Sexual abuse by people in authority often involves the use of power by the predatory adult. A teacher, of course, has often enormous influence over a pupil, but this issue is not limited to the teacher/pupil relationship. Abuse can happen in other settings where people work with young people too. It is very easy for young people to fall under that influence which is why, as we shall see, there are very strict laws prohibiting any kind of sexual activity between those in a position of trust and a young person (under the age of 18). Victims of grooming are often manipulated and what they may think is a relationship is, in fact, a twisted one, and a damaging one, that can have profound consequences.
Avid fans of the soap “Emmerdale” will be all too familiar with the current storyline of sexual impropriety between a teacher and her pupil.
Teacher Maya Stepney has been involved in an improper relationship with schoolboy Jacob Gallagher. She has been arrested and, no doubt faces being prosecuted for offences under the Sexual Offences Act 2003.
The fictional case vividly exposes a number of issues.
The first issue is young people can be exploited by adults through a process where they are manipulated into a relationship that in turn leads to sexual abuse. This manipulation is known as grooming. On the soap, Maya has been grooming Jacob for months and even made plans to flee the country with him. Maya tried to find a way out, taking Jacob with her, but she was reported to the police and finally arrested in front of him. Viewers were stunned when they previously saw Maya, who is Jacob’s teacher, have sex with him a few days after he turned 16.
The story has also exposed a lack of understanding of a sizeable proportion of the general public who apparently struggle to identify what constitutes sexual abuse. Research done for Barnardos by YouGov revealed that many adults have a severe lack of knowledge about sexual abuse. Barnardos has been working with Emmerdale’s producers on the current storyline, but despite witnessing Maya and Jacob sexting, the poll showed that 35% of people didn’t actually think an adult sending sexually explicit messages to a 16-year-old was illegal or abusive. When Jacob was still 15, scenes played out on screen of him kissing Maya in and out of school, however, 27% of people in the poll did not identify this as illegal or abusive.
There is also the uncommon perception that a teenage boy having sex is not harmful. Indeed there will be those who think that Jacob having sex with his teacher is a boy’s fantasy come true. The reality is that it is recognised this is likely to be harmful psychologically because of the manipulation and the abuse of power. The likelihood in the Jacob scenario is that he is being used for sexual gratification or to get some kind of power kick. He is being used unwittingly and with that, the risk is that whilst he might be physically mature he will not be psychologically, and that is where the harm is possibly going to arise.
Turning back to the law although Jacob was over the age of consent when he and Maya had sex, it is a crime for an adult in a position of trust (such as a teacher or foster carer) to engage in sexual activity with a person under the age of 18, under the Sexual Offences Act 2003.
If Maya is successfully prosecuted, she will face imprisonment. The courts take breach of trust cases very seriously.
In addition, Maya may be liable to pay compensation to Jacob for the harm she has caused him. The compensation could be significant if the damage she has caused is lifelong which is possible in cases such as this. Moreover, her employer may also be civilly liable to pay compensation if she was able to sexually abuse him as a direct result of her employment.
Sexual abuse of a minor by a person in position authority should be taken seriously by each of us and by society as a whole. Proper reporting and prosecution will not happen if people are not aware of just how damaging this kind of abuse can be. More importantly, without awareness, we will not be able to make strides toward preventing it from happening in the first place.