Undeniably, this case has produced a positive result, resulting in the conviction and expected sentence of a child sexual offender. However, it does raise concerns regarding the consistency and effectiveness of social and legal responses to child sexual grooming and exploitation of adolescents more generally.
Although the rationale of the Sexual Offences Act is to ‘provide a greater level of protection to children’ from sexual abuse, responses to other cases of grooming involving adolescents, have not always been appropriate, and as a result, children have been left at a greater risk of harm from the profound and damaging effects of sexual grooming, abuse and exploitation.
This case is one of many recent cases where individuals with celebrity status have been found to have abused their position, not only within their role, but also within society, in order to gain access to children for sexual activity.
While, the high profile investigations into the sexual abuse of children by celebrities such as Jimmy Saville and Fred Talbot have increased the social and legal awareness of child sexual offences, Dame Janet Smith’s inquiry highlighted how silence has provided an opportunity for perpetrators to conceal their abuse, and thus prohibit and even discredit disclosure.
However, the “most searing indictment” is that the culture of silence still remains and that it is not limited to cases involving exploitation of celebrity status. In fact, the culture of silence is why child sexual offences are so difficult to detect and target and it is this ‘silence’ that is likely to inhibit the successful protection of all perpetrators of grooming and sexual abuse in the future.
Although this case shows promise in that the apparent willingness of the girl to engage in sexual activity actually strengthened the case against Johnson, in other cases of grooming, the apparent willingness of victims has allowed perpetrators to avoid prosecution and more disturbingly, has labelled victims as culpable for the abuse they have experienced.
It is imperative that social and legal responses demonstrate that cases of grooming will always involve an imbalance of power, increasing the vulnerability of children to the grooming, as was acknowledged in Johnson’s case. Furthermore, it is vital to understand that imbalance of power is an integral part of the grooming process and is therefore not limited to those in positions of trust; a power which always perpetuates and undermines the will of the victim, regardless of whether they are legally able to consent or if they show any willingness to participate in sexual activity.
In the context of grooming, it is important to consistently refer to the apparent willingness of victims as ‘acquiescence’ to avoid damaging constructions of victims as complaints. While Prosecutor Kate Blackwell has accurately stated that the case represented “a classic case of grooming … grooming in its purest form,” it is vital that responses to victims consistently recognise that all instances of grooming exploit the vulnerability of children. Thus, any acquiescence by the victim within sexual activity resulting from a period of grooming should be used to form part of the evidence of the case, in order to effectively protect children from the manifesting nature of the phenomenon of child sexual grooming.