Deborah Orr: Underage sex is just as bad for boys as for girls
It's ridiculous to suggest a 14-year-old boy is a predator, while a girl is a victim
It is not helpful to describe Sharon Edwards as "walking free" from court. The 40-year-old pleaded guilty this week to four charges of sexual activity with a child, and one of offering to supply Class A drugs. She may not indeed be in jail, but nor is she entirely at liberty.
Edwards received a 12-month suspended sentence and was ordered to register as a sex offender for five years. Further, Edwards has been thoroughly named, and thoroughly shamed. Due largely to the extraordinary summing up given by the judge in the case, Peter Fox QC, her crimes have been widely reported. The judge accepted that Edwards had been, "a very unhappy lady for a very considerable period of time when this 14-year-old boy seduced you, and not you him, both so far as sexual matters and drugs are concerned".
Children's charities have been quick to condemn the remarks of the judge, as well they might. It is not unusual for boys or girls to develop fixations on adults, and it is preposterous to suggest that it is the fault of the child if the object of their desires happens to be an adult who is unable, for whatever reason, to deal appropriately with such a situation. Intercourse with a minor is illegal, and Edwards' guilty plea suggests that she understands this better than the judge does. It is the attitude of the judge, rather than the sentence Edwards has received, that is the troubling aspect of this case.
Even though Edwards is not a teacher, but a housewife, her case does have echoes of the Amy Gehring case six years ago, in which the supply teacher was acquitted after having sexual encounters with several pupils, including intercourse with a 16-year-old. Gehring had become "friends" with a cohort of her pupils, and insisted that: "These boys weren't stupid. They knew what they were doing. I know the law's there to protect children from criminal activity. They knew what they were doing."
Gehring's case attracted wide publicity, with many people in agreement with the biology teacher that most boys who discovered that an older woman was willing to have sex with them, would simply count themselves lucky, and that no harm could possibly have been done to them. It is widely considered – and this seems to be a view shared by Judge Peter Fox – that boys simply cannot be "taken advantage of".
Yet boys most certainly can be, as the harrowing details of a recent television documentary, Chosen, attest. In this film three men who had attended the highly regarded Caldicott prep school, in Buckinghamshire, told of the systematic grooming and abuse they had endured at the school during the 1960s and 1970s.
All of them had felt as though they were part of a special elite of favoured children while the abuse was occurring, and did not fully realise how greatly they had been damaged until they were older. One of them, who had waited until his parents had died before he pursued justice, eventually succeeded in securing a conviction against his abuser, who all those years later had still been teaching.
Each of these men explains that the abuse visited on him as a child has had a profound and damaging effect on the rest of his life, and there is little reason to dispute this. But of course, few people do tend to dispute whether sexual abuse can damage young teenagers when the abuse is homosexual.
I doubt whether Judge Peter Fox would have dared, in the current climate, even to have suggested that a 40-year-old man was the innocent party, had he been knowingly "seduced" by either a 14-year-old girl or a 14-year-old boy. The attitudes of the judge suggest a fearful contempt for males, who are old enough at 14 to be routinely considered as sophisticated sexual predators.
Yet they also suggest a patronising contempt for females, whose mere "unhappiness" is enough to excuse the vulnerable creatures when they are unable to behave like adults. And they insult children most, of course, because they flout the idea that until they are 16, they deserve to be protected by the law.
The really worrying thing is that the judge's awful perspective reflects a widespread confusion, in law and in wider society, about children, adults and sexual matters. At the time of her encounters Gehring was not breaking the law by having sex with a 16-year-old pupil, even though she was a teacher. Before she came to trial though, in 2002, it was made an offence "for any person in a position of trust and responsibility to have any form of sexual relations with someone under 18 who is in their care".
Yet not everyone is happy with this situation either. Earlier in the month, Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, questioned whether it was right that teachers entering into relationships with people over the age of sexual consent should be branded, technically, as sex offenders. He argues that: "This isn't a person who is showing any tendencies for being a sex offender; this is a person who has made a serious error of professional judgement."
Oddly, it is this particular case, which involved neither a teacher, nor a young adult aged between 16 and 18, that illustrates most forcefully all that is wrong with this idea that the policing of relationships between people who are fully adult and people who can still be regarded as vulnerable can be chopped and changed according to the job that an adult does.
First, it is crucial that the law treats all children equally. Its ridiculous to suggest that a 14-year-old schoolboy is a sexual predator, but that a 18-year-old schoolgirl cannot possibly know her own mind. The age of sexual consent is 16, and any adult who abuses that legal boundary must be held responsible for his or her actions. Even here, and to be kind to the judge, perhaps this was what he was struggling to vocalise, matters are not clear cut. A person who crosses this boundary is not necessarily a "sex offender" or a "paedophile" except technically. It is certainly true that this powerful label, which denotes a person who pathologically views children as sexual objects, is bandied around rather too freely at present.
Second, it is crucial that the law expects similar standards from all adults, even when they are of a fairly similar age. All adults should consider themselves to be in "a position of trust and responsibility" over children, not just those who work with them, however precocious a child may appear.
Other professionals are not expected to conduct sexual liaisons with their clients, and nor should people in the teaching profession, whatever age their "clients" are.
As for people under 16, no one should be having sexual relations with them at all, whatever the excuses they may offer. No judge should think otherwise.