chriscurnow.com began life with an opinion on the then sexual misconduct scandals in Australia’s two main football codes.
It is sad that as we celebrate our first birthday, another case has taken over the headlines, talback shows and letters to the editor. This time though, the roles are reveresed. Melbourne woman, Karren Ellis, was this week jailed for a minimum of six months after having her earlier 22 month suspended sentence overturned on appeal. Ellis, a physical education teacher had repeated unprotected sex with a fifteen year old male student.
This case has had many of us searching our consciences and prejudices (eg see Lelie Canolds article. The original trial judge gave Ellis a wholly suspended sentence after she pleaded guilty to the offences.
However one of the appeal judges, Justice Frank Callaway, found the original sentence was “so lenient that it can be explained only by an unconscious sympathy with a female offender or a belief that no real harm had been done to the victim”.
Victims groups complained that the original sentence reflected a double standard where female offenders were treated more leniently.
The case has been compared to tennis coach, Gavin Hopper, jailed for having sex with a fifteen year old girl while he was coaching at one of Melbourne’s private schools. Hopper refused to admit guilt and his defence lawyer subjected the ex student to a torrid and lurid cross-examination.
So, are the two cases comparable. Is it just the gender of the perpertrator that is different?
My first reaction to the suspended sentence handed down to Ellis was that it was fair enough. She had already been punished enormously. She would never teach again. Whe would be placed on the sex offenders register where she would have to notify police every time she left the state and every time she had children other than her own in her care. And her relationship with her husband and children must have been seriously damaged, She would be a pariah in her peer group.
However the recent judgement has led me to think a lot about this case and my prejudices. The more I think about this, the more seriously I regard Ellis’s crime.
Firstly though, it is important to point out I believe the two cases are very different, and the gender of the perpertrator is a large part of the reason for the difference. I don’t suggest that the gender makes the crime less grave, but I suggest it makes it a different crime.
Cerainly both Ellis and Hopper are guilty of committing a grave and reckless breach of trust and duty of care. This they share in common.
In the Hopper case, the victime brought the action some ten years after the event. She went to the police as a married woman partly on the urging of her husband because she had been so traumatised by what had happened to her.
On the contrary, In the Ellis case, the boy maintains to this day that he wasn’t scarred by the experience and that neither of them did anything wrong. That, in fact, is the core of the problem.
Lets’ go back a few steps though. Ellis was charged with and pleaded guilty to sexual penetration of a minor. Now I have only read what is available in the papers, but I am guessing that she did not actually penetrate the boy. Quite the opposite in fact. So starting from a purely physical point of view, the acts of a man having sex with a woman and a woman having sex with a boy are very different. Yet we treat them as the same at law, using the former as the definition of the offense.
Emotionally they are very different as well. From all the evidence, Hopper had to let the girl believe that love was on offer for her to give him what he wanted. In the end, when she found out that she had given in to him on the promise of a lie, she was heartbroken. We can only guess at the full range of emotion she experienced but enough to feel her devastation.
The boy in the Ellis case needed no encouragement other than the possibility that he might have a conquest. Again, we don’t know all the details of the case but we could imagine that the last thing on his mind was a long term relationship. From all accounts his approach has been that “it was good while it lasted”. All he wanted was sex. Sex with a a very attractive, ver sexy teacher was about as good as it gets. Something to brag about.
The more I think about it, condoning and by her actions, encouraging and promoting such a callous (albeit common male) approach to life and relationships is Ellis’s singe most significant crime. As a person with responsibility to teach the young people in her care she was teaching this boy that consequences don’t matter. Unprotected sex doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if the woman (/girl) gets pregnant. Sexually transmitted disease is just something you read about but doesn’t happen to you. The consequences for significant others don’t matter. The consequences for Ellis’s husband and children don’t matter. All that matters is getting to “lay” the sexiest girl you can find – as many times and in as daring a way as you can until you get sick of her and move on to someone else.
Ellis attneded court this week alone. Her husband, who has previously supported her wasn’t there. None of her children were there. The boy wasn’t there. By all accounts she had no friends present and was not wearing the wedding ring she had worn to all previous appearances.
It’s a sad case, as was the Hopper one, but I believe Ellis must be held to account for such reckless abandonment of responsibility and by her actions encouraging and rewarding reckless and life destroying behaviour – not just for her own and the boy’s immediate families, but for future relationships the boy will enter.
This case has nothing to do with equality before the law. It has to do with a crime that deserrves punishment without comparison to other cases.