Adam Johnson: men like the disgraced footballer rely on misogyny to operate

The no-holds-barred condemnation of the former England international feels like an unconscious attempt to compensate for past ambivalence – to put it mildly – towards the player and his sexual history

Independent on Sunday, 6 March 2016

Every time a public figure is exposed as a sexual predator – and it seems to happen with alarming frequency these days – the condemnation that follows is swift and merciless. Men such as Rolf Harris and Jimmy Savile have been transformed overnight from popular entertainers into “perverts” and “paedophiles”, heaped with as much as calumny as they previously received plaudits. The latest big name to undergo this process is Adam Johnson, who was characterised as a “Paedo in his Speedos” on the front page of The Sun last week, next to a picture of the disgraced footballer in a pair of swimming trunks.

Whether it was an appropriate image to publish the day after Johnson was convicted of a sex offence against a 15-year-old girl (he was cleared of another charge) is another matter. The former Sunderland winger and English international has been warned by the judge to expect a “substantial” custodial sentence after pleading guilty to two lesser charges at the beginning of his trial. He faces going to jail for between four and 10 years for grooming the girl, kissing her and for sexual activity in his car.

It is not clear whether the use of an explicit image was intended as mockery of Johnson’s pride in his physique or a reference to his reputation as a stud. But as is often the way, today’s no-holds-barred condemnation of Johnson feels like an unconscious attempt to compensate for past ambivalence – to put it mildly – towards the player and his sexual history. I am not defending Johnson, who was described by his own QC, Orlando Pownall, as “immature, arrogant [and] promiscuous”, but not for the first time I am disturbed by an inexplicable (to me at least) tolerance of predatory  attitudes towards women and girls.

Sunderland AFC’s officials dealt with Johnson every day. “The only time he had to fend for himself was on the field, cheered on by thousands of adoring fans”, Pownall said during the trial. Didn’t the club notice his immaturity and arrogance, especially where sex was concerned? And weren’t they worried by the vile misogyny of some Sunderland fans, who responded to news of his arrest in March last year as though it was a tribute to his sexual prowess? Just days later, they were filmed, fists pumping, singing “Adam Johnson, he shags who he wants”.

Sunderland suspended him for all of two weeks, then allowed him to go on playing (and earning almost £3m) for the best part of a year. Only days before his trial, he was photographed signing autographs for young fans at the club’s Stadium of Light. Johnson wasn’t sacked until the first day of his trial, when he pleaded guilty to the two lesser offences.

Officials say that was the first they knew of his intention to put in the guilty pleas, but Durham police insists the club’s chief executive was told at the time of his arrest that he had allegedly texted and kissed the under-age girl. The club knew a year ago about the serious nature of the charges and it knew that Johnson had a devoted following, including very young girls. “I absolutely idolised Adam,” his victim said in a statement after the trial.

Few teenagers are mature enough to understand that hero worship can be dangerous, which is why organisations such as football clubs and the BBC have a safeguarding responsibility towards fans. When Dame Janet Smith’s report on Savile’s crimes at the BBC came out 10 days ago, there was much talk of different times, as though his activities would not be tolerated today. But Savile was never arrested, and Sunderland’s support for a star who had been charged with serious sexual offences suggests things have changed less than we imagine.

The other thing that hasn’t gone away is victim-blaming. Johnson’s victim has been viciously attacked on social network sites; she has been described as a “slag” and a “slut” and accused of trying to make money out of the player. In her statement, she talked about the effect of the “horrible” names she had been called, saying she sometimes felt “broken”. It’s very similar to the abuse heaped on the woman assaulted by Ched Evans, the former Sheffield United player and Welsh international who was convicted of rape four years ago. Evans has always maintained his innocence and his case has just been referred back to the Court of Appeal, but nothing can excuse the shrill misogyny of the campaign against his victim.

What lies behind all this, I think, is an inexcusable tolerance towards attitudes that demean women and are distasteful to more thoughtful, modern men. Bragging about the size of your sexual organ, as Donald Trump did in a TV debate last week, isn’t illegal and it doesn’t make someone a sexual predator. But the fact that it didn’t instantly destroy his credibility as a presidential candidate shows that primitive versions of masculinity appeal to alarming numbers of people. When macho attitudes are so widely tolerated, no wonder some men think they can get away with behaving extremely badly.

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