It was like being transported back to the 1980s, though not in a good way. I’m sure there were some admirable things about that decade, but attitudes to rape and underage sex weren’t among them. I remember the judge who told a 17-year-old rape victim that she was guilty of “contributory negligence” because she had been hitch-hiking, and fined her attacker £2,000 instead of sending him to prison. Then there was the judge who told a girl of 12 that she had been “asking for trouble” when she was raped after going to a man’s flat for coffee. He didn’t go to prison, either.
Fast forward three decades, and grown men are still having trouble with teenage girls, according to a judge whose remarks rightly caused outrage last week. Mrs Justice Greenberg was passing sentence in a case involving a teacher who had sex with a 16-year-old pupil, who counts as under age in terms of the law governing sexual relationships when the adult is in a position of trust.
The law is quite right in this respect, no matter how much some men may protest; an adult has a duty not to act on inappropriate sexual feelings, because he (or she) understands the potential damage in a way the child does not.
Greenberg seems not to have caught up with contemporary attitudes towards child sexual abuse, which is all the more surprising in the wake of Operation Yewtree, the inquiry into the crimes of Jimmy Savile and others.
Many of the victims targeted by Savile and other adult men, including the entertainers Rolf Harris and Stuart Hall, were very young when the abuse happened. The pernicious assumption that underage girls could “consent” to sex with older men played a role in the failure to expose widespread sexual abuse in Rochdale and other northern towns.
Where, I wonder, was Greenberg when all this was happening? Her observations in the sentencing hearing had more in common with the theories expressed in Lolita, Nabokov’s appalling novel romanticising child sexual abuse, than with contemporary research on abusive relationships. In one of the novel’s most notorious passages, Lolita eventually seduces the narrator, Humbert Humbert, reflecting a popular fantasy among men who want to avoid responsibility for having sex with young girls.
The defendant in last week’s case, a teacher called Stuart Kerner, did exactly that, running a defence in which he claimed to have been stalked by an obsessive pupil before giving in and having sex with her. Kerner, who is 44 and used to be vice-principal at Bexleyheath Academy in south-east London, had been found guilty at an earlier hearing of two counts of sexual activity with a child.
What makes this particular case all the more shocking is that Kerner taught RE and ethics, yet the latter subject seems to have offered him no pointers on how to respond to the situation he claims to have found himself in. Teenage girls are sometimes attracted to older men, but the duty of the teacher in such cases is crystal clear: he should report the matter to the school and take steps to avoid being alone with the pupil in question.
Instead, Kerner did something rather astonishing: he started carrying a condom around with him in case the girl became “too irresistible”. (Frankly, that sounds like premeditation to me.) The first time they had sex, Kerner barricaded himself and the girl in a school store cupboard, jamming the door with a chair. A few months later, he invited the girl to his house and had sex with her again before giving her a lift home. At the time she thought the relationship was “special” but the girl, who is now 19, realises with hindsight that it was anything but.
You might think that a teacher who fears he won’t be able to resist having sex with a teenage pupil needs to reset his moral compass. The judge took a very different view, accusing the victim of “grooming” Kerner and placing all the blame on her shoulders.
“I saw no sign that you had encouraged [the victim] in any way,” she assured him, raising an interesting question about how the two of them ever got into that cupboard. “Were it not for her obsession with you, the offence would never have occurred.” She said Kerner had given in to temptation while he was “vulnerable” and described the case as a tragedy.
If anyone was vulnerable in this case it was surely the victim, who came from a “troubled” background and had a history of attention-seeking behaviour. Fixating on a teacher, if that is what happened, should have been a signal that she needed help, not an excuse for a middle-aged man to indulge his fantasies about teenage girls.
Campaigners against sexual abuse have criticised not just the judge’s remarks but the fact that Kerner’s 18-month suspended sentence means he has avoided going to prison. (I said it was like the 1980s all over again.) The tariff prompted complaints to the Attorney General’s office, where officials initially said they would consider reviewing it under the “unduly lenient sentence review scheme”, but later admitted that it doesn’t fall within the remit.
That’s a shame, but at least the case has caused shockwaves. In 2015, who would have imagined that a judge could seriously suggest that a deputy head had been “groomed” by a 16-year-old girl?Reuse content