At the risk of seeming obsessed with footballers convicted of sex offences I have decided to write about this case, not least because it has provoked a lot of discussion in my own family.
I should say at the outset that adult men should always be held responsible for their actions, especially when interacting with those more physically or emotionally vulnerable than themselves. Equally I have little sympathy for men who use positions of power to exploit others, particularly sexually. In my opinion age is only a relative concern in such cases; a 26y old school teacher conducting a sexual relationship with a sexually mature 15y old girl may be less at fault than a 40y old professor having a sexual relationship with a 21y old medical student whose future career lies in his hands.
Having two sons and two daughters myself I have concerns about the interpretation of the word ‘child’. According to the 1989 Children’s Act a child is a person under the age of 18. However children as young as 13 may be allowed to work part time, and children under the age of 16 can give or withhold consent to medical treatment if the doctor considers that they have the understanding to do so. The inconsistencies about the definition of childhood under UK law are well known – a child can marry at 16 with parental consent, cannot vote until 18, will soon be compelled to remain in education until 18, and can join the military services and fight from the age of 16.
The glaring inconsistency about the definition of a child concerns criminal responsibility; in England & Wales a child is deemed to become responsible for a crime that s/he has committed at the age of 10. This is lower than other European countries (with the exception of Scotland).(http://www.howardleague.org/fileadmin/howard_league/user/online_publications/Punishing_Children.pdf)
The median age appears to be 14, which seems more appropriate, and in keeping with the physical and sexual maturity that one would expect by that age.
The above table (from Wikipedia) shows the age of consent to sexual intercourse across Europe; the median age in the EU is 15.
Any parent of children born in the 80s and 90s will know that their children have grown up much faster than they did in the 1960s. Sexual awareness and maturity occur earlier and our society is generally much more liberal. My daughters were certainly infinitely better informed than I was as a teenager, and (as far as one can know such things) the average age at which many of their friends lost their virginity was about 15. My daughters and their friends were confident young women by the time that they were in years 10 & 11 at school, not children. Of course they were still not fully emotionally mature, but they were not children in the way that I was a child at 15. At that age I was completely sexually naive; I lived in a tiny village in rural Suffolk and went to a single-sex state school. Apart from my younger brothers I had little contact with, or knowledge of, boys. Our village was too small to support a youth club or any social facility where I could meet boys, so I went to university at the age of 18 as innocent as my daughter were in their last year at primary school. Unless a 15y old today had been kept under lock and key by her parents and sent to a strict single sex faith school I think it would be impossible for her to have anything approaching the naivety that I had.
The current law setting the age for consent to sexual activity at 16 is essentially unchanged since 1885. The more recent Sexual Offences Act of 2003 addressed the definition of rape, and added offences such as grooming, but did not address the age of consent. A recent History & Policy paper discusses the issues concerning age of consent in some detail. Whether or not the age of consent is lowered (and personally I think that the use of chronological age is fairly meaningless) there should surely be some scope for interpretation of the law. There are girls of 15 who are more sexually knowledgeable and actively seductive than young women in their late 20s. It is possible for 15y olds to have consensual and lasting relationships with men 10-15y older (I know of one such couple who have been happily married for over 20y). Equally it is possible for young women well over the age of consent to be victims of exploitative sexual relationships with men who hold power over them regarding advancement of their careers.
As far as Adam Johnson is concerned, he has been found guilty of sexual activity and grooming. He acted extremely stupidly. The Professional Footballers Association has recognised the need to educate its members more comprehensively about their behaviour off the pitch, and their position and responsibilities as role models in the community. Johnson had a partner and a new baby at the time he was exchanging WhatsApp messages with his victim, so it is very difficult as a woman to feel any sympathy for him. However, his stupidity does, in my mind, provide some mitigation, because he admitted that he was in the habit of sending sexually provocative messages to many women ‘to alleviate boredom before the game’. I’m tempted to say that if Sunderland players all act like Johnson before the game it might go some way to explaining why they are facing relegation! Perhaps focussing on the impending game might have produced better results.
The hundreds of WhatsApp messages exchanged between Johnson and his victim provided the evidence that secured his conviction for grooming. His second conviction was for sexual activity (not intercourse). He was found not guilty on the other two counts against him. My suspicion that Johnson is not the most intellectual of men is confirmed by the fact that he had asked the girl concerned at the outset how old she was, and was aware that she was only 15, and that this was below the age of consent. One can only speculate what was going through his mind as he continued to exchange messages and arranged to meet her. Johnson does not come across as a man who intends to target children for sexual activity. His monosyllabic and unemotional responses (also witnessed in previous football media clips) speak more of a man who is easily bored and has a limited repertoire of activities to relieve his boredom. A man who has an attractive partner, a new baby daughter, a large and beautiful house and a highly paid job would seem to most people to have it all – especially by the age of 28. Personally I believe that he is guilty of extreme stupidity more than any malice. Interestingly my 27y old daughter feels sympathy for him.
The maximum sentence for Johnson’s crimes is 10y in prison. The judge has warned him to expect a substantial sentence. Given that the average UK sentence for rape is now just over five years, it seems that there is little differentiation in the eyes of the law between rape and sexual activity, which seems curious. I cannot help wondering what purpose is served by putting Johnson in prison. He will presumably have a pretty unpleasant time (not that I subscribe to the view that prison is ever pleasant) as a convicted child sex offender. I have long abandoned the belief that most UK prisons offer anything meaningful in the way of rehabilitation and education. I suggest that what Johnson needs is education; education that teaches him what responsibility he carries as a partner, a father, an adult in his community. It would be good to see him able to use the football skills that he undoubtedly has to help in his community. Surely a programme of long term community service, utilising his skills, would make more sense than prison? Some long term therapy might also help him to understand why he gets bored, and why his ways of relieving boredom are inappropriate. Not only would this make more sense than prison, it would also be much cheaper.
I have refrained from writing about the other party in this case because it seems inappropriate. I can offer a personal anecdote; as a very childlike 13y old I went to the birthday party of a 14y old in my class at school. She had a 16y old sister, and there were a number of US servicemen from the local US air base at the party. In retrospect they must have all been over 18, and probably over 21. I found myself squashed on the sofa next to one of them, and was suddenly being kissed (with tongues) – certainly against my will, and frankly bewildered at what was happening. Fortunately he was diverted by someone else. I told my father when he collected me, and their were heated exchanges between the two parents. That was the end of the matter. I don’t think that the episode made a lasting impact or scarred me emotionally, despite the very different environment that existed for young girls at the time.
Johnson has lost his career, his income, his reputation, and as I understand it, his partner. He will be on the sex offenders register. I assume that he has limited academic qualifications, and that it will be difficult for him to find a job when he comes out of prison. His life, at the moment, must seem effectively over.
I think that there is one undeniably innocent victim in this sorry story – Johnson’s baby daughter. Instead of two well-off loving parents she will grown up with minimal or no contact with her father, and in the shadow of his crime.