Media pundits are doing their virtue signalling and journalists are scrambling to the moral high ground as another male celebrity bites the dust. Footballer Adam Johnson was sentenced yesterday to 6 years in prison, branded as a “morally bankrupt paedophile” and added to the sex offenders' register. I would like to explore what Johnson has actually done wrong.
I am prepared to accept that his “victim” was a fairly innocent schoolgirl. The sort of crush she had on the Sunderland star does not survive long after a real boyfriend comes along. However, to describe her as a child is to conflate categories and ignore realities. She is on the threshold of adulthood, at that vulnerable stage where you are sexually, but not emotionally, mature. In a year's time, she could get married in Scotland, and in many countries, including Denmark and France, she has reached the age of consent.
Once we acknowledge that she is not actually a child, is ‘grooming’ really the correct term to use? Building up a relationship of trust before embarking on some sort of sexual activity used to be called ‘courting’. It is now called dating. I suspect Johnson could have dispensed with that stage and quite easily got himself a modicum of sexual activity and a kiss. Would that have made his behaviour any better? No. But at least he would have been guilty of one less offence.
Fifteen-year-olds and younger regularly engage in sexual activity. They have for decades routinely been given contraception; abortion and the morning-after pill are available on request.
If a 15-year-old-girl does feel ready for a relationship, which does not have to mean full sexual intercourse, she could do worse than going out with a young man a year or two older. She could go out with a boy her own age. The truth is boys your own age come across as rather immature.
This of course means going out with someone over the age of 16, something which 15-year-olds, I suspect, fairly regularly do. Fortunately, we do not send 17-year-old-boys to prison for kissing 15 year-old-girls. But, is there some magic dividing line between 17 and 27 which transforms that kiss from something potentially exciting and self-affirming, into a source of sexual abuse? Beyond our own very subjective judgements I don’t think there is.
In fact, we learn that when she returned from the sexual encounter car she was “...excited in a good mood way”.
This raises the question of the real source of the harm.
The first source appears to be the trial by social media. The girl said: “There are people out there who have made assumptions about me and that alone has been hard to deal with. I have been unable to defend myself publicly...The gossip on social media and hearing all of the horrible names that people have been calling me has been devastating to me, my friends and my family... I've been in some very dark places”.
We are also told that when word spread about their liaison she received a torrent of abuse on social media, which caused her to collapse in tears and feel suicidal.
The culprits who have caused the “victim” to lose her happiness and Adam Johnson to lose his career and freedom are these internet trolls. It is not clear why Adam Johnson should both metaphorically, and now it looks like literally, have to pay the price.
The other source of anguish for the girl was the trial by jury. The ordeal is reported, understandably, to have left her traumatised: “I’ve been in some very dark places over that time and I thought the trial and giving evidence, having my say would give me closure. But it didn’t. It put me back into the same dark places and I felt worse than I’ve ever felt before”.
The girl was very fortunate in having supportive parents who she could talk to. However, rather than going to the police they could have taken a very much more constructive approach.
They could have sat down with a cup of tea around the kitchen table and all have a chat about how foolish she had been and pointed out how incredibly unsuitable he was as boyfriend material and what a lucky escape she had had. They could have recounted incidents of stupidity and naivety from their own teenage years to show that she was far from alone. They could have taken her on a little holiday to show that what was really important was home and family and to hell with the media storm.
But they didn’t. And now they stand the chance of being significantly better off.
The whole furore has provided an opportunity for everyone to flag up their puritan credentials. But when it comes to reigning in our sexual urges, preserving marriage, encouraging modesty and discouraging promiscuity Jo Public doesn’t give a damn.
I am a conservative woman, largely I think, because I have experienced the difficulties of growing up in a liberal age. I am not in favour of hunting down badly behaved or opportunistic men. I would prefer to focus on protecting women from harm. This could be helped by teaching young people that marriage is the best context for sexual relationships. That sex is far more satisfactory if you stay with one person rather than sharing favours around. There would be few people who would wait till they were married before they engaged in sexual activity, but at least it would encourage circumspect behaviour and raise the age of first sexual intercourse.
(Image: Ben Sutherland)