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)


  1. You are brave, and well said. Johnson is an idiot and probably not a very nice one either, but I note the resources that have been squandered on this case. And I’ve been reading the extracts from Jayne Senior’s book in The Times, detailing how the Police, Social Services couldn’t be bothered to investigate rampant child abuse outside their own front door in Rotherham. The inescapable conclusion to be drawn is that it is (from his point of view) a pity that Johnson isn’t a Pakistani Muslim because he had been he wouldn’t be in Armley Prison this morning.

  2. Belinda, I think you underestimate the difficulty of the situation in which the girl’s parents found themselves. At the time, they couldn’t have been sure that their daughter wouldn’t try to contact Johnson again. They couldn’t be sure, even if they had contacted Johnson, that Johnson wouldn’t contact their daughter again. Going to the police was a way of stopping all future contact (assuming that the police acted). Would I have been in their situation that is what I would have done, as well as talking to my daughter of course.

    Were the parents responsible for the decision to prosecute? I don’t know. Perhaps they were in this case. However, usually that decision is made with little or no regard for the victim of the crime. Were my 15 year old daughter to have had started a sexual relationship with an older man, I would probably prefer to avoid a trial as long as the man obeyed a restraining order on contact with my daughter and the police gave him a formal caution.

    What I find remarkable about the extensive media coverage is how uninformed it leaves the reader or listener as to what exactly Johnson was found guilty of doing. The catch-all phrase ‘sexual activity’ is used. I feel uncomfortable about being prurient. However, there is a public interest in transparency and openness and the girl’s identity is not (officially) disclosed. It seems that the media are complicit in conflating kissing and groping with penetration, perhaps because that is the agenda of womens’ groups who seek to inflate figures for rape and perhaps because it is good for circulation.

  3. Well done Belinda, this is a tough thing to write about. I have no doubt that Johnson is a horrible character. Reading the details of the case he seems to be a deeply unpleasant man. I am torn when reading these points as a trial gives me hope he will not able to follow the same activity again.

    That said, you are right, what matters here is what is best for that girl in the mid and long term. I cannot see that this whole trial and its vast publicity will have anything other than negative effects. None of this legal and media furore has the girls best interests at heart. Its about bringing down a Celeb.

  4. Clearly you have your head screwed on.
    I had these talks with my oldest daughter when she was 14/15 and it seems to have worked, so I will have them again with my youngest daughter who has just pipped 13.

  5. Belinda, well done on bringing some balance into the reporting of this case.

    However, the victim was both legally and morally a child. I certainly regarded my fifteen-year-old daughter as a child, but I also brought her up to show some sense and take some responsibility for her actions. We use age to draw a legal line to protect children and it’s right that we do so. The girl had just gone fifteen when Johnson began the ‘relationship’. It was not a momentary lapse on his part – he sent over 800 texts over three months. Yes, this was grooming.

    Johnson’s behaviour was stupid and exploitative over a prolonged period. But is six years a fair sentence? Absolutely not. I see this as part of the post Saville hysteria where we can include rape and touching or kissing in the same category. Both wrong and both offences but of a different order entirely. In a normal case the fact that Johnson has lost his job and a lucrative income would have been seen as a substantial part of his punishment. He’s lost his relationship and his reputation. It’s unlikely that any professional club would ever employ him again. This is all fair enough, but it is a substantial punishment for offences that appear to be very much at the lower end of the scale. I would have added twelve months in prison. No more.

    I believe a woman who’d committed the same offence would be in the pub tonight. There is just astonishing double standards on this, as your example of Caroline Berriman shows. She had sex 50 – 80 times with a fifteen-year-old boy, got pregnant and was initially given a community sentence – changed to a two year sentence only on appeal. The girl was hurt far more by social media and publicity than by Johnson’s actual actions, which were wrong but not forced. It is hard to feel sympathy for Johnson, but hardened criminals don’t often get six years for violent crime. After reading The Sunday Times report by David Walsh, I have far more sympathy for footballer Chad Evans, convicted of rape, on evidence that appeared shockingly inadequate. I await his appeal with interest.

  6. We publish only a small proportion of the cases of miscarriage of justice where female sex abusers get off with very lenient sentences, or suspended sentences (a commonly-used method of not punishing women for their crimes, including sex crimes). From 2014, a particularly egregious case, starting with a woman having sex with a boy when he was just eight:

  7. I suspect that celebrity culture may have been at play in this case. The girl nabbed herself a “sleb”. Would she have been as dazzled by a plumber’s mate or pizza delivery man?

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