Saturday, 22 June 2013

The law is an ass

Jeremy  Forrest is sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison for abducting and having sex with his 15-year old student. The news is full of people proclaiming this as a great blow in the battle for child protection.  He is referred to as "the paedophile".  It is said that he "abused his position of trust".  It is a good day for justice.

Wait a minute! Has everyone in the world gone bloody mad? What has actually happened here? A girl has a crush on her teacher. It has been known. He, going through marital difficulties and struggling with depression, ends up returning her affection. Hardly inconceivable. He knows that teachers probably shouldn't have relationships with their students, and that she is beneath the somewhat arbitrary age of consent; but consent she does, nonetheless. By giving in to the possibility of an intimate relationship with an attractive young woman, and gaining the sexual and emotional gratification that was otherwise absent from his life, he makes a mistake for sure, but of what magnitude?  What man, or indeed, woman, has never craved these things, and would place themselves above succumbing to such temptation?

As for the suggestion of paedophilia, I am entirely mystified. One cannot be a paedophile unless one is attracted to children: as in, girls or boys yet to reach puberty.  Even if, hypothetically, the girl in this case had been pre-pubescent, paedophilia would be an explanation, not the crime itself. How have we become so confused about this?

It seems what we have here is an example of the full weight of the law blundering in where it doesn't belong, like an articulated lorry driven by a seven-year-old into a fine glassware emporium. This is a situation which really ought to be sorted out by grown ups, or at least by people who understand how human beings work.  They would bear in mind that, had this girl been a year or two older, and in a different teacher's class, then the law would have had nothing to say about their relationship.  They would understand that while teacher/pupil relationships are to be discouraged, expecting people to always make the most ethical decision - certainly where sex and emotions are concerned - is asking too much.  They would also realize, unlike Judge Michael Lawson QC, that knowledge of the full severity of the laws already broken often compels people to compound their mistakes by trying to escape, much as how taking a good look at the ravening tiger that's chasing you would probably encourage you to run faster, rather than give up and be eaten.  They might even consider that had the sexes of the participants been reversed, and a troubled young female teacher had run away to France with a horny teenage boy who fell in love with her, then the public, the media and the authorities would have viewed it in an entirely different light.

Now, this situation is sounding increasingly far-fetched, but let us imagine we live in a sensible, non-hysterical world. In this world, a man who fell in love with a young girl in his care would be able, without fear of prejudice or over-reaction, to sit down with all the parties concerned, and explain the situation to them, and figure out together what, if anything, needed to be done about it.  But we do not live in that world: in reality, such an admission would be met with shock and horror by parents and employers, and the law, which should know better, both feeds and panders to those fears.  So the couple are inclined not to be sensible, to keep it secret, until things have gone too far and there is no good way to get out of the situation.  They perceive - rightly - that the world is against them, and this sense of persecution unites them and intensifies their passions.  They try to run away, but are caught, and the law is now so stacked against them that they can only be viewed through the narrow lens of abduction and child abuse.  The justice system then wades in, taking matters out of the hands of those who have genuine interest in it (an abduction, in itself), and proceeds to complete the chain of mistakes made by meting out a heavy-handed punishment.  It concerns itself only with what it has to, the crimes committed, and ignores every other facet of this complex affair.  And it all stems from that initial inability of people to sit down together, to be honest, calm, and listen to each other.

I accept that I am taking a rather sympathetic view of Forrest here, and I admit to the possibility that the account he has given as his defence in court, while not implausible, may not be entirely true.  He may have convinced the girl to change her story post-capture, and while I would stop short of using the term "grooming", there may have been elements of cynicism in how he approached her and allowed the relationship to grow. Yet, even if so, we cannot overlook the fact that there will be reasons behind his behaviour, however self-aware, and I'm afraid they will probably be more complex and less convenient than "He's just an evil bastard".

Who does this judgement actually serve?  Well, the high profile and extreme severity of the sentence will act as a very sobering example, and may well cause other teachers to think long and hard before making similar mistakes in the future.  But how necessary is it that we take such a medieval approach to crime and punishment in this case?  Is the risk of pupil/teacher relations so high, and so serious, that we must stamp down so very harshly on a man for such an understandable mistake?  Just how bad would it be to allow a fifteen-year-old girl to have a relationship with an older man, to have consenting sex, to experience all the ups and downs of emotional entanglement, even to ultimately have her heart broken?  Perhaps you think it would be better if this was left entirely to fifteen-year-old boys, in whose expert care girls would surely be safe from any of those dangers?

No, this judgement serves only the irrational fears of parents since time immemorial, desperately afraid of how to continue to protect their children as they inevitably become adults. It only makes sense if you view the main victim as the girl's mother, who clearly and emphatically disapproves of the match.  For her, locking Forrest away for five years is decidedly convenient, hopeful that it is (probably) just about long enough for her daughter to forget about him and get on with more wholesome pursuits. She is quoted as saying "I feel the [daughter] I knew is dead". She may as well say "She's not my little girl any more", and as every parent must eventually come to realize this sad, but not tragic, truth: she's right.  And no amount of law can ever change that.


  1. expecting people to always make the most ethical decision - certainly where sex and emotions are concerned - is asking too much

    Surely the very definition of ethics is that the ethical decision is the one we expect people to make, and to make a less ethical decision is to be culpable? Otherwise the very definition of 'ethical' is eroded: it becomes not 'what we ought to do' but something like 'kind of how we wish people might behave, if it's not too hard, and unless it would make them much much happier not to.'

    Sex being involved has nothing to do with it: the very reason we are moral agents is that we are humans with free will, not animals in thrall to our instincts. We do not have to have sex whenever we want it. Our minds are in control, not our hormones.

  2. You seem to describe a pretty sound basis for moral philosophy, so I'm not going to argue with you on that score; and besides, it wasn't really what I was getting at.

    Yes, people should be held morally culpable for their actions, but my question is about how we should respond when society's moral norms are breached. Calling a particular behaviour a crime is only one way to interpret it, there are other methods for dealing with transgressors that we might use, without necessarily throwing individual responsibility out of the window.

    In my opinion, a system like ours - where the much-lauded end result is to have a man branded as a sex offender and imprisoned, a young girl forcibly separated from her first intimate partner, and a mother estranged from her daughter - is probably one of the worst systems you could think of.

    I suggest we need to encourage a different culture, so that at every level, from the highest criminal court in the land, right down to the informal conversation at the kitchen table, people are prepared to treat even those with whom they disagree with consideration and humanity.