Jeremy Forrest: what’s the meaning of abuse?

Picture of Jeremy Forrest, a white man with stubble with a grey jacket with a strap over his shoulderThe week before last (I have only just had the opportunity to write about it due to work), a teacher from Kent called Jeremy Forrest was jailed for five and a half years for having an affair with a schoolgirl and running away with her to France until they were both brought back. Besides his prison sentence, he was ordered to sign the sex offenders’ register and banned from working with children for life. However, the girl (whose name cannot now be mentioned in new articles although the media have not removed dozens of articles from last September when she was missing) has stuck by him, intends to visit him in prison and has allegedly been given permission, and yesterday and today interviews with her were published in the Sun (which referred to her as Gemma Grant, the name she assumed during her French ‘adventure’), in which she claimed that if anything, she groomed him rather than the other way round. There have been a number of comments published about this, among them by a woman who had an affair with a teacher while at sixth form college, Hadley Freeman in the Guardian saying that he is a “pathetic man-child” but no paedophile and in nothing like the same league as Stuart Hall or Jimmy Savile, and there are these two entries by the feminist blogger Louise Pennington, who calls Forrest a rapist (as she called John Peel and others in the rock world who slept with teenage groupies in the 1960s and 70s).

My own views on this are that while Forrest clearly broke the law and the law is there for good reason, his sentence is hugely excessive (and I expect it will be reduced greatly on appeal, given previous sentences for the same type of offence). It is probably that long to make sure that he is not released for two years (he has already served six months on remand), by which time “Gemma” will be eighteen. The problem is that people get much less than that for crimes which actually hurt people, including child cruelty: there have been numerous cases in which people who operated regimes of cruelty in care homes and boarding schools got suspended sentences, particularly if they managed to reach old age without getting caught (Stuart Hall, who molested innocent young girls rather than disturbed boys in a detention centre or special school, is a notable exception). As someone who was in a school where things like this happened and lived with the persistent threat of violence and sexual abuse (the actual abuse was pretty low-level, although others suffered worse) for around a year, and never saw any of the people responsible (this includes those who stood by and let it happen) brought to justice, and has since watched a number of similar people get suspended sentences for sustained cruelty and physical violence, it disturbs me to see someone who has not actually hurt anyone get a lengthy prison sentence. Gemma was a willing participant, at least by the time they ran away to France, and remains committed to him although she admits that she would disapprove as an outsider looking in. Whether she feels like that in two years’ time is another matter. Most of my comments on the 2009 Goddard case, involving a female teacher and pupil, apply to this case as well.

There are good reasons not to allow teachers to have affairs with pupils, especially those below about 16: there is the enormous potential for academic corruption, favouritism and coercion, the fact that a school is meant to be a place of learning and not a meat market, especially for the staff, and the idea that a teacher should be someone the pupil should look up to and be able to confide in, and that they should really rise above their feelings of attraction to the pupils, even if it is mutual. Relationships are illegal in this situation because it might be harmful, and because sexual relations between adults and youths under 16 are generally exploitative, the younger person not fully understanding the adult’s intentions and being vulnerable to trickery by them. In short, such relationships are banned because they have the potential to be harmful.

By the same token, drinking and driving is also banned because it has the potential to injure or kill someone. However, we do not punish someone who is merely flagged down by a policeman and found to be over the limit as if they had caused a serious crash and paralysed someone for life. What he has done is broken the rules, caused a great deal of distress to the girl’s mother and, to some minds, brought his school and profession into disrepute. He has not, however, caused physical injury or suffering to the girl he ran away with, except in the imaginations of adult commentators and so-called experts. The girl, as far as is known, has not contracted an infection or got pregnant. She has defended him in interviews and in writing, and her family allegedly intend to support her if she marries him.

The article by “Bernardette Rooney”, which is a pseudonym, states that she was a sixth former when her English teacher took pains to get everybody home from a school trip before her, before parking in the farm next door and launching into a “memorably glorious snogging session”. However, nine months later, he dumped her for a younger new arrival, something she describes as traumatic but “good training for later life”. Frankly, her story exemplifies why the laws that ban such relationships are there: the guy was a creep, treating the school as a supply of young girls to have one affair after another with. Many people have commented that they know couples who first met as teacher and pupil years ago, but this man obviously never intended to make a lasting relationship of it: he was attracted only to girls who were just out of puberty and lost interest when they became more woman-like (one suspects he would have tried it on with 14-year-old girls if he could get away with it). However, there is a well-made point about the ludicrous comparisons made by some so-called experts and their low opinion of “Gemma” and young people generally:

Jon Brown, head of sex abuse prevention at the NSPCC, told the Guardian that it was “an abusive relationship” irrespective of how the pair may feel, and chartered educational psychologist Alan Mclean says “It’s an asymmetrical power relationship and the teacher is always the abuser.”

