In student-teacher sex scandals, is there a double standard?

Are female teachers who have sex with their students not getting the punishments they deserve?

Published January 17, 2006 8:20PM (EST)

Today in Slate, William Saletan takes a stab at the source of America's newest sex panic: predatory teachers -- or as he puts it, those "bespectacled babes who teach our kids math in the classroom and sex in the parking lot."

In response to breathless newspaper reports and cable news pundits who have lately worried that these pedagogical femmes fatales aren't getting the punishment they deserve, Saletan has this to say: "This frenzy -- [and] I'm trying hard not to call it hysteria -- reeks of overexcitement. Sex offenses by women aren't increasing. Female offenders are going to jail. And while their sentences are, on average, shorter than sentences given to male offenders, the main reason is that their crimes are objectively less vile. By ignoring this difference, we're replacing the old double standard with a new one."

He has a wealth of figures to boost his argument. For instance, Saletan writes, "In California, where recent teacher-student cases have made news, the number of female offenders convicted annually has stayed flat for years at about 4 percent of the number of male offenders." He goes on to point out that despite the fact that eight out of nine teachers are women, statistics from the Department of Education indicate that 80 to 96 percent of sexual offenders are male.

What's more, Saletan argues, differences in sentencing are a direct result of the different nature of the crimes. After examining LexisNexis records of 43 cases, he comes to this tally: "Most of the men molested victims younger than 15; most of the women didn't. Half the men molested multiple victims; only three of the women did. Ten men on the list had multiple victims, including victims younger than 16. These men earned an average sentence of more than 17 years, drastically inflating the average." He also refers to a 1994 report by psychologist Jane Kinder Matthews, who in her career worked with 800 male and 36 female offenders. Matthews wrote that no woman she "worked with has coerced others into being accomplices," and that in general women are far less likely to use force or violence to commit their crimes, tend to use fewer threats to silence their victims, and are more willing to admit to and take responsibility for their behavior.

So why the ballyhoo about twisted teachers on the loose? You could blame it on Mary Kay Letourneau, but Saletan would have us look at it as a case of double-standard whiplash: After years of painting women as victims, we've just recast their roles as predators. Of prosecutors who insist that "women shouldn't get lighter sentences just because they're women," Saletan writes, "Damn straight. [But] nor should they get heavier sentences than their crimes deserve, just because we're trying to look tough on women."

By Sarah Karnasiewicz

Sarah Karnasiewicz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Until recently, she was senior editor at Saveur magazine; prior to that she was deputy Life editor at Salon. She has contributed to the New York Times, the New York Observer and Rolling Stone, among other publications. For more of her work, visit and Signs and Wonders.

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