The footballer Adam Johnson, who was convicted in 2016 of sexual activity with a child and grooming, is out of prison. Of course, as we’ve come to expect, Twitter is awash with purest “BANTAAAAAAAA”: “Adam Johnson’s having a party, bring your homework, bring your Smarties”, writes one cheeky funster. Others have playfully pointed out that, since his victim is now 18, he can legally “have another crack”. Ha! Massive “LOLs” all round about the abuse of an underage girl.
Whether or not he ever plays professional football again really isn’t of any interest to me. He will never escape what he did – the taunts, disgust and mistrust will never go away. What I’m more concerned about is the sympathy that’s being offered from some quarters, not on the grounds that “he’s served his time”, but that they imagine the girl somehow invited his behaviour and encouraged it, and the supposed mitigation that she had the physical appearance of a grown woman.
What these people somehow don’t seem to understand is that grooming is among the coldest, most deliberate and most damaging things that you can do to a vulnerable adolescent.
I was groomed by an adult man when I was 15. I cannot overstate the lasting effect that it has: how badly it distorts your view of yourself and how it can wreck your self-worth to the point where you can resort to all kinds of self-harm.
I went through so much of my life not understanding the impact it had on me. The man who abused me left me carrying so much shame that I was swamped by it long into adulthood, without the first idea of how to verbalise it to anyone or seek help. It was only last week, at the age of 45, when I found myself unable to read about Johnson without my own past wailing in my ear, that I called a helpline for victims of abuse. Thirty years, that took.
So much destructive behaviour could have been stopped if I had even understood that this man was committing a crime, but I didn’t. I was a child, and so utterly wrapped up in him that, when he was done with me and cast me aside, I was bereft.
The man who groomed me wasn’t famous, but he was a popular and charismatic man in his 20s. Because he was an outwardly ordinary guy, well liked and respected, it didn’t cross my mind that he was doing anything wrong. A few people around me even knew what was going on (although none of my family, I hasten to add). Not one of them told my parents or the police. I’d like to think that we live in different times now.
The only memories that anyone should have of sexual activity at 15 are of exploring with kids of their own age, in circumstances that allow them to set their own boundaries and have those boundaries respected.
I was an extremely shy and self-conscious teen, and when a man who I found funny and charming singled me out and paid me attention – telling me that I was beautiful and making me feel wanted – he took me out of my world and out of my anxious young mind. At that age, I had no idea that it was my pubescent body that my abuser found attractive, nor that he was getting off on the fact that I didn’t have a prayer of controlling the situation.
I thought it was me that he liked. I felt special because he, despite being attractive and successful and having a huge choice of women to be with, had chosen me. He made me believe that this was a one-off, that he hadn’t expected to feel this way, but that I was so attractive that he couldn’t help but act on it.
It was intoxicating for a young girl with one foot still in her childhood, who still kept a few dolls and teddies to sleep with. He saw that I was impossibly flattered by the attention. He knew that I imagined that he liked me because he saw me as a woman and not a child. At 15, we all desperately want the validation of being seen as more grown-up. He made me feel that that was how it was, but it wasn’t. He saw me exactly as I was: as a child, with a childish mind that could be moulded and manipulated. He knew that he could make me do things just to please him. When I was alone with him, I could barely utter a word, so frozen was I with infatuation.
In the light of the things that that man did to me when I was too young to understand the boundaries that he was crossing, and the pleasure that he took in immobilising me physically and emotionally as he did them, to see Johnson light-heartedly ribbed about his sexual appetite drives me mad with frustration. Johnson knew exactly what he was doing. People like him always do.
Whatever happens with Johnson’s career, I can only hope, for the many children who find themselves in the same position as his victim, that this high-profile case might give some of them the strength to tell someone.
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