And while the teacher is being presented as a monstrous sexual predator, so the pupil is painted as a vulnerable victim who will suffer long-term “damage”. The experts’ concern for the girl, however, does not extend to listening to her side of the story or respecting her repeated claims that the relationship was loving and consensual. Instead, experts like Brown specifically state that her positive view of the relationship is “an illusion”. Brown goes on to stress that the dynamics are the same whether the girl is 10 years old or 15, and generalises to say that these relationships are “invariably” brought to a grinding halt that can prove extremely traumatic.

The comparison of 15-year-olds with 10-year-olds immediately struck me, as well, as idiotic: a ten-year-old usually has not even reached puberty, will probably still be watching children’s TV and knows very little about sex, not even having experienced sexual arousal. A 15-year-old is often an adult in all but name, and if a 15-year-old committed a serious crime, their “child pass” would be revoked and they would be sent to a young offenders’ institution and, if the sentence was long enough, thenceforth to prison. There are people on the sex offenders’ register for crimes committed at age 11; there was a blind boy, Jordan Cunliffe, sentenced to life for a murder two others committed near him, as part of a ‘gang’ in which he was deemed to have been involved (he is still in prison and his family are trying to secure another appeal), a man spent thirty years in prison for killing a boy from his care home at age 14 (he was released last year), and we have people baying for the blood of two men who committed a murder as disturbed ten-year-old boys twenty years ago. In the USA, where similar laws apply regarding ages of consent to here (and unlike here, it’s actually called statutory rape), people are serving life sentences for crimes committed when they were 13 or 14 (these often include peripheral roles in robberies and other crimes in which people were killed, as well as actual killings; until recently this was life without parole, although the Supreme Court recently ruled this unconstitutional but the states only reduced the time to 40 years or so without parole). If an adult was involved, they would be given a longer sentence, no doubt, but if it were shown that the youth participated willingly, they would be held fully responsible. How is it, then, that when the act involves sex and there is every evidence that they were entirely willing, the youth is considered a passive victim?

Which brings us to the ridiculous post by Louise Pennington, a radical feminist blogger who also publishes on the Huffington Post. Her article displays many of the deficiencies of modern online feminism: the studied, self-righteous anger, the misuse of language, the elementary logical fallacies. These could fill a whole post, and I have another in the pipeline about other feminists who use ridiculous generalisations and peddle theories about gender which project their own, very particular, experiences. This is how she deals with the issue of Forrest’s actions and “Gemma’s” role in them:

Despite the fact that this is clearly a case of child sexual abuse, I have seen countless discussions on Facebook and Twitter demanding that people respect the “agency” of the child in her abuse. People are genuinely discussing the “agency” of a teenage girl in her grooming, kidnapping, and rape.

A 15 year-old-girl was groomed, kidnapped and raped by her teacher; a man she was supposed to be able to trust. Instead of discussing the horrific abuse of power by Jeremy Forrest, people are talking about the “agency” of a child in her own abuse. Instead of using the term sexual predator or rapist to describe Forrest, we are discussing the “agency” of his victim.

A 30-year-old man chose to target a young girl and groomed her. A 30-year-old man chose to have sex with a 15-year-old-girl. Forrest made a choice to sexually abuse his student.

So, where are the discussions about Forrest’s “agency”? Why are we discussing the “agency” of a teenage girl and not the “agency” of the man who chose to kidnap and rape her? Why aren’t we focussing on the choices made by an adult? Why are we trying to cast a teenage girl as responsible for her own rape?

This writer is clearly confusing both opinion and law with fact. The law, in some places (not including the UK), calls sex with a minor (which is also a legal doctrine, not a fact) rape. Rape is as is commonly defined, which is when sex is obtained by force or deception, or from someone to mentally compromised to know what is going on. There was no suggestion that any of this was the case here. If the law defines rape as something else, that does not make it a fact, but an official doctrine or, at worst, a legal fiction. If it is done to make a popular prejudice a matter of law and interferes with perfectly consensual relationships (such as when one party is disabled), it becomes oppression. Harping on the law when the law suits them while condemning it when it doesn’t is a fairly common inconsistency of feminists. Until 20 years ago in the UK, the law did not recognise rape in marriage.

