Adam Johnson's defence was a worryingly feminist one

If the Johnson case is anything to go by, 'it was society that conditioned me to do it, your honour' is becoming the new get out of jail card

Siobhan Fenton
Thursday 03 March 2016 13:46
Adam Johnson has pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual abuse of a 15-year-old girl
Adam Johnson has pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual abuse of a 15-year-old girl

After decades of campaigning, feminists might have been relieved to see rape culture acknowledged in the footballer Adam Johnson's trial, which concluded yesterday.

However, rather than being a cause for celebration, the acceptance of rape culture in Johnson's defence marks a troubling development. The traditional defence that a victim was "asking for it" seems to be going out of fashion. If the Johnson case is anything to go by, "It was society that conditioned me to do it, your honour" is becoming the new get out of jail card.

Johnson has been found guilty of having sexual activity with a 15-year-old girl. The ex-Englander and Sunderland player was contacted by the fan about signing a football shirt, after which he groomed and sexually exploited her. Speaking about the verdict, police said that Johnson “cynically abused his celebrity status as a professional footballer to groom and sexually abuse an impressionable schoolgirl”.

In many ways the story is a familiar tragedy of an older, powerful man abusing his position to seek sexual gratification from a vulnerable person. However, what is particularly striking is the extent to which Johnson has not only failed to deny these wider social issues surrounding abuse, but almost embraced them. Indeed, in a bid to deflect responsibility for the suffering he has caused, his defence in court represented an almost feminist logic.

Defending his actions, Johnson said that his early rise to fame and success as a gifted teenage footballer made him “arrogant” and “slowed” his mental progression. His defence echoes feminist arguments about rape culture whilst inverting them to scapegoat personal responsibility.

One of the main principles of modern feminism is that gender is a social construct. As such, gendered violence is not an innate, biological urge in men but something that is enabled by cultural attitudes. This belief has led to a recent rise in projects such as sexual consent workshops and other awareness raising schemes.

The suggestion during the trial that Johnson's career affected his mental progression, and that this could somehow excuse his harmful attitude towards young women, taps directly into feminist arguments about rape culture. And by doing so, it minimises his actions, and invokes the trappings of masculinity as a defence for his violence. It’s an odd, inverted logic and a troubling development in sexual violence trials.

That said, victim blaming has sadly been a prominent feature of sexual violence trials for a long time now, and while Johnson's defence marks a shift, it still persists. Just last year, a judge gave a non-custodial sentence to a teacher who groomed a 16-year-old pupil, telling him: “If grooming is the right word to use, it was she who groomed you and you gave into temptation.” And in 2013, a judge issued a suspended sentence for a man convicted of sexually abusing a 13-year-old girl, as it was argued that the child was “predatory” and had “egged him on.”

In each case there was, rightly, public outcry and courts are slowly beginning to realise that such victim blaming is not as acceptable as it once was. It is perhaps because of this that abusers – or at least their lawyers – seem to know that victim blaming doesn’t always wash in court and are instead turning to different tactics.

The challenge for feminists is to establish that the ill treatment of women isn't something inate to men, or beyond their control. Rape culture may be an accomplice to many sex crimes, but we cannot diminish the individual responsibility of sex offenders.

To accept that rape culture exists – and provides the context to decisions many men make – is not to say "society is to blame and there's nothing we can do". Crimes are always the responsibility of abusers alone and they must always be held to account for their actions.

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