sexual abuse. Whereas the latter is an obvious contravention of personal and physical autonomy (often, even, with proof on the victim’s body), the abuse in sexual grooming is frequently invisible – to victim, family, and community. In academic definitions of adolescent sexual grooming, gaining the trust of a victim and desensitising her to sexual contact are recognised grooming tactics intended to make her feel she has given her consent (Winters & Jeglic, 2020). In his study of 11 male survivors of sexual grooming, Plummer (2018) found enduring feelings of self-blame, guilt and responsibility among survivors. For my doctoral research (which I will write about in a subsequent article), I am interviewing adult women sexually groomed between the ages of 11 and 16 by an adult man. All my participants struggled for years with feelings of responsibility for their own abuse and were unable to disclose and seek help.


As Calhoun and Tedeschi (1995, p.46) explain, ‘the combination of self-disclosure with accepting and supportive responses to the disclosure by members of primary reference groups’ may reflect a form of post-traumatic growth. In the cases of those women I have interviewed, until they sought help they struggled for years with self-harm, alcohol abuse, emotional dysregulation, flashbacks and re-experiencing, sexual revictimisation, and a tendency to enter other abusive relationships.


Despite what we know about the traumatic effects of adolescent sexual grooming and intergenerational sexual relations, adolescent girls continue to be portrayed as valid objects of adult male desire. In 2017, 13-year-old Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown was put on W magazine’s list of ‘Why TV is sexier Than Ever’ (Zhu, 2017). Natalie Portman was 13 in 1994 when her local radio station started a countdown to her reaching the age of consent, while reviewers wrote about her budding breasts (Sanchez, 2018). At a Women’s March in Los Angeles in 2018, Portman said that, having received a rape fantasy from one male adult fan, she ‘understood very quickly, even as a 13-year-old, that if (she) were to express (herself) sexually (she) would feel unsafe and that men would feel entitled to discuss and objectify (her)’ (Calfas, 2018, para.4).


In the court of law, underage girls are frequently blamed for their abuse and rape. In 2021, Ghislaine Maxwell’s defence lawyers said of her victims that they ‘willingly partook in sex’ (Mifflin, 2021, para.1). In R Kelly’s trial, his attorney said of his underage victims that they were ‘groupies’ who stayed with him because of expensive perks like dinner and free air travel, and he ‘didn’t have to recruit women’ (Adams, 2021, para.2-3). Kelly, who illegally married R&B star Aaliyah when she was 15 years old, was convicted in September 2022 on three counts of producing child pornography and enticing a minor to engage in sexual activity (‘R Kelly timeline,’ 2022). In the 2012 Rochdale grooming case, social services were quoted as saying that victims were ‘making life choices’ and ‘sleeping with their abusers voluntarily’ (Trilling, 2012, p.28). There are many more such examples. In each, the girl is portrayed as sexually precocious before her time, seeking out sex with an adult male. The truth of her experience is dismissed, her voice silenced. The fact she is under the age of consent is entirely ignored.


I end with the words of Nabokov’s wife, Vera, who expressed her outrage at society’s blindness to Dolores Haze’s suffering at a press conference after Lolita’s publication, as quoted by Stacy Schiff in her (1999) biography Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov).

Critics prefer to look for… explanation of HH’s predicament… I wish someone would notice the tender description of the child’s helplessness, her pathetic dependence upon the monstrous HH, and her heartrending courage all along (p.535).




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