Much has been said about the sentencing of Joshua Robinson, who was found guilty of sex with a minor, filming an obscene act, possession of an obscene film, and displaying an obscene film to a young person. But the rhetoric has largely been punitive in that the perpetrator should have been given a harsher sentence that includes caning. Unfortunately, the discussion on punishment is largely ‘coffeeshop talk’ and will not make Singapore a safer place in any shape or form.
The most revealing aspect of this case is how child pornography is treated under the law here. Even though Robinson had in his possession hundreds of obscene films depicting children (out of thousands of obscene films), there was no difference to the charge or the punishment. This reality pales in comparison to many countries that attempt to protect young children by criminalising child-centred pornography much more harshly than any other type.
Unfortunately, even when the law has a provision to address children and pornography – which was tested in this case when Robinson showed pornographic imagery to a six-year-old – the punishment does not differ much at all. The maximum sentence for showing an adult an obscene film is 3 months’ imprisonment with a fine while showing that to a young person attracts the maximum sentence of 1 year’s imprisonment with a fine.
While it is easy to point the finger at Robinson for exploiting the girl who consequently suffered a mental breakdown, it exposes the wider context of the issue where the girl was possibly using an online platform without any supervision of her parent or guardian (MeetMe is a social networking platform and users aged between 13-17 are supposed to have parental consent to use the site). Likewise, her vulnerable self-esteem which was exploited by Robinson, appears to have been left unaddressed by her school, social circle and family.
This is more evident in the case of the second girl who slept with Robinson two years before the incident came to light. In that case, the girl had met him on OkCupid, which is a dating site meant for adults aged 18 and above.
How did the circumstances come about that a 15-year-old girl was using a dating app meant for adults? Who was aware of the girl’s activities and what might have influenced her to take such an ‘adventurous’ path in life?
There are no easy answers to these questions and the truth is that it is likely to be a complicated series of factors that culminated in the choices made by the girl. But to suggest that had the law been harder, harsher or resolute, Robinson would not have done what he did or that these girls would not have been vulnerable, is to naively scapegoat the issue.
Elements of Rape Culture
It is further troubling to see that the law is unable to distinguish between a wholly consensual sexual encounter and one that places serious doubt on the extent of consent.
In the case of the first girl, who had a mental breakdown after the encounter, the circumstances suggest that she was confused during the encounter – she was on the phone with a friend as the act was taking place and seems to have been unsure about what Robinson was doing on his phone while having sex (i.e. not realising that he was filming the encounter).
It is not unthinkable then that the girl had not given her informed consent to have sex with Robinson and, more importantly, there is enough evidence to suggest that he had reason to doubt whether consent was truly given or maintained throughout the epsiode.
This is more evident for the second girl’s experience in which she allegedly did not dare to stop him, presumably because of his stronger physique. Feeling disempowered to say ‘no’ clearly does not equate to consent and therefore a case can be made to suggest that Robinson technically forced himself onto her, or in other words, raped her. It is unclear if the Police have the sophistication to establish such nuances or if the prosecution bothered to verify this before charging Robinson.
However, the bigger problem is that young girls do not understand consent in the first place and it is probable that no one would have made the effort to explain this concept to these two girls during the investigative process. Had they been armed with knowledge, perhaps they could have better explained in their testimony that, yes, they had sought some excitement in meeting a “tall and muscular” foreigner potentially for sex, but realised that they were in over their heads when it came to the moment and did not want any part of it thereafter.
The underlying issue is that vulnerable young women (and men) are not protected enough by the law and are not empowered by knowledge regarding their choices and rights. The exploitation in this case came to light only because the girls were below 16 years old. What about those who are 16, 17, 18, or even those older than that? Any psychologically or emotionally vulnerable person in those age brackets would be easily preyed upon without any legal ramification, and would be left to deal with the emotional aftermath on their own. Is that acceptable for a mature society such as Singapore?
There will always be people who fall through the cracks and, as a society, we must endeavour to catch those who do. More education is needed to empower youth on what rights they possess and what is informed consent.
Parents need to teach this to their children and reiterate its importance because they are not going to be there to monitor them at every moment, and part of growing up is testing boundaries and making independent decisions that are sometimes wrong. Schools, meanwhile, need to openly discuss the issue and impress upon young students that consent is not a ‘yes or no’ proposition, so that these students can explore the topic and clarify their understanding among peers and educators.
At the macro level, legislation needs to recognise that we no longer live in an “Asian Society” where ‘the village’ can be trusted to look after one another. Laws need to be updated so that child pornography is distinguished from others and that damaging sexual deviance (i.e. the type that harms vulnerable individuals) can be investigated and prosecuted appropriately.
People like Joshua Robinson are hard to identify as predators until after the fact. It is pointless to hang the beast after it has already trampled the town – the smart approach is to figure out how the town can protect itself and stop the beast in the first place.