The double standard of student-teacher sex

An ABC News report on women who prey on teens says they're different from men who do the same. Does that make anyone else uncomfortable?

Published February 28, 2008 11:25PM (EST)

Are women who get sexually involved with teens inherently different from men who prey on teens?

An unsettling ABC News story aired Wednesday night, focusing on women charged with inappropriate behavior (including sex) with minors and how they remain baffled about society's horrified response.

One 39-year-old woman convicted of statutory rape with a 15-year-old boy married him because she was pregnant, served a sentence and now seeks to reunify with him and their 2-year-old son. Another woman was arrested after entertaining a group of teens in her hotel room in an alleged drug-sex fest. Still another, the infamous Mary Kay Letourneau, was convicted of child rape after news broke that she was pregnant as a result of sex with her 12-year-old student. She ended up marrying the kid when she got out of prison.

The piece unnerved me but not for the obvious reasons. Details about 30-something women who like to get it on with children and see nothing wrong with their behavior are never a recipe for a mother's peace of mind, but the underlying theme of the story also set my teeth on edge. It repeatedly quotes one expert -- Frederic Reamer, a professor of social work -- who characterizes these women as immature, threatened by their peers and caught in a state of arrested development. In other words, rather than adults responsible for their actions, they are like children themselves. Another psychologist made similar comments about adults who become involved with teens, but she didn't limit the notion of immaturity to women. Yet the story's unspoken thesis is that women who do these things are somehow different from men.

It doesn't go deeper than that. The story doesn't explore, for instance, how the power imbalance between men and women may influence the way society regards statutory rapists. (Contrast the image of a 15-year-old boy and a 35-year-old woman who are about the same size with a 35-year-old man who outweighs a 15-year-old girl by 100 pounds.) Nor does the story explore the fact that some men who are attracted to minors also seem to be emotionally immature -- certain pop stars spring to mind -- so differentiating between men and women may be a specious argument.

Still, something about this analysis makes me uncomfortable. If women are being regarded as emotional children, even in these marginal cases of aberrant behavior, doesn't it suggest that we're still peering at gender through antique lenses?

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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