Monday, 21 September 2009

The Age of Consent

Usually I look to The Times for my bi-weekly (come on, I don't have that much free time) dose of broo-hah-hah after finding a certain story in the Daily Mail. I like to think that even in this day and age, The Times can be trusted to take a wholly exaggerated subject matter and approach it with a sort of confused dignity. Like a much-loved older uncle - if your uncle was Brian Blessed - trying to explain to a complete know-nothing about what on earth is going on with all these teenage pregnancies. No real prejudice or sweeping generalisations, just good old fashioned facts jumbled with old principles, things you heard on Newsnight, superstitious beliefs and a good dollop of wildly flailing ad-lib. In other words, it's the paper version of how I imagine I'll turn out in 40 years time. Uncy Bri-Bri would be so proud.

This time, however, a story leapt out from The Times' homepage at me without my snide search bar titterings. I was informed brusquely that music teacher Helen Goddard who worked in a private school had been jailed for having a - ahem - lesbian affair with one of her pupils. The pupil in question was 15, and obviously cannot be named, along with the school. Obviously for a teacher to be having any kind of relationship with their pupils is a complete abuse of trust on their part, not to mention that it's completely illegal and immoral. That the pupil she was apparently dating and taking on holiday (a romantic weekend to Paris no less - I don't even get treats like this. Perhaps it's time for an illicit affair...) was a year under the legal consenting age made it that much worse, because of course in this country to have sex with an underage individual it counts wholly as statutory rape. It didn't ever look good for poor lovestruck Miss Goddard.

Before we chat about the bad bad ways that adults abuse their powers over kids, let's have a look at that last sentence. It was said in the court where this trial was being heard that both parties believed themselves to be in love with the other, showing that statutory rape probably just might be a bit of a harsh judgement to preside over the doomed teacher - after all, some countries have decided that 15 is a perfectly good age to start making your own decisions. In France it is the age you can legally say "er...alright then" to sex. So why such a difference between our country and theirs? What happens in a year that changes a person's ability to know right from wrong? Comments on the story itself have revolved around these questions more than any other factor of the case, and so they should. How can any adult decide how old a child has to be before they can decide for themselves? 15 seems extremely young, but when you actually are 15, things might seem a lot different. Obviously if I had my way, you'd be forced to remain a child with no control over your own life until the age of 17 at least, but that might be due to the vast array of poor judgements and general messes I made as a teenager when I fully (and wrongly) believed I was old enough to look after myself and run away to London. Or whatever I'd decided to do that week. What I'm trying to say is that it's very probable that the girl in this story completely believed that she was in love with a clever, attractive and generally interesting teacher who had a lot of time for her. At that age, especially if you deem yourself "more mature than most", this would make total sense. None of the kids your age 'get' you. They're all stupid. I understand the girl's argument completely - she was silly and naive, yes, but she is undoubtedly extremely upset at the moment, and won't realise the true crashing idiocy of her actions until a good 3 years time when she starts university and meets people her own age who are intelligent, funny, attentive and most importantly, not her teacher.

Helen Goddard clearly made some bad decisions. We could look into the possible psychological reasons why she might have fancied her pupil; an enjoyment of her feeling of power, perhaps, or even just the fact that it was wrong. She stated in her case that she loved the pupil, and that was why she risked her job for her. Unfortunately for her, life isn't all Hollyoaks and happy reunions. Life doesn't even really involve Real Love if you think properly about it. You can be completely happy with a person, of course, but as for all the souls-uniting fluffy hearts and one true love stuff goes, it probably isn't real. Think about it. I'm not saying love isn't real - of course you can love people, it's a real feeling and all that jazz, it's what kept us alive in the olden days. If our parents didn't feel that bond back in the caves, we'd have been eaten in a stew along with the cat. Alls I'm saying is that to believe wholeheartedly that you are meant to be with somebody NO MATTER WHAT THE COST because you were MADE FOR EACH OTHER is probably pretty stupid. You've got to be rational about these things. If you're a teacher and you fall for one of your youngsters from the music class, you should probably spend an extra day at your therapist's figuring out what's up with a different aspect of your life, rather than decided that yep, going out with a 15 year old is definitely what you need to be happy. Don't be ridiculous. Hormones and similar interests, that's all it is and was. You'll survive without her. That would be my advice. Shame I was never asked, huh?

