When a 34-year-old female teacher was arrested for having a sexual relationship with her 17-year-old student, it made the local news. They had met when she was his teacher and began dating, and continued even after she had changed schools. Her behavior reached the eyes and ears of the police Sex Crimes Unit, who made the arrest.
When the local paper ran the story, the comments from readers (all male, of course), ran along the usual: “Where can I see a picture of her?”; “What’s the problem here? This is every teenage boy’s dream.”; “I think he’ll recover fairly quickly.”; “How much ‘therapy’ will it take to help this poor young man recover from the trauma?”; “Who is the victim here again?”; “Where were these teachers when I was in high school? I can keep my mouth shut!”; and “Don’t be shy of some cougar love. Go get ‘em!”
It’s a double standard, where many in the public (again, often males) cannot see the real harm when these stories appear. So a 17-year age gap seems perfectly fine for them if it involves a male victim, who must have been a willing participant and a female perpetrator, who just couldn’t help herself. But when the roles are reversed, and a 34-year-old male teacher has a sexual relationship with one of his 17-year-old female students, let the howling for justice begin. “Where was the school and the police during all this?” go the shouts. “Why didn’t the parents or other teachers, campus staff, or district administrators see this was going on? Hang that pedophile from the highest oak!”
Why is it so difficult for some people on the outside looking in to see the damage to the minor child? Why are some so quick to rationalize the behavior as not harmful, a waste of police resources, and something the boy in question should be “proud” of? These statements are not made when the teacher is a male and the victims are of either sex. If a 34-year-old male teacher were to engage in a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old male student, he would be called a pervert in print, and worse. Again, there is a constant double standard when female teachers are the perpetrators.
When it comes to violence against others, women are rarely considered as having that potential until they act out in horrific ways. When they do, many people are shocked, since they rarely consider women to have the same urges for violence, revenge, and the desire to create mass casualties. But Jennifer San Marco, a former Goleta, CA postal worker returned to her former site and killed six. And Professor Amy Bishop killed three co-workers at the University of Alabama Huntsville. Women do bad things too.
So when it comes to sexual behavior with a male student, do female teachers use the same techniques of gradualism, grooming, flirting, and targeting as their male counterparts? Of course. Do female teachers who want sex seek out their targets specifically, looking for vulnerabilities, poor or missing family relationships, early sexual interest, and early physical development via male puberty? Certainly. Is there more institutional denial on school campuses and from administrators and districts as to the possibility of a female teacher engaging in sex with her student? Probably.
Motive, in cases where a teacher establishes a sexual relationship with a student, is both internal and not easily understood. For male teachers, the motive for these behaviors is often believed to be because of sexual desire, power, dominance, a “midlife crisis,” arrested development, or even a paraphilia, as with any other adult with a true sexual attraction to children.
But for female teachers, other motives may come into play: the desire to “care for” a male child from a broken home, which then de-evolves into sex; a need to feel attractive, wanted, and sexually desired by a young man, who may not have the capacity to understand or give real love, but certainly has the testosterone to provide sex; or even as revenge against a husband who is no longer emotionally supportive. Are any of these valid reasons? Of course not, because all teachers are warned from the day they enter their degree programs and from the moment they get hired, (and during in-service training classes and staff development days) to follow the appropriate, age-old, and ethical warning: Do not have a physical relationship with a student.
For those scoffers who doubt there is any real harm to a male student who had a sexual fling with one of his “Hot for Teacher” instructors, consider the real possibilities of an unwanted pregnancy, eighteen years of child support payments, sexually transmitted diseases, and lifelong feelings of shame as the teenager matures and realizes what he did was wrong too. Since jail penalties differ widely in severity from state to state, the biggest damage to the female teacher is more often about killing her career and the shame factor from peers, colleagues, family, and strangers who recognize her name from the police blotter. (Some of these cases show up on tabloid TV shows and related pop culture magazines.)
When the classroom crosses over to the bedroom, the people who surround female teachers who become sexual predators—other teachers, school administrators, counselors, therapists, and the police—have a duty to act. Gender is not the issue and same-sex sexual orientation is not the issue; bad boundaries, harmful behavior, unethical conduct, and illegal sex acts with minors are the issues. The double standard as to how we perceive and prosecute these cases needs to stop.
Dr. Steve Albrecht, PHR, CPP, BCC, is a San Diego-based expert on workplace violence. He consults, speaks, and writes on high-risk human resource challenges, employee coaching, corporate security, and police issues. He worked for the San Diego Police Department for 15 years. He can be reached at email@example.com.