28 March 2016

Adam Johnson: Punophilia and Sex Crime in Britain

In March 2016, professional footballer, Adam Johnson, was sentenced to six years incarceration for sex-texting, snogging and touching up a fifteen year old girl.

I care nothing for football, nor for men like Adam Johnson. The core facts of his case are clear: a fifteen year old girl showed herself sexually interested in the professional footballer, and, rather than turning away, Johnson sex-texted her, snogged her and touched her up in his car. The age of sexual consent in Britain, not unreasonably, is sixteen, so what Johnson did was rightly a crime.

The issue in this article is not his guilt but his punishment. Sentencing Johnson to six years inside - a sentence normally awarded to robbers and rapists - reflects moral outrage, not justice or sense.

I have no desire to see the girl punished in any way, but the issue remains: if what happened is so serious, why is Johnson the only one responsible? Had the girl, instead, gone shoplifting - or committed any other crime - she was well within the age of criminal responsibility. Yet, in her illegal relations with Johnson, she is automatically constructed as a victim, a mere passive agent without responsibility.

Much of the establishment hullabaloo around the case is formulaic. For instance, reports were submitted to the court about the psychological harm that Johnson had done to the girl. Johnson may indeed have caused the described harm, but we cannot know for sure because it is unimaginable that a social service report would ever have concluded that no damage resulted from the affair. I suspect the psychological impact on her was little different from what she would have felt had she been some months older and over the age of consent. But the greatest psychological harm - we can be sure - resulted from the case being heard in open court: her anonymity was breached and she became (quite wrongly) an object of abuse from some quarters.

Why is the case interpreted and framed in these terms? Where does the moral panic demanding draconian punishment come from?

The leading reason is obviously the horrors of the sexual crimes committed by Jimmy Savile. Savile is dead and cannot be held to account, but prosecutors and courts can find male celebrities today who have had sexual relations with fifteen year old girls and punish them severely. That urge to punish is further driven by some feminists, aware of the cruel “career-or-start-a-family” dilemma, whose anger focuses, not on the structures of capitalism that throw up that problem, but on the ability of adult men to cheat on their partners in favour of younger women.

Nothing written here is intended to exonerate Johnson. But as this case came to trial, it is a pity that it couldn’t be dealt with privately, something both Johnson and the girl would have benefited from. A fine, community work and attendance on a sexual offences awareness course would have been suitable for Johnson. Six years of incarceration, the probable ban from professional football and the near total destruction of his life would not have been called for.

Sexual offences should not be brushed under the carpet. But the Johnson case did not involve a major crime, if only because, had the girl been some months older, no crime would have been committed - whatever one thinks of the morality of the man's behaviour. His excessive punishment - the mob's punophilia, the love of punishment - merely shows that Britain is in the grip of a moral panic regarding under-age sex crime.

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