The best aspect of the story, however, is the empahasis (or should I say the extremely exaggerated non-emphasis) on the pair's sexuality. It would appear that in this kind of circumstance two females good, two males extremely bad. It reminds me of two things: that South Park episode where the kindergarden teacher runs off with Kyle's baby brother Ike and none of the authorities care because they're too busy being jealous, and the time my old music teacher was fired and placed on the sex offenders' register for a similar offence. Claiming true love and a fault with the system, he too ruined his life for the sake of a young musically-talented strumpet under his care. He ended up leaving his wife and child to live the rest of his days as a shelf-stacker at the local Asda Plus, because once the shit hit the fan, his pregnant teen-love didn't want him any more. Or so the local press said, by this time I was no longer a pupil at the school. People were outraged and there was for a while a witch hunt on the local news where anybody who knew him was doorstepped, and there were a few pieces on the telly where his Torry front door was wedged open by a reporter's foot while he repeated the words "no comment". Would he have been treated differently if he was a woman? Possibly. Maybe his house wouldn't have been subjected to repeated vandal attacks had he been. It just seemed a shame to me that such a nice man wasn't able to draw a line between professional interest and seriously unacceptable behaviour. Such a waste of such a great teaching talent. What bothered me more was that after two years of schooling at that particular high school, with private bass guitar tuition from that particular teacher, not once was I hit on. More recently still, I found out that a previous maths teacher of mine from yet another High School was found guilty of getting rather carried away with after-school tuition. I saw none of this. Maybe my pity for these people stems from some sort of grotesque feeling of rejection. I must have been a very un-sexy child.

In all seriousness though, adults taking advantage of their respected positions is something that can never be acceptable, no matter how much the respective parties claim love and infatuation. As harsh as I might sound, a person who simply can't stop themselves from acting upon urges they know are wrong shouldn't let themselves work in a position where respect and trust are needed from them at all times. A person who is willing to let themselves believe that they have fallen in love with a child is not fit to work as a teacher anymore. As for jail, I'm not a fan of incarceration as punishment, but then again I have been called a "sucker" before for really believing that rehabilitation and re-education works. I wouldn't know where to start with regards to punishing adults who take kids along on their fantasies (please be aware that I am talking about the specific few who believe they were in love and not the evil that is the kiddy fiddler - chemical castration is my awful but ideal draconian punishment for that) but giving them help to see that this romanticised "love at all costs" theatre of catastrophe will do them and those around them nothing but serious harm.

Sometimes it pays to be a total cynic.


chestymorgan said...

..Sooo commonplace though.I think sadly that at least 50%of the workforce within the vulnerable client group jobs are there to exorcise their inner wounded healer.
A friend of mine once stuck IN LOCO PARENTIS up in his staff room cos he was so sickened by his colleagues 'league of year 9 girls arses'
I umm&ahh about teacher training,but I've no longer got the stomach for reminders of what shitheads there are in this world.

A glorious&terrifyingly insightful read;as ever xxxx

smellmycheese said...

Pretty much agree with everything you've said here. Esp this: a person who simply can't stop themselves from acting upon urges they know are wrong shouldn't let themselves work in a position where respect and trust are needed from them at all times.
I don't think she should be put in prison though. I think prison should be for people who pose a threat to society and I don't think she does. So what would be the point? A deterrent to others? Possibly. But I think these things come down to personal choice and responsibility and putting her away would be ineffective and overly harsh.
As for the age of consent - of course it is completely arbitrary in terms of whether someone is actually ready for a sexual relationship. Some people will be ready at 15, some not until they're 20, or older! But I guess the government has to draw a line somewhere, otherwise vulnerable children would be more open to abuse. So 16 seems as good a line as any.

smellmycheese said...

It looks like I'm missing your point in the above post. I'm not, I know you also wouldn't advocate prison in this case. I was just agreeing heartily with you!

Katie said...

Jeez. I always kindof imagined that staff rooms were filled with either dissolutioned teachers, or the type of teacher that only became a teacher because they fancied themselves as being the type of teacher all the older kids fancied. We definitely had a few of those - and they were fancied, because young girls in the top set will always look upon their intelligent and weirdly attractive teachers that way. Kinda helps too that it seems like a challenge. Its sick, but mostly they seem to really enjoy it. I can think of at least 5 of my previous teachers who acted this way.

I used to consider becoming a teacher, but I don't think I'd be good at connecting with the kids. I'd be good at teaching, but there's so much other stuff you have to do to be a good teacher, and generally being emotionally stable enough to give advice to kids with problems so much worse or so similar than/to your own would probably reduce me to tears on a daily basis.

It's a shame that your friend's experience of "arse league" doesn't seem completely shocking to me, I just feel ill and sad. I like to remember my teachers as mostly being stable and there to teach me while the rest of my life was all over the place. Most of them won't realise how much I appreciated them just being super professional and never getting too pissed off at me or prying into my private life. But as we now know, two of my teachers were into the maybe there were more shitheads than I thought. I'd just not like to think about it.

Katie said...

smellmycheese - Yeah, it's ok, I saw that :D She's from the different type of offender group who serious thought she was in love. SHe poses no threat other than she's probably going to do it again if she's in the business of caring for the vulnerable. Losing her job would be an adequate punishment - she was the head of the department (i think) so obviously her job meant the world to her. Prison would just be over the top and wouldn't solve the problem at hand.

toka said...

I've seen teenagers who deserved more anonymity than their immature parents.

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