Footballer Adam Johnson was yesterday sentenced to six years in prison for receiving oral sex from a 15-year-old girl in his Range Rover. The abetting Range Rover got off scot-free.
Sentencing Mr Johnson, the judge cited several aggravating circumstances. Such as – are you ready for this? – the fact that Mr Johnson had parked the abetting Range Rover in a quiet place before unzipping his trousers. Presumably His Honour would have gone easy on the footballer had he done it in the open, with the passers-by enjoying the show.
The law did let Mr Johnson off the hook by magnanimously not charging him with possession of bestiality videos. He himself didn’t star in any of those and hence couldn’t have been charged with corrupting the morals of a donkey, but even viewing such material isn’t nice. So Mr Johnson should count himself lucky.
Then the victim was said to have suffered psychological damage after testifying. No evidence of her suffering such damage as a result of the act itself was presented, and one could argue that it wasn’t Mr Johnson who had dragged her through the proceedings. But the judge explained that was Mr Johnson’s fault because he had refused to plead guilty to all charges, thereby necessitating a trial – how dare he claim his innocence.
If you detect a touch of levity in my tone, you’re right. It’s not that I don’t consider Mr Johnson a lawbreaker and a naughty boy – he is and I do.
If the law says a girl has to be 16 to perform fellatio, then 16 it is. Dura lex, sed lex, as the Romans used to say. Mr Johnson ought to have been punished, even though our whole school system, our whole society, sexualises children even 10 years younger than his victim.
Most 15-year-olds have the kind of sexual sophistication, both theoretical and, as it were, hands-on, that few children had in the past, so we want to have it both ways: teaching 5-year-olds the benefits of condoms while insisting they remain innocent lambs at 15.
Still, the law must be obeyed. And one way of fostering law-abidance is not only punishing a transgression, but also making sure the punishment is commensurate with the crime.
For example, most of us agree that a fine is a just punishment for speeding. Most, however, will probably disagree that a mandatory custodial sentence for first offence would be just. And if such a punishment were imposed, people would lose respect for the law in general, not just the traffic laws.
So is six years a just, commensurate punishment for unzipping one’s trousers for a girl a few months short of the legal limit? This question can only be answered in the context of other crimes receiving the same sentence.
The Mail has provided such a context by listing a dozen crimes recently drawing the same term of imprisonment. These include beating a stranger to death for fun, aggravated burglary, drug pushing on a massive scale and laundering money for terrorists.
Now even a person considerably less blasé about sex than me may agree that there’s something crazy going on here. How can a bit of unauthorised yet uncoerced sex be punished as severely as beating a stranger to death just for fun?
Another time-honoured legal principle is the difference between malum prohibitum and malum in se – something bad only because it’s prohibited and something bad in itself. Surely sex with a girl a little short of the age of consent falls into the first category and killing into the second? How can they be punished equally?
In a world of actual reality they wouldn’t be. But in our virtual world things like killing, burglary or robbery are merely crimes against the individual. The crime Mr Johnson committed, however, is also one against the sanctimonious ethos the modern state wishes to impose, the better to control us.
Hence it’s a crime against the state itself – and these are punished more brutally than any crime against a person. For example, tax evasion, cheating the state of its pound of flesh (or a few pounds sterling), is treated as a worse crime than cheating a pensioner out of a much greater sum.
Sex is one area where the state puts its leaden foot down heavily. It insists on its prerogative to dictate intimate behaviour, criminalising, for example, a man not stopping when his wife tells him to while legalising, indeed encouraging, cohabitation, homosexual marriage and abortion as contraception.
We could argue about the morality or advisability of this or that practice, but what is unarguable is the totalitarian cravings of every post-Enlightenment state. This doesn’t exculpate Adam Johnson. But the draconian severity of his punishment will further undermine respect for the state and its law.
When laws are feared but not respected, they won’t be obeyed. Fear alone isn’t a sufficient deterrent, and this case is one of many that de facto promote lawlessness by making the law less respectable.
I don’t know whether we should change the age of consent. But we should definitely change our frame of moral reference.