The recent Adam Johnson trial in the UK has raised lots of questions about how we think and talk about sexual relationships with youths and teenagers, especially what they perceive an appropriate sexual relationships to be and why. Are we having the correct conversations with the correct people and the right time? Also, how do we react to youths when they ask about sex, talk about relationships or disclose sexually harmful behaviours?
Adam Johnson [28 years of age] is a premier League footballer who played for Sunderland and the English national team, he was a local and national celebrity who was held in high regard; yesterday he was sentenced to 6 years for grooming, kissing and having sexual activity with a 15 year old girl. The victim was a supporter of Sunderland Football Club and a fan of Johnson, they came into contact via social media where she friended him via Facebook and conversed via whatsapp. During the time that the abuse was occurring Johnson and his victim exchanged over 800 whatsapp messages [on a second whatsapp account that he created to converse with the victim only and keep these conversations a secret] which clearly demonstrated Johnson’s grooming behaviour, including attempts to silence the victim, cover up the abuse and a conversation about her age. In addition, Johnson’s phone records and internet records showed that he searched for the age of consent in the UK, checked teen sites [nice young teens] and looked at extreme pornography [mainly linked to bestiality]. A psychologist involved in the case stated that they did not think that Johnson was a paedophile or sexually interested in children, but rather that his offence was an extension of a sexually promiscuous lifestyle and the opportunities, as well as attitudes that accompanied being a high profile footballer.
The Adam Johnson, while problematic, is not the only high profile one relating to celebrity that has emerged in recent months and years; the surprising aspect of the case is our [societies] reaction to it and its acceptability in some quarters. In respect to the Johnson trial we have seen;
1. Victim blaming and abuse, with the internet and social media targeting the victim
2. The story being about his football career and his careless in throwing it away
4. A misunderstanding of the nature of what sexual abuse is, its impact and the terminology [especially the phase paedophile] by the public and media
5. Public misperceptions of how judges sentence in these cases and what it means in real terms.
The real stories at the heart of the Johnson trial are  how we talk to our children and teenagers about sex, healthy sexual relationships and appropriate behaviour;  abuse by people in positions of respect, trust and the safeguards in place to prevent the abuse occurring; and  how we understand and respond to inappropriate sexual behaviour between youths and adults.
The real story here is about a teenager who got to meet, was groomed by and taken advantage of by a celebrity that she idolised. The real story here is about how youths [children and teenagers] know how to identify sexually problematic situations, how they react in these situations and where they can go for help. The real story here is about an adult who made inappropriate and problematic decisions without any thought for the victim, only for themselves.
In the Johnson case the court of public opinion was split, but vocal on both sides with some members of the public supporting him, stating that the teenager lead him on and that she knew what she was doing, that she was “old enough to know better” [they created a facebook page “Justice for Johnson” which has since been removed because of inappropriate comments and content]; but given the victims statement, that is not true – it was a perfect storm. It is clear that Johnson groomed his victim and people surrounding him. The public discussion of the Johnson case does clearly demonstrate the need for greater public education and discussion regarding sexual activity in and with youths; it has become clear that sections of the public did not see the abuse as ‘abuse’ or even problematic ignoring the abuse of trust and the responsibility of the perpetrator to act appropriately. As we know abuse of any kind can have a lasting and significant effect upon the victim, as is demonstrated in this case, and that there are not degrees of acceptability in sexual harm.
What this case does reinforce is the need for better sexual education, better relationship advice, better safeguarding advice and a need for a range of responsible citizens (parents, teachers, etc) to deliver a consistent message. The conversation about healthily sexual relationships is a difficult for families and the state to navigate, who is responsible for having the conversation in the first place [especially when we have a paradoxical mind-set to talking to our youths about sex, in that we try to protect them by not really discussing sex and relationships but this may result in them being in risky situations and making poorer decisions], the parents, the school, peers, the internet, all or none? We do know that in the UK the state, via schools, are not providing a consistent response as they believe that sexual education [including what is an appropriate sexual relationship and behaviours] is a not compulsory part of the national curriculum that should be taught the same in all schools nationally; therefore sexual education is inconsistent and incomplete nationally. Hence reinforcing an air of confusion and ambiguity, for whose responsibility is it [schools, parents, peers, the media or all?], are we surprised that our youths look elsewhere for answers [media, celebrity, pornography] and do not feel comfortable disclosing sexual issues that they face with families as well as friends if they receive no response or a negative backlash? The learning curve in the Adam Johnson trial is not just limited to him, his behaviour and celebrity culture; but it is also linked to us as a society and our responses to victims of sexual harm, their disclosures and how we discuss healthily sexual relationships with youths. The Adam Johnson trial makes us question how far we have moved forward in discussing sexual harm and society’s response it; do we fully understand sexual harm, what it looks like, its causes and consequences?
Kieran McCartan, PhD