Picture of a judge's wigThe Judge RANTS!Picture of a judge's wig

Date: 28/06/06

Sex And Death...

...and the problems our legal system seems to have with them.

Two news reports caught my eye today, and between them they highlight an issue which has exercised my mind more than once in recent times.

In Case No. 1, a 49-year-old woman teacher was convicted of having sex with a 14/15-year-old pupil at the school where she taught. The boy is described in the BBC's report as having 'behavioural problems', although his response to the woman's advances seem to be quite normal to me, and coercion doesn't seem to have entered into it (if you'll excuse the phrase) if they went on to have sex ten times, along with what the report describes only as 'a sex act' and 'indecent touching' (well, I don't suppose the BBC is allowed to say 'a gobble and a grope').

The woman's punishment? Four years and three months imprisonment.

In Case No. 2, a 45-year-old man's case was up before the Court Of Appeal. He had been convicted of running down and killing a 20-year-old student, being without insurance and having taken a week to turn himself in.

His original punishment? Eighteen months in jail. The authorities appealed, claiming the sentence to be unduly lenient, as well they might. The Court Of Appeal agreed, and today increased the sentence...to three years.

Now, there is something odd going on here I think.

Ponder, if you will:

In the first case, a teacher of un certain age takes advantage of a teenage boy's undoubted (hormones cannot be denied at that age) eagerness to lose it. There's no suggestion in the report that the boy had suffered as a consequence (if this had come out in court, the media could be relied upon to say so), and indeed his experiences might have been viewed with envy by many of his classmates (although the photograph accompanying the report doesn't indicate that this woman is a looker - admittedly, it only shows her from the neck up). OK, she most certainly shouldn't have done it; she abused her position for her own gratification, and one can only assume that whatever the boy got out of it was, from her point of view, a mere side-effect.

In the second case, a man - out of outright carelessness or not giving a damn anyway - kills a young woman who had all her best years ahead of her; then drives off without attempting either to save her life or even to put his hands up and admit what happened. One life destroyed, and the lives of her family and friends ruined.

So please tell me why someone who killed got such a short sentence in the first place, and why the Appeal Court's decision today is scarcely any less of an insult to the victim's memory, and why someone who shagged a (in all likelihood) willing teenager gets the book thrown at her?

I think there are two factors at work here.

In the first case, it is the typical confusion in Anglo-Saxon society about sex in general. We are surrounded by it: it features on our television, in films and in music. It is used to sell all sorts of things, be it a product or an idea. This merits little response of condemnation from most; nothing much more than a shrug of the shoulders, perhaps, or maybe a mild outbreak of synchronised tutting when the ever-elastic boundaries of popular taste are blatantly breached. It is surely beyond denial that this flooding effect must have its influence on those who witness it: why else would the tactic be used otherwise?

However...when it comes to our own sexuality, especially that of teenagers, nothing may be admitted, nothing permitted, nothing even talked about in most cases. Still and all, we know that between the ages of about eleven and seventeen, most people (especially the males) are a barely-controlled explosion of horniness. Yet any expression of that is deemed to be so far beyond the pale as to render those subject to it liable to outright condemnation, abuse, scorn and, increasingly, the sanction of the courts. Every extreme case is cited in an attempt to 'clamp down' on it. So, a particuarly egregious case of the physical abuse of a young adult may be used (actually, no 'may be' about it: it is used) to justify such a dubious exercise as the Sex Offenders' Register. Once in place, such measures tend to suffer from what is termed 'function creep', in that they are applied to situations where they were never intended to be used. For instance, there was a case only three or four years ago of a 12-year-old boy, who had felt up a girl in his class at school, being placed on that Register for life. And there's no easy appeal against such a decision either.

My point is this: if a mature (for a given value of that word) woman tries to seduce any remotely physically-normal boy in his mid-teens, she is likely to succeed irrespective of her motives. This doesn't make her less culpable any more than it makes her 'victim' into a naïve innocent: it merely is, and we have to recognise that fact. Other societies do seem to handle this better. Had a similar case arisen in France, there would have been a shrug of the shoulders: in Spain or Italy, it might have merited a small headline. In parts of Africa, a wry smile of bemusement might have been engendered by the reaction to the act, rather than to the act itself: the boy may be considered to be slightly slow off the mark. In the Diyip Saath of the US, the teacher might have been considered to be the retard. Punish if you will (and you should), but nearly half a decade in the jug is a disproportionately prurient response.

In the second case, it seems to me to be a manifestation of another particular fact about our society: the overlordship of the Great God Car. It happens time and again that people who kill with a motor vehicle, either through carelessness, negligence or outright not-giving-a-flying-one-ness, tend to end up with far lighter sentences than if they had been homicidal using any other lethal object. If you commit what is termed 'manslaughter' with, say, a knife or a baseball bat, you are likely to end with a prison term of five years minimum, and life sentences can be, and are, given in some cases. Yet, if your carelessness, etc. with a motor vehicle causes the same outcome, you can consider yourself somewhat unlucky if you get anywhere near as much as five years. Indeed, the maximum sentence you could get (unless it was so obviously deliberate that a murder charge is preferred) is fourteen years. Our beloved Government, in one of its regular spasms of populism (another one in which it made more vows than you'd find at a Moonie wedding), claimed it was being 'tough' on crime by increasing the maximum from ten years. The sad fact is that the previous maximum had never been used, even in the cases most obviously suited for it. For example, I recall a case from Lancashire a year or two back where some young arsehole had been responsible for killing three people by driving whilst drunk and stoned. The bastard (who had absolutely no mitigating circumstances to defend himself with) got only eight years. That's right: eight years, for killing three people.

Yet this is very much par for the course when it comes to instances of killer motorists: a far lighter sentence than would otherwise have been the case.

It's almost as if those victims don't really matter. Why else would lethal driving attract charges not of 'manslaughter', but of 'causing death by careless/reckless/dangerous driving'? It's scarcely to be wondered at that sentences tend to be so low if the offence of which the perpetrators are accused is phrased in such a touch-me-not, understated fashion, a verbal formula which suggests a minor infraction of the regulations rather than outright homicide.

And yet all we hear is motorists squealing on about how terribly oppressed they are, poor darlings, and about how speed cameras are only there to put money into the pockets of the Police, and how outrageous the price of fuel is. OK, here's the deal, petrolheads: no more speed cameras, so long as you keep within the limits; no more increases in fuel, on condition that you buy the most economical vehicle which is suitable for your actual practical needs (as opposed to just desperately showing off). In return, you agree that any one of you done for killing with your car will face a charge of 'vehicular homicide', complete with sentences which properly reflect the seriousness of what you've done. Agreed?

Reading these two stories side by side reminded me of something. Some years ago, I bought the CD release of that famous midnight concert at Carnegie Hall by Lenny Bruce in February 1961. In it, he remarks on the inconsistent attitude taken by 'all right-thinking people' towards what teenagers may be permitted to see on film. His two illustrations were 8mm porn movies and Hitchcock's Psycho. Bruce's conclusion was that, as far as the Great American Public was concerned then (and given the Battle Of Janet's Nipple a couple of years ago, nothing has changed), their rule for what young adults could view could be summed up by the phrase: "Killing, yes; but shtupping, no!"

Our societies are deeply confused.