Pennington insists that the girl’s display of love and insistence that she consented to all of the sexual acts shows that she was “groomed”. (Sara Payne, the mother of a 9-year-old girl who was murdered by a paedophile, said the same in a side column to the interview in yesterday’s Sun.) The cases in which girls were groomed by older men at a much younger age by being supplied with drugs and alcohol and other adult ‘pleasures’ at age 12 or 13 so that they could be broken in for sex with multiple strange men demonstrates what ‘grooming’ actually means. It means preparing someone to think that something that is not normal or natural is. Again, there is no evidence that Forrest did anything with Gemma other than have an affair with her, no evidence that he bribed her with sweets or alcohol or threatened to expose her or told her nobody would believe her, and no evidence that he did anything she did not agree to. The law makes her agreement invalid, but that does not make it rape and it does not make her a victim. (By way of comparison, although some of the key defendants in the Oxford grooming trial were jailed for life last week, two of them got seven years; is what Forrest did really two thirds as bad as grooming twelve-year-old girls with alcohol and letting numerous men rape them?) It is fairly common for feminists to claim that a female who makes a choice they would not make has been “groomed”, “socialised” or “conditioned” and does not really know her own mind, a tendency that does not stop when they reach 18 as the attitude of some of them to the hijab demonstrates.

As for the issue of Gemma’s “agency”, one has to ask if Pennington believes that a 15-year-old who commits a crime has “agency” (i.e. they know what they are doing and are responsible for their actions). If so, then their agency in consenting to a sexual act involving an adult is not so reduced as to make it rape, which is why the law regards sex with someone under 13 as rape but not when the younger person is merely under the age of consent. As already stated, the age of criminal responsibility is 10, something both major parties have made clear is not going to change and those who propose raising it only suggest raising it to 12 or so. Nobody is arguing about Forrest’s agency because it is a given, and because the law recognises it which is why he is in prison.

One of my friends remarked on Facebook that most male teachers fear the prospect of sexual entanglement with a female pupil, and the fact that Forrest does not is why he is glad he is in prison. I have heard the same thing said about male doctors, in response to a woman who wrote into an advice service saying she had fallen in love with hers. The reason men in such professions fear it is not necessarily that it is a huge moral failing but precisely because it is forbidden and could ruin his career whether he accepts the advances or rebuffs them, as the female could accuse him of assault or harassment. The marriage of 15-year-old girls is not normal in western societies and never has been (consider the collapse of Jerry Lee Lewis’s career after his marriage to his young cousin, a warning to Forrest should he try to rebuild his “musical career”) but it is quite normal in other cultures, usually with the consent (or at the instigation) of the girl’s parents (although Forrest, with his now well-known marital problems, would not have been most parents’ idea of a good catch). We are used to thinking of such relationships in terms of exploitation; it is possible for them to be entirely loving and consensual and the features we find sleazy are a product of their having to hide themselves. Many of the teachers involved, particularly where there is a genuine relationship (the Goddard case, where a much shorter sentence was imposed, also springs to mind), are young and the pupils usually fifth or sixth formers, that is, at the top of the adolescent pile and much more knowing about what they like and want than those in the early years of secondary school. Fifteen-year-olds may be vulnerable but, as I said in my comment on the Goddard case in 2009, they are not innocent, are often able and willing to hurt others (particularly the actual children in their schools — and we don’t call that child abuse, even though it is) and they know more, and are more capable of making decisions, than we give them credit for.

Jeremy Forrest broke the law and misused his position. That he is guilty of professional misconduct is not in dispute. I do dispute that he deserves a jail sentence anything like this long, or to be kept on the sex offenders’ register and banned from working with children for life (as opposed to until he has served his sentence and sorted his life out). His sentence should be not much longer than Helen Goddard’s, since there are few elements to this case that were not present there except that he is slightly older than Goodard was and male, and that he ran away with Gemma rather than taking her on a holiday he had arranged so as to allow the opportunity for sex. However, let us not pretend that he is one of the most egregious child abusers, or even a child abuser at all, let alone a predator or a rapist. Frankly, I’ve personally known far worse people to leave a 15-year-old with, who never spent a day in jail.

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