A victim of schoolboy fantasies

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The Independent Online
She was asking for it," defendants often say in rape trials. They describe how the victim was dressed, how she drank too much, how the sexual signals could have got confused - and juries tend to believe them, convicting in only 9 per cent of cases. So when a court was told last week that a 32-year-old woman had appeared in a bedroom, wearing only a dressing-gown that was gaping open, it seemed unlikely that anyone would be convicted of indecent assault, the charge that the jury had been asked to consider.

And she wasn't. Yet here the woman was not the accuser but the defendant. Renate Williams was accused of having sex with a 15-year-old boy; in this nasty case the confusing feature is that the defendant was subject to the kind of character assassination usually reserved for women who bring charges against men. (Perhaps it is just a habit in British courts to tear a woman's reputation apart, regardless of her role in the proceedings.) Anyway, the jury was asked to listen to a lengthy account of how the novice teacher became drunk at a beach party during a school trip to North Wales, told a 15-year-old boy she wanted to "screw" him, appeared in his room naked except for the aforementioned dressing-gown, invited him back to her own room for sex - and a lot of other stuff that sounded like a sexual fantasy made up by the teenage boys who accused her. Which, the jury decided, is exactly what it was.

Ms Williams never claimed her own conduct was exemplary. She was in her first job as a drama teacher, at a boys' boarding school in Worcestershire. She found the boys disruptive and aggressive, and faced a barrage of sexual innuendo. She had the good sense to complain that she felt over-worked to her superiors, who brushed her worries aside. She began to drink heavily and take tranquillisers, beginning a sequence of events that led to her suspension and dismissal. It also prompted her appearance last week at Worcester Crown Court, where she was portrayed as a drunken sexual predator.

On Tuesday the jury delivered a formal "not guilty" verdict on one of the charges, after Ms Williams's alleged victim admitted that he had lied about having sex in her studio. On Wednesday Ms Williams was acquitted of the other charge of indecently assaulting him on the school trip. What is astonishing is that the case ever came to court, given that the pupils' evidence was crudely and obviously pornographic. Teenage boys have fantasised about sex with older women since time immemorial, and the supposed details in this case - Ms Williams asking a boy for sex and being discovered in flagrante delicto with him by his mates - could have come from a low-budget blue movie, Trainee Teacher on the Job.

A teaching colleague, who had been on the North Wales trip, testified that Ms Williams's room was next to his. He said it was highly unlikely that she could have brought one of the boys back for sex without his overhearing them, which he did not. Yet the prosecution went ahead, subjecting Ms Williams to a ghastly ordeal that has left her life in ruins. ("Sex slur teacher's career is in tatters", The Mirror announced when the trial was over.) The irony is that the boys were listened to when they made their literally fantastic allegations and Ms Williams was not when she reported her anxieties about her job and asked for help.

Her accusers have not even suffered the indignity of having their names printed in newspapers, a point taken up by Peter Luff, MP for Mid Worcestershire. "It does not seem right that these boys have got off scot-free, without even being identified, while this teacher, innocent of all charges, has had her name dragged through the mud," he said last week. Contrast that with the experience of Rowena Jones, a student at Exeter University who appeared in court last month after making a false allegation of rape. Ms Jones, 21, is now serving a two-month prison sentence. I do not think we need look further for evidence of the discriminatory treatment handed out to women by the British judicial system. Some habits are just too hard to break.

THE CHANCELLOR played Santa Claus last week, telling pensioners that they are to be given free TV licences when they reach the age of 75 - but not until next autumn. I don't know the mortality rate for that age group, but it might have occurred to some bright spark at the Treasury that nine months is a long time to wait when you are in your eighth decade. Unless it is a disguised health incentive aimed at encouraging the elderly to hang on until the coveted piece of paper drops through the letterbox?