Adam Johnson’s sentencing this week should have put a firm stamp on what constitutes consent. The ex-England footballer was sentenced to six years in prison yesterday for grooming and knowingly engaging in “sexual activity” with a 15 year old schoolgirl. The age of consent in the UK is 16. The girl in question – who has not been named for legal reasons, given that she is a minor and cannot give consent to be named – has been widely blamed for Johnson’s actions.
She has been quoted in the Guardian saying: “I’ve always felt at risk of being recognised when I go places and on some occasions this has happened.”
The report also states that the court was told of an incident where the 15 year old was approached in public and asked “intrusive questions.” A quick Twitter search of the case will throw up a myriad of results, with a lot of people still placing the actual child at the centre of the blame. Claims that she “knew what she was doing,” that her actions were somehow “just as bad,” and that she was “old enough” have been littering social media ever since news of Johnson’s sentence broke.
Let’s call a spade a spade here. This is rape culture.
There is obviously a lot of dispute online about what ‘rape culture’ actually means. In all honesty, it is so multi-faceted and devoid of black-or-white explanations that it is a complex issue in itself. In this instance, however, rape culture refers to the fact that a 28 year old ex-Sunderland player can groom a 15 year old fan – a girl who looked up to him and was reportedly often waiting after games to take photos with him – and then obtain sympathy from the general public for the loss of his career.[pullquote]Claims that she “knew what she was doing,” that her actions were somehow “just as bad,” and that she was “old enough” have been littering social media ever since news of Johnson’s sentence broke.[/pullquote]
It refers to the notion that Woody Allen can be accused of molesting the daughter he and his wife adopted and that his friends still jump to write lengthy articles dismissing the idea as nothing more than people “not having their facts straight.”
It refers to every single time a person tries to speak out against a celebrity, and choruses of people are ready to tell them that they’re wrong.
A few months ago someone I know spoke up about a (now-ex) member of a band she adored who had been behaving inappropriately towards her while she was still a minor. The diatribe spat at her with such vitriol was horrendous. Yet, it’s to be expected. We live in a world where people will enforce the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ stance only when it pertains to either child or sex offences. Only when it pertains to consent.[pullquote]We live in a world where people will enforce the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ stance only when it pertains to either child or sex offences. Only when it pertains to consent.[/pullquote]
A lot of the responses I’ve seen to the Johnson sentencing concern the supposedly ambiguous purpose of the age of consent. Generally speaking, the age at which a person can legally give consent is not plucked out of the sky and assigned randomly. In the UK it is 16. In Ireland it is 17. In the US it varies from state to state, but is generally between 16 and 18. Sexual activity with a person below that age is considered to be, and is sentenced as, statutory rape.
There are no ifs and no buts. A 15 year old was taken advantage of by a person who she regarded as her hero. She was not in a position to give consent to sexual activity. Indeed, UK law states that “A boy or girl under the age of 16 cannot consent in law,” and even goes on to say that where a person under the age of 16 gives consent “as a matter of fact” it still doesn’t count. Simple as.
In relation to Irish law, it is clearly outlined that stating that a child ‘gave consent’ is not a defence. If the accused claims that they believed the child was above the age of consent, it is up to the jury to determine if there is reasonable cause for this mistake. It’s almost laughable, but how many stories or allegations have you read where a guy was accused of having sex with an underage girl, only to claim that he thought she was 18? How many times have you heard someone say “It’s her own fault for lying. It’s not as if you can ask a girl for ID”? If it’s the difference between asking somebody for proof of age and a five year jail sentence, I know I’d personally just ask for ID.[pullquote]The worst part is that most of the people I’ve seen defending Johnson are women. Women who are, doubtless, victims of rape culture themselves.[/pullquote]
The worst part is that most of the people I’ve seen defending Johnson are women. Women who are, doubtless, victims of rape culture themselves. Women who are lamenting the loss of his career. Just like the people who defended Chris Brown when he was found guilty of beating Rihanna. Just like the people who are defending Dr. Luke and the allegations Kesha has brought against him. Just like the people who defended Ian Watkins, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby and anyone else who is alleged to have been or who will be found guilty of perpetuating rape culture.
In this instance, the issue is not just the fact that people are engaging in sexual activities with children. The issue is that these children are being blamed. The issue is that as soon as a person obtains celebrity status, there are people in the world who will mourn the loss of this status, no matter the circumstances. Both women and men are defending a man they don’t know by blaming a girl they don’t know, while also diminishing the severe effects that this incident has had on her.
There is probably not a single person in the world that didn’t have a teenage hero. Maybe you were attracted to them. Maybe you met them in person. Imagine that hero giving you their phone number, while being fully aware of how old you are. Imagine how special you’d feel, how noticed and validated, because someone you looked up to wanted to be in contact with you. Imagine that hero offering to meet up with you – alone – and bringing you special gifts. Imagine how exciting that would be – that person texting you, flirting with you. You’d probably feel wonderful. You’d feel desired.[pullquote]In this instance, the issue is not just the fact that so many children are victims of statutory rape. The issue is that these children are being blamed.[/pullquote]
But that person is abusing their power. They’re manipulating you. They’re making you feel safe and wanted in order to engage in sexual acts with you. It’s wrong. Yet from what I’ve seen, a lot of people are unable to make that distinction.
We live in an age where we have laws in place to protect our children, but they don’t matter to those with loud voices. It now doesn’t matter if you’re an adult woman or man who is actively not giving consent, or if you’re a child whose consent is not legally accepted. If you’re a victim, it’s your fault.
This is rape culture.