Adam Johnson’s historic sentence shows our victim-blaming culture is decades out of date

Daily Telegraph, Thursday 24 March 2016

Thousands of people appear in court every day and many of them go to prison. But few trials get reported so widely as that of Adam Johnson, the former England footballer who has just been sentenced to six years in jail.

For once the massive coverage is completely justified. Not because of who Johnson is, but because his case is a landmark in this country’s treatment of sexual offences against children.

Earlier this month, when Johnson was convicted of carrying out a sex act on a 15-year-old girl, he was warned by the judge that he faced a sentence of between four and ten years. Even so, I’m sure his six-year tariff for that offence and two others, which he admitted on the first day of his trial, is now causing shock waves.

So it should. For far too long, people have defended people like Johnson, trotting out hoary old excuses for adult men who use their fame and status to target vulnerable victims. ‘She looked older than 15,’ they say, even though it is clear that Johnson knew the girl’s age and even made online searches about the age of consent. ‘It’s not his fault if girls chase him,’ they say, as though a man of 28 is entitled to be excused the standard of moral responsibility required of less famous mortals.

Well, that’s all over now.

The law doesn’t make excuses for fame or wealth; when someone is convicted, it looks at the damage that’s been caused and reflects it in the sentence. In this instance, the damage suffered by Johnson’s victim was set out in court in painful, forensic detail, and should leave no doubt in anyone’s mind about how she continues to suffer.

That message needs to be seen by all those people who have abused the girl online, blamed her for what happened or broken the law by revealing her identity. It also needs to be heard by those Sunderland fans who responded to news of Johnson’s arrest last year by pumping their fists in the air and singing, ‘Adam Johnson, he shags who he wants’. They were crass, callous and above all wrong, as his conviction demonstrates.

A great deal has been said and written about the role of professional football in all this, and it’s certainly the case that the country’s leading clubs need to think about how they treat their pampered stars. Football is a very lucrative business and clubs put up with dreadful behaviour off the pitch, as long as their celebrity players bring home the trophies. Most of those players are working-class lads, often without much in the way of education, who suddenly find themselves earning jaw-dropping sums of money and being treated as minor deities.

All of that is true but the significance of this case goes way beyond football. At its core, it is about attitudes towards men and sex – assumptions of male entitlement, in a nutshell – which are years out of date. In a society based on equality, it is simply not acceptable for men to groom under-age girls, gaining their confidence in order to persuade them to perform sexual acts when they are not mature enough to understand the consequences.

More to the point, it is against the law, which is sometimes ahead of public opinion and exists in part to protect vulnerable individuals from predators. This is a landmark case precisely because it has done what the law is supposed to do - which is put aside fame and the other excuses made for men who believe they can do what they like.

They can’t, and this sentence speaks volumes about the importance our society now places on the protection of children.

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