Calling men like Adam Johnson paedophiles doesn’t help teenage girls

johnsonTHERE’S no evidence that Adam Johnson is a “paedo”, despite what The Sun’s sub-editors might have you believe. His conviction for engaging in sexual activity with a child – along with his earlier admission of grooming and kissing the same girl – certainly tells us plenty about his character. But it’s not helpful to suggest he is attracted to pre-pubescent children.

This isn’t just a question of semantics: if predators like Johnson are to be caught and prosecuted – or, ideally, prevented from offending to begin with – then we need to be able to recognise the dynamics involved in his crimes and others like them. Flinging him into a “celebrity paedo” sin bin will not help.

johnsonJohnson’s fall from grace is great tabloid fodder, and it’s difficult to separate out the envy-induced schadenfreude from the condemnation of his actions. But it’s important to recognise that what he did, divorced from the context of who he is, was really not so unusual, and that most victims of such crimes will never see their abusers prosecuted, let alone jailed.

The judge in Johnson’s trial, Jonathan Rose, alluded to a crucial reason for this when he told the jury: “Whether she was up for it or excited are things that are not relevant”. Perhaps Rose could have a word with Judge Nigel Peters, who accused a 13-year-old girl of “egging on” the 41-year-old man who abused her, and Judge Joanna Greenberg QC, who told a teacher accused of abusing a 16-year-old in his care that “if grooming is the right word to use, it was she who groomed you”.

The awkward truth is that teenage girls are neither innocent infants nor knowing Lolitas – this is merely the first of many false dichotomies they’ll confront during their lives. Women and girls, the actual human beings, do not fit in these neat little boxes of identity. We are not either virgins or whores, career women or earth mothers, “curvy” or “toned”. Crucially, teenage girls have a sexual identity. If we refuse to acknowledge this because it makes us uncomfortable, how can we hope to protect them from the men who seek to exploit it? How can we talk honestly to them about staying physically and emotionally safe as they make the tricky transition from girl to woman?

In 1995, my friend Michelle* was the epitome of teenage sophistication. With her spiral perm, gold hoop earrings and Take That necklace, she looked like she’d stepped out of a Just Seventeen photo-story. Her school uniform was a Sweater Shop sweatshirt, jeans and block-heeled boots, and when we went to the ice rink on a Friday afternoon she’d don her usual denim jacket.

I was not sophisticated. I wore a zip-up fleece because it was freezing in there and my routine involved buying a 20p mixture and whizzing round in circles to N-Trance and Alex Party with the cold air blowing against my cheeks. Michelle would skate a bit, but spent much of her time in shadowy corners beyond the rink with Paul. At the time, this didn’t seem hugely remarkable. I vaguely assumed these trysts were tame compared to what happened at the unders-on-ice disco later in the evening, when the rink lights were dimmed.

At the time it didn’t seem odd to me that a 19-year-old man was a regular fixture at what was essentially a children’s skating session. It certainly didn’t occur to me to tell any adults what was going on every Friday afternoon. Stranger danger was the stuff they taught kids – and we weren’t kids, were we?

We were 14.

I don’t know how Michelle feels these days about what happened with Paul, as our unlikely friendship didn’t endure beyond school. Perhaps she looks back on it all fondly, and has gone on to have healthy, respectful relationships as an adult. Perhaps, unlike me, when she reads about Adam Johnson she does not think of Paul. But many young women are harmed by relationships in their formative years where there is an imbalance of power, confidence and experience and an expectation that they will conform, rather than consent.

Calling men like these paedophiles doesn’t help teenage girls, because teenage girls don’t think of themselves as children, or as victims. But our girls need more help than ever when it comes to navigating relationships. NSPCC research has found that abusive and controlling behaviours are being normalised by teenagers, and their age group is now considered at the highest risk of domestic abuse. To address this problem the UK Government ran a targeted campaign a few years ago that involved online discussions. An evaluation picked out some of the comments posted, which included: “So even when you’re in a relationship and they force you to have sex, it is still rape?”

In the 1990s teenagers had some crucial adult allies: brilliantly empathetic magazine writers who created their own language to discuss everything from pocket money and periods to orgasms and oral sex. The genius of this approach was that both girls and boys pored over the “adult” material, absorbing positive messages about health, safety and wellbeing along the way. It seems like an age of innocence now; More! magazine’s “position of the fortnight” looks positively quaint in today’s world of unlimited internet pornography. But there’s no reason to believe today’s young people aren’t just as desperate for our advice. We just need to find the right way to deliver it.

* Names have been changed.

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

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