When people find out what Precocious is about, or when they read it, the first question they ask is usually: ‘is it true?’ By which they mean, of course, ‘did it happen to you?’
There’s more than a hint of the ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ in the question. The topic of pupil-teacher affairs is one people usually find intriguing, and some find salacious. Two otherwise intelligent, sensitive, grown men have looked at the book and attempted to ‘flick forward to the sexy bits’…to which I usually reply that if you find the idea of a 28-year-old man having sex with a barely-15-year-old girl exciting, you should probably have a look at yourself.
I’ve been writing this book for some years and I always found it hard to explain ‘why’ I wrote it. Then earlier this year, judge Joanna Greenberg QC inadvertently articulated my reasons far better than I could.
In December 2014, Religious Studies teacher Stuart Kerner was found guilty of two counts of sexual activity with a child by a person in a position of trust. He had sex with a pupil who was 16 at the time (he was 42). Sentencing him in January, Greenberg gave him a suspended prison term on the basis that ‘it was she who groomed you, (and) you gave into temptation’.
This leads us to the nymphet myth. It has echoes of Lolita and Humbert Humbert’s protestation that ‘it was she who seduced me’. While many of us, recognising Humbert as perhaps the ultimate unreliable narrator, don’t take this comment at face value, it seems some do: Robert McCrum, writing about Lolita in The Guardian’s 100 Best Novels, says, ‘Although we see him drugging the love object of his dreams, Humbert is hardly debauching an innocent.’ Erm. Why drug her, then?
I know that teenage girls are sexual beings. I was one. I know hormones abound, I know girls mature quickly and often don’t find boys their own age appealing. Sexual experimentation at that age is not only natural, I’d argue it’s essential – but ideally it should be with a partner who is also doing exactly that: experimenting. Otherwise there’s a massive power imbalance, between experimentation and experience.
There are those who argue with reference to the Kerner case that 16 is the age of consent, therefore this was two adults having consensual sex and Kerner was only criminalised because he was a teacher. But the distinction is important: there is already a power imbalance inherent in the student-teacher relationship, and no amount of ‘stalking’ or ‘grooming’ on the part of the girl can redress this.
That’s what Precocious is about, really: power. When we imbue victims of abuse (and that is what these ‘Lolitas’ are) with power, we also encumber them with guilt. We’re saying they’re complicit in their own abuse.
It’s not about physical readiness to have sex. It’s not about how old the girl (or boy, let’s not forget it does happen the other way around – funny though, when it does, it’s often again the woman who’s vilified) is or how old she acts. It’s about emotional readiness. How many 16-year-old girls are emotionally ready for a sexual relationship with a 42-year-old (married) man?
I’m also learning, as I’m currently training as a psychotherapeutic counsellor, how formative those early sexual experiences are, and how they can affect all areas of later life, impacting not just on the sex life but on wider areas of self-esteem, confidence, trust.
So when people ask me why I wrote Precocious, is it important to go over the rumours that were rife at my school (they abound at most schools, I suspect)? The instances of pupil-teacher friendships I know for a fact went further than propriety should allow? My own youthful obsessions with older men? It sort of doesn’t matter if it’s my story or not – the point is, it’s someone’s story. It’s too many people’s story.