Last fall, in Manchester, England, an awkward 19-year-old male student touched a 17-year-old female classmate's arm on the street during the daytime. He later said he had wanted to make a friend.
This rattled the young woman so much that she went to the police. Now the young man is facing possible jail time and could be placed on the sex offense registry.
"The complainant's evidence was very clear, logical and without embellishment," a magistrate told the young man. "We can think of no motivation for you to touch the victim other than sexual. Had she not taken evasive action the assault was likely to have been even more serious."
At his hearing, student Jamie Griffiths was convicted of two charges of sexual assault, in part because the accuser, now 18, said that she had "no doubt" that had she not moved away from him that first time he touched her arm, he would have gone on to touch her breast.
As she told the court, according to The Manchester Evening News:
"I was just set on getting home and [reviewing] for my mock exams, but as I was coming over the bridge I saw him facing a hedge and I thought it was really weird. He wasn't doing anything. He was just facing the hedge, staring at it.
"As I walked towards him, I was watching him and he suddenly swung round so he was facing me.
"I remember it happening fast. As soon as he moved, I moved, and I said: 'stop' and he touched me on my arm. I sort of jolted out of the way and I went into the road to avoid him and he very quickly walked away…
"I forgot about it for a while because I had my exams. I just thought it was weird behavior."
It does sound like weird behavior. Does it sound like a crime punishable by possible jail time and placement on the sex offense registry?
The accuser reported the incident to the police. In a second incident, the young woman was walking to school when Griffiths walked in front of her and touched her side. "It was quite a while—three to five seconds," she said. "He smirked at me, he didn't stop, he just touched me and walked off and I broke down crying in the street—it was quite traumatic."
The accuser had since read about some other incidents on a local Facebook group (we don't know what those were) and thought that perhaps this encounter was related to them, so she and her mom filed a crime report.
Afterward, she said, "Every time I started working I would cry because I would think of it. I felt very unsafe, even in my own home."
She was applying to college—Oxford University—and was hampered by this stress. Both incidents happened when the accuser and accused were at school together studying for their A Levels, which are more-or-less the English equivalent of the SATs.
As for Griffiths, he had been dealing with something on the side. Unbearably lonely, he told the magistrate, he googled "how to make a friend." It was good to start off with a joke, he read, and decided to give it a try.
"I went to touch her arm to start a conversation and she just walked off," he said. "My intention was to make a friend. All my friends had left. I was lonely. I just wanted to speak to someone," Except, he explained, "The words just didn't come out."
What she read as a smirk he says he intended as a friendly smile. As for the physical contact? "Touching someone's arm to get their attention, I would have thought was normal," he said.
Normal or not, touching someone in public, on their arm or on their waist, does not seem to rise to the level of sexual assault. Just because something is abnormal or upsetting doesn't mean it's a crime.
The magistrates in Manchester disagree. Griffiths now faces a possible maximum sentence of ten years in jail and registry as a sex offender.
It is indeed hard to make friends, or interact with other people at all, if awkward but brief encounters like this are considered criminal behavior.