All the world loves a lover, according to an essay on love by the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson; but he died long before today’s bleakly unromantic killjoys got to work on “underage” love. A classic case of the misery merchants’ baleful influence was to be seen in the British courts recently, when maths teacher Jeremy Forrest was sentenced to five and a half years in prison after his relationship with a 15-year-old girl pupil seemed near to discovery and the pair escaped to France.
She went willingly; but the authorities called it abduction, a view supported by the law – which, as everyone knows, is an ass. In this case its asininity is demonstrated by the fact that it is an offence in Britain, regardless of the child’s own views or best interests, to remove a child under 16 “from the lawful control of any person having lawful control of the child” (Child Abduction Act 1984, Section 2). This offence was enough to put the teacher into the same legal category as those who kidnap kids for purposes of ransom, rape, slavery and murder. The girl was an ardent participant in the pair’s sexual life too (up to eight times a night, the jury were told!), and in the country to which they fled their love-making would not even have been illegal: the age of consent in France is 15. But that did not prevent Forrest’s conviction for “sexual activity with a child”, as well as abduction, after the couple returned voluntarily to England.
As for what the girl’s best interests might have been, had anyone bothered to give them due weight before a monstrously unfair and ill-judged prosecution was launched, they would have discovered remarkable elements of positivity in the relationship. She was from a difficult home background, leading to significant emotional problems including depression and self-harming. Jeremy Forrest helped her slay those demons at a time when no one else was helping. His influence inspired her to take an interest in schoolwork: her grades and attendance records improved significantly under his tutelage. For legal reasons her identity can no longer be revealed. More importantly for our understanding of the case, though, her opinions can no longer be hidden: she has emerged as a young lady with a mind and will of her own, not as the mere puppet of an allegedly “manipulative” adult, as the dogmatists insist must always be the case with adult-child sexual liaisons, regardless of the facts.
These ultimately undeniable facts, facing off competitively against the dogmatists’ version of events, have resulted in a strikingly split narrative across the British media lately, especially in recent post-trial days.
The prosecution version, faithfully echoed across much of the media, was so comprehensively and viciously distorted as to be all but indistinguishable from malicious lies. Forrest was callously chain-sawed in an attack that had all the integrity of illegal logging in Amazonia. His lover was a physically mature 15 but that did not stop him being “a paedophile”; and just in case there is anyone alive who fails to get the message that being a paedo is a bad thing, prosecutor Richard Barton called Forrest a “coward” – not the most convincing insult to hurl against a guy who had the balls to defy the most potent taboo of our times. But that wasn’t all: Forrest had “groomed” the teenager to “satisfy his own carnal lusts” – an outrageous claim that brutally bulldozed out of sight the girl’s active and willing part in the relationship.
After the trial, this pattern of distortion was reinforced by the usual suspects in the usual clichéd way. Dr Michael Hymans, an educational psychologist, said “The crucial thing here is that this took place in a setting in which the adult was in a position of power. He carried all the trump cards.” The NSPCC, meanwhile, was telling the media what to think and say: “the media must be careful of presenting relationship between teacher and pupil as love story”, said a spokesperson . In other words, it was indeed a love story (otherwise why mention such an angle?) but the NSPCC felt this reality should be suppressed.
Fortunately, not all of the media were ready to swallow the in-denial approach taken by an increasingly vituperative abuse industry, whose rhetoric in Britain is now so hysterical it begins to resemble the worst excesses of the “culture wars” in America. In sharp contrast to the unlovely anti-love lobby, several tabloids rejected the NSPCC’s advice: the Romeo and Juliet angle caught their imagination when, after the trial, the couple were still defiantly sticking together: Forrest had blown a kiss at his girlfriend in court before he was taken to jail, mouthing “I love you”. They have marriage plans. The girl’s father approves. He has been quoted as saying he would like to shake the teacher’s hand and thank him for protecting his daughter, adding “I’d be proud to walk her down the aisle.”
It was the girl’s mother, not her father, who had given her a tough time. The youngster went into the witness box and testified that she got little attention at home. Her mother was divorcing her stepfather and was pregnant with her new boyfriend’s child, her fifth. Forrest was the only person who could deal with her mood swings, she said. He was the first person to show an interest in her problems and she took great comfort in being able to confide in him about her troubled relationship with her mother, her depression, self harming and an eating disorder. She said she felt safer with Jeremy than with anyone.
None of this counted for much in the eyes of Judge Michael Lawson QC, who implied that her statement did not reflect her real views, saying she had been coached as to what to say – an allegation totally belied by the couple’s declared intention to marry.
Another excellent riposte to this and other denunciations of the relationship came in a superb article by another woman who, as a child, had been in a relationship with a teacher. This was Don’t tell me my affair with a teacher was abusive – I’ll be the judge of that, in The Guardian. This piece is so good I can do no better than urge everyone to read it. Among a host of interesting points, the author is very clear on the need for professional rules governing teacher-pupil relationships. Jeremy Forrest broke those sensible rules and should be held to account for that.
But the issue of good professional conduct is a hugely different matter to criminal sanctions. It might be pointed out, briefly, that even in a university setting, where the students are all adults, affairs between students and academic staff are generally frowned upon, and with good reason: if a student is given high grades by a professor she is sleeping with, it can often lead to suspicions of favouritism and indeed the reality of corruption: the victims in such cases are not the student in the sexual or romantic relationship, but all the other students who are not in bed with the prof and not lucky enough to benefit from special treatment! So perhaps there should be a rule that if a teacher has sex with one of his pupils he must, in fairness, then offer similar opportunities to the rest if the class!
A small personal footnote: I see that Jeremy Forrest has been sent to Lewes Prison, where I served time in 1981 for an offence of “conspiracy to corrupt public morals”. I can’t say I recommend the place, but it should be better than the London prisons where I served the greater part of my sentence, HMP Wormwood Scrubs and HMP Wandsworth: in those far off days they were hell holes. Jeremy should also have an easier time than I did when he emerges as a free man: while not everyone loves a lover of young(ish) girls, they do love a love story that ends in marriage.
Remember the American teacher Mary Kay Letourneau? The one who had an affair with a 13-year-old boy pupil? They married after she had done her time inside, and the couple won over many hearts. They co-authored a book about their relationship, which was published in France as Only One Crime, Love (French: Un seul crime, l’amour). It has never been published in the United States. However, Letourneau’s story is recounted in the 2000 TV movie All-American Girl: The Mary Kay Letourneau Story.