When news broke that Sunderland and England footballer Adam Johnson had been arrested on suspicion of sexual activity with an underage girl, the accelerated judicial procedure that is social media reached a verdict within seconds.
Claims that the alleged incident took place in a nightclub were made by a few ‘in the know’ and with indecent haste, the speculators concluded that Johnson couldn’t be at fault because young men, particularly rich, drunk ones, are vulnerable to entrapment by girls who look older than they are.
With that resolved, there was only one thing left to do. Name the complainant.
The best thing about dispensing justice on social media is the ability to recede into the huge shadows created when the spotlight settles on one person. Those pressing Johnson’s perceived victimhood a few months ago have done just that since the press revealed that the 27-year-old had pleaded guilty to charges of sexual activity with a 15-year-old girl and grooming a girl under the age of 16.
Since then, the real world trial has opened to consider the two remaining charges, and excerpts from the cross-examination of the alleged victim have been made public. It’s not for me to consider the relative merits of the prosecution’s questioning, or indeed speculate as to anyone’s testimony, guilt or innocence, but the patterns of behaviour described, from both the complainant and Johnson, evoked vivid reminders of events in my teenage years that I had long since discarded as irrelevant. A fact that I found disturbing and fascinating in equal measure.
There are three, perhaps four, events that I can immediately recall. Events involving older men that made me feel uncomfortable. Events that at the time I felt so guilty or dirty or wrong about, that I didn’t tell my mum.
I must emphasise that these events weren’t by any means ‘offences’ in the legal sense of the term. Or do I? I was fourteen, fifteen years old, utterly overwhelmed by adolescence, and still years away from the kind of self-confidence and guile required to analyse these things. Perhaps kids are a little more self-aware than we were in the early to mid-nineties, what with their naked snapchatting and revenge tweeting and porn, but I’m inclined to feel like that’s the response of someone dislocated from teenagers, which I very much am.
What I do know, is that at that age, many kids, both boys and girls, still believe that the world revolves around them. This works against them in two ways. It makes them vulnerable to compliments and attention from adults, because it’s one of the few forms of validation available in a culture driven by sexuality, and it makes them feel partly responsible, indeed culpable, because even if they didn’t want physical intimacy, they still liked the validation.
Fortunately, the vast majority of men and women understand the difference between perceived maturity and adulthood. But the ease with which it can be unpicked is perhaps not as widely accepted, or indeed considered. Abusers operate in the grey area between personal responsibility and legal boundaries, and they do so very successfully.
The fact that I have used this article to disclose personal information about myself may seem like a big deal, but I can assure you it isn’t. I know a lot of people, both IRL and online, who experienced confusion and guilt over ‘relationships’ they had with people during their formative years. An inability to define the specific point at which they became uncomfortable with the attention is the only common denominator.
It would be unreasonable to expect the authorities to deal with intangibles. It’s hard enough to get a rape conviction these days, such is the minefield of consent, so finding sufficient evidence to prosecute a man for talking to a young girl every day as she walks home from school, culminating in him buying her a bunch of roses, which made her feel like she’d encouraged him, would be at the very best, impossible.
And probably pointless. What we can do, if we genuinely care about grooming and abuse, is try to understand that the kids in our circles, however world weary and tech absorbed they appear to be, are vulnerable to manipulation from innumerable sources and we should be as vigilant about their welfare today as we would have been when tangible threats existed.
We’re all damaged in one way or another. We can’t change that. But we’re the only ones who can contribute to furthering awareness of this insidious threat, whether intentional or not.
There’s no blurring that line.