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Helen Goddard – should she really be branded a sex offender?

Rex Features

Rex Features

Yesterday, music teacher Helen Goddard, aged 26, was jailed for having sex with a 15-year-old female pupil at a fee-paying school outside London. She was sentenced to 18 months in prison, has been put on the Sex Offenders’ Register for 10 years and has been banned from working with children for life.

On reading this story, I was forced to question the morality of such a punishment. Anyone that has read the details behind the case will know that the relationship between the two was most definitely consensual, instigated by the pupil, and was of an intimate and loving nature. Yes, sex was involved, but it was not the driving force of the affair and not the only thing to focus on.

The girl’s parents are rightly outraged that their daughter lied to them and that a teacher, which they effectively pay, misused her authority and position of trust.

But isn’t that the end of it? The girl wasn’t morally raped – she was legally raped. Having sex with someone under the age of consent, 16, is rape in the eyes of the law. So why does it make me uncomfortable that I don’t seem to be seeing through these same eyes?

Goddard has lost her career, her integrity, her reptuation (a former child trumpet prodigy who played at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in 2000) and been through a very public and humiliating trial with sordid details of her sex life exposed in most of the nationals. This is a young woman whose primary action was to fall in love and to act upon this love.

Many people will argue that there is more to this than love – that she was in a position of trust, that she took advantage of a hormone-fuelled teenager, even that she is some sort of deviant for having found affection in the arms of someone 10 years her junior. But is she a predator? Is she a rapist? Is she a sex offender?

There has been no question that she pursued the pupil – a relationship was formed out of a friendship, a closeness that became something more – something that has happened to most people the world over – you meet someone, there’s a connection. Of course, no-one forced Goddard to act upon this desire. She is a 26-year-old woman, and speaking myself as one, I know that by no means am I always grounded enough to make the right decisions, especially when it comes to matters of the heart.

Rape is a hate crime. Is this what we are discussing here? It is a nasty and ugly abuse of power, an act of force and usually violence, not a romantic weekend in Paris, not a walk in the park that turned into a kiss, a text message that reads: ‘It’s going to be a beautiful day. I love you. You are on my mind all night.’

Fifteen-year-olds, and younger, across the country are having sex. They have sex with other people their age, with those older, younger – to criminalise each action would be absurd. Goddard was a teacher, so of course, she must be held accountable for her actions; lose her job, maybe face a teaching ban, but she is not a sex offender and does not need to go to prison to understand the mistake she has made.

The media loves this sort of story. Ooh it is a sex story – even better a nice little teacher pupil-fantasy scenario. And a lesbian? Bingo – let’s splash it across the front pages with a nice picture of the so-called sexual predator, looking very err… predatory as she walks into court (where she later bursts into tears on being sentenced). What could possibly satsify the salacious appetites of the tabloids, and sadly, the nationals, further? Surely only fluffy handcuffs and sex toys (god forbid) can taint her character just a bit more? (because these are the tools of the devil don’t you know?).

This is all without the mention of paedophilia – as necessary as the humble printing press in creating a tabloid these days. The media is full of this kind of paedo-hysteria, stranger danger bullshit, constantly implying that the world is full of predators stalking our young people and forcing them into bad and dangerous ways.

Look behind the Goddard story, behind the draconian and blanket laws, and find a story that is both sad and heartening. The judge in the case chose not to impose a ban on the couple seeing each other, despite the law essentially branding Goddard a sex offender so implicitly admitting that they do not actually believe this to be the case. The judge rejected a prosecution request to ban the teacher from contacting her victim for five years, claiming it would be ‘unnecessary, unkind, and cruel to the victim’. Does this not also give the impression that the girl would be worse off for not seeing her lover than by having contact?

This lack of ban means that she will be able to contact her from prison, as well as see her privately when released. It is obviously something that the couple, at this stage, plan to do, with Goddard punching the air in victory in court, when being told that no such ban would be imposed.

Obviously, the court is not accepting the fact that Goddard is a risk to the pupil. The judge also refused, another prosecution request, to ban Goddard from being allowed to be alone with underage girls – once again, demonstrating the fact that the teacher is not viewed as a threat to young people in any sense.

According to Goddard’s barrister, the teacher ‘is quite young for her age’ and he claimed that the couple continue to ‘love each other very much’.

The law is in place to both protect and punish. Yet cases such as this merely show how black and white law is when applied. Surely cases should be judged on individuality? Surely a ‘victim’s’ wishes and thoughts should be taken into account? This is merely a sentence for sentencing’s sake. Goddard will have a large part of her life absolutely ruined and is being portrayed as some kind of sexual monster because of it. The judge admitted it was a ‘difficult’ case, yet was powerless to use any sense of perspective or proportion.

Someone once used the analogy of if you picked up a pound coin on the ground and put it in your pocket, then by the principles of law, you could be charged with theft and sentenced accordingly. Is this not one of those cases? A knee-jerk overkill reaction to a crime that is essentially innocuous for all parties? It was something that could have been dealt with within the school, not made public, and not brought to a criminal trial.

A statement by the girl’s parents (as printed in the predictably biased Daily Mail piece) states: ‘Our teenage girl has been led to believe by Miss Goddard that their contact is within the bounds of a normal relationship, apart from the fact that our daughter is a few months underage. From our understanding, Miss Goddard and our daughter feel that it is possible to continue their relationship without difficulty when our daughter is 16 at the end of this month. In conveying this to our daughter, and taking no responsibility for her actions, we do not believe Miss Goddard has fully understood the seriousness of her breaking the boundaries and completely breaching the trust embedded in the teacher-pupil relationship.’

While I am sympathetic to the parents, it is all to easy to blame Goddard as the vile perpertrator. Their contact, although unusual, is ‘within the bounds of a normal relationship’ if they chose to let it be as they are both consenting and by all accounts, the pupil has reached a level of sexual maturity in order to be able to make this judgement. The girl is nearly 16, so agonisingly close, it makes you wonder what Goddard’s punishment would have been if she were to have embarked on this affair just a few months later. Would the world look kindly on their plight? Would she have gone away with a rapped knuckle and a P45? The world of ‘what ifs’ is probably plaguing her right now as she sits in a cell wondering where it all went wrong. The parents claim she has not fully understood the seriousness of her actions – I would say that she most definitely has. As a teacher and a woman of 26, she will have known the risks involved, even if she did not fully grasp that a nasty future of incarceration and humiliation would be on its way.

Love makes us do stupid things. It makes our judgements cloudy, makes us rebellious, makes us defy the odds. Literature is awash with these Romeo-Juliet, love across the boundaries-type sagas and usually they have us swooning, hoping that our love-torn protagonists will beat the system, overcome the prejudice and be entitled to achieve what they both, as two human individuals, truly and independently desire.

As Helen Goddard ponders her future now, I would love to ask her just one question? Would you make the same mistake again? And if I was a gambling woman, I would place my bet on a ‘yes’. Love is not a choice as this harsh and stoic law would assume. It is grey, complex and extremely divisive. Young people are entitled to their opinions and laws which seek to protect them must, in turn, respect this. I just hope that the couple’s feelings can withstand the media and parental pressure, which has undoubtedly harmed the young girl more than any caring and loving relationship ever could, and they can go on to prove the legal system and its army of Daily Mail reading, democracy-hating followers, well and truly wrong.

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