Fifteen months for a foolish affair?
The jailing of a teacher who had a lesbian affair with a 15-year-old girl is a victory for legalism rather than justice.
Between February and July this year, Helen Goddard, then a 26-year-old music teacher at an unnamed private school in London, had an affair with one of her pupils, a 15-year-old girl. That July, following an anonymous tip-off to the pair’s school, Goddard was arrested, and, this week, found guilty of six charges of unlawful sexual activity.
Fortunately for Goddard and her former pupil, Judge Anthony Pitts is a sensitive man. He could see the nuances of the case, that theirs was a genuine relationship. Yes, Goddard had broken the law, but the girl, 16 later this month, was not a victim in any conventional sense. Illegal it might have been, but it was consensual, and, to all intents and purposes, non-abusive. They did coupley things like have meals at Goddard’s house, or go away at the weekend together. Little wonder that Pitts, gentle soul that he is, rejected the prosecution’s demands for a five-year ban on Goddard seeing her former lover, stating that that ‘would be draconian and unnecessarily cruel to [the girl] as well’.
Unfortunately for Goddard and the girl, however, Judge Anthony Pitts is also an extremely contradictory man. While deeming the five-year banning order ‘unnecessarily cruel’ and ‘draconian’, he was perfectly happy to dish out a 15-month jail sentence to Ms Goddard, pronouncing the case ‘so serious [that] an immediate sentence of imprisonment is inevitable’.
It does seem an absurd judgement. If the case is so serious that Goddard must be incarcerated, how can Judge Pitts, almost in the same breath, suggest that a banning order would be too ‘draconian’? Why is a banning order too cruel, but banging someone up for over a year perfectly okay?
No doubt, the contradictory nature of the judgement reflects a tension between the judge’s perception of the actual case and an application of the law in the abstract. One also wonders whether the judgement would have been the same if it had been a consensual male homosexual relationship, involving penises and penetration. In the case of Goddard, there has been far too much prejudice, and not enough judice.
There is undoubtedly wrongdoing here. A teacher is in a position of trust, in loco parentis. The undermining of that role entrusted to teachers by parents means that this particular girl’s parents are well within their rights to demand that the teacher is punished for, in their words, ‘breaking the boundary and completely breaching the trust embedded in the teacher-pupil relationship’. But while the parents are entitled to be angry and ask why a teacher also became a lover to their child, a judge is there to arbitrate, to judge whether the undoubted wrongdoing is deserving of the punishment demanded.
Here, however, there has been very little judgement involved. The age of consent, a line drawn in teenage sand demarcating absolutes of right and wrong, has been wielded abstractly. What ought to exist as a guide through the grey area of adolescence, one used with due attention paid to varying degrees of physical and emotional maturity, has been used blindly, obtusely. Legal formalism has eclipsed judgement. After all, the age of consent is a pretty arbitrary standard. A quick glance at variations on the continent is evidence enough: in Spain, it is 13, in France 15, and in Germany 14, or 16 if one of the parties is over 21. It’s not completely arbitrary but, in terms of those tumultuous adolescent years, it is arbitrary. And that is why, in terms of its application, the age of consent must not be applied abstractly; attention must always be paid to the particular case being judged, whether it’s a 26 year-old music teacher foolishly falling in love with her 15-year-old female pupil, or a one-night stand between a 16-year-old lad and his mate’s 14-year-old sister.
Helen Goddard is now also on the UK Sex Offenders’ Register for 10 years. If anything is the embodiment of clumsy abstraction, it is this piece of New Labour legislation. A dumping ground for anyone found guilty of sex-related crime, whether a serial rapist or a foolish teacher, it draws no distinction between actions. Once on there, however, one is tarred well beyond the duration of whatever punishment one might have served. On the register, a foolish mistake becomes something else. It becomes a blanket judgement upon character. You cease to be someone deemed capable of choosing a course of action, whether right or wrong, and taking responsibility for it; rather, you are deemed a slave to urges which must be forever monitored. You become sub-legal, sub-moral, a near-animal.
At every stage in the case of Helen Goddard, moral judgement has been striking by its absence. Yes, there has been plenty of legalism, of applying the letter of law, but it has stood in for judgement proper, for calmly assessing and judging the actions of the person on trial. The lengthy imprisonment of Goddard and her registration as a sex offender is a triumph for asinine legal abstraction, not justice.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
Josie Appleton thought it was time to put the Sexual Offences Act to bed. Tessa Mayes asserted that minor acts of annoyance are being lumped together with serious cases of sexual assault. Gay rights activist Peter Tatchell said homosexuality isn’t natural. Jennie Bristow looked at the case of Amy Gehring, the supply teacher accused of having sex with three teenage pupils under the age of consent. Emily Hill reviewed Notes on a Scandal. Or read more at spiked issue Crime and the law.
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