Image by Kat Aileen
Women can and do commit the same sexual abuse as men. Why are their crimes often considered less severe?
After a slew of phone calls, secret blowjobs, and sex in the back of her car, in 2004 the now-infamous Florida middle school teacher Debra Lafave was arrested for having sexual relations with her 14-year-old male student. It was shocking, but the media didn't focus on the details of her affair. Instead, they honed in on something else: her past as a bikini model and her all-American good looks. During the trial, Lafave's lawyer, John Fitzgibbons, used the media's fascination with Lafave's beauty to his advantage: He argued she was too pretty go to prison.
"To place Debbie into a Florida state women's penitentiary, to place an attractive young woman in that kind of hellhole, is like putting a piece of raw meat in with the lions," Fitzgibbons told the court room, and later CNN.
Surprisingly or not, it worked, landmarking Lafave as the first female sexual offender to have a sentence obviously lightened based on her gender and looks. In a plea bargain, Lafave was put on seven years' probation and house arrest.
In 2006, NBC reporter Matt Lauer interviewed the registered sex offender about her "relationship" to the 14-year-old boy. Lafave spoke about being raped by a boyfriend when she was a teenager, the death of her sister, her unhappy marriage, and how her bi-polar disorder made both hypersexual and ill-equipped to deal with it, impairing her judgment during the affair. Incredulous, Lauer asked her how she could have sex with her student in the back of her car, while another one of his friends drove and how she could travel 100 miles from her home to Ocala, Florida, to have sex with the boy.
"All of his friends were high-fiving him and saying, Oh yeah, she is hot, blah blah," she said on national television. "The only way that I can describe that is that I felt I was a peer of one of theirs."
In the last five years there has been an onslaught of news about adult women having sexual relations with adolescents, but the stories largely focus on the titillating student-teacher story. Whether this trend just has to do with media accessibility in our increasingly less private world or an actual increase in female sex offenders (as well as support for victims who report these sex crimes) is yet to be determined. Regardless, the way gender affects the coverage is obvious. One Google search for "female sex offender" brings up articles like "Hot For Teacher 2010: The 42 Sexiest Female Sex Offenders" and "Top 10 Sexiest Female Sex Offenders"
"There is a huge double standard," Christopher Anderson, the executive director of the New York organization MaleSurvivortold me over the phone. He got involved with the organization almost a decade ago after coming to terms with the sexual abuse he suffered as a child from a male neighbor. "Whenever there is a female teacher and a male student, in the reporting--even if it says 'rape' in the headline--the body of the story will use the word 'relationship.' You would never, never see that done when the genders are reversed. The word 'relationship' implies consent. Even if you have a willing 17-year-old student, there is no way that consent is actually possible when you're dealing with a teacher or any authority figure."
How the fuck she ever felt comfortable making that first move I'll never understand.
Dr. Holly Richmond, a former journalist who became a psychologist after teaching creative writing in women's prisons in Southern California, agreed. "You have to consider power dynamics, as well as if the younger person is being asked to hold the sexual relations a secret," she told me. "If they are, then it's not an equal relationship."
Within a public institution like school, Anderson says sexual abuse not only robs the adolescent of their sexual autonomy but is "a fundamental violation of public trust." Parents send children to school assuming the system will educate and help raise healthy children. Teachers who are sexually interested in a specific student will cut breaks on homework, show favoritism, or, in the recent case of 32-year-old Danielle Watkins threaten to flunk the kid if the sex doesn't continue.
"There's this idea that any kind of sexual interaction that a male has is a good thing," Anderson said. "Unless, of course, it's a gay experience, then people have a problem. Any time a boy has a sexual interaction with a woman it cannot be talked about as though it was a negative thing without the man sacrificing his masculinity, especially amongst his peer group." Anderson mentioned that recent SNL skit "Teacher Trial," which famously failed for its stereotypical jokes about female sex offenders. "The very idea that a high school to college-aged male would say that he endured unwanted sex is something that's mocked."
Richmond and Anderson also stress that most victims of sexual abuse do not come to terms with what was happening to them until much later in life and, as Richmond said, "when problems start to show up," like alcoholism, depression, the usual. What complicates this narrative, however, are the so-called "victims" who did not see their legally defined "sex offender" partners as perpetrators.
For example, take my husband. When he was a 14-year-old skate punk in Arkansas, he lost his virginity to a 22-year-old mother.
"There were about 20 of us freak punks in Booneville, Arkansas," he remembers. "She partied with all of us. One night out drinking at someone's house, she took me into the bedroom and... it was awesome." He continued to have a relationship with this woman, riding his dinky little skateboard over to hang out with her and her three-year-old kid after he was done school. After about a year, the relationship ended when she got pregnant with a much older punk. (Apparently now she and the much older punk are happily married with a litter of kids.) My husband laughs back at the relationship as a rite of passage into this manhood. No part of him, even today, considers it sexual abuse or morally wrong.
Another case is Claudia*. At 15 years old, she was admitted to a residential treatment center in Murray, Utah, for self-destructive behavior and mental illness. One of the treatment's female staff workers--who was studying to become a licensed clinical social worker--began grooming Claudia with compliments, favoritism, texting, and eventually her first sexual experiences. The 27-year-old woman and Claudia maintained a secret relationship for two years.
"I don't necessarily look at it as sexual abuse, but I'm not exactly sure why," Claudia, now 23, told me. "On the one hand, I want to say that I was consenting and giving her the green light and was fully aware of the implications of our relationship. On the other hand, I was 15 years old, I was in a disastrous psychological state, and I was trapped in a setting more than 2000 miles away from the only life I knew. She was a mental health care professional and 12 years my senior. How the fuck she ever felt comfortable making that first move I'll never understand. It took me until two years ago to begin to realize that she was a predator."
Until 2013, even the FBI defined rape as "the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will." (Now, "penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part of object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim," defines legal rape.) Still, the whole concept of women raping men only seems believable if a woman is raping a child, who is separate from the masculine pressure to love every sexual encounter. Or it's plausible as coercion within a man's end game. (Think Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo, the young newlyweds who together raped and murdered three women, included Homolka's teenage sister.)
I don't necessarily look at it as sexual abuse, but I'm not exactly sure why.
Michele Elliott's controversial 1994 research book, Female Sexual Abuse of Children, came to be after she gave a lecture at a Royal Air Force base in the early 90s about male sexual abuse. Afterwards, an officer came up to her and said, "It isn't only men, you know--my mother did it to me." Later, on a local radio program, she raised the issue of child abuse committed by women and received a flood of calls and letters from people all over the UK confessing they had endured abuse from their mothers, aunts, teachers, babysitters, sisters, and nuns. Elliott's study found that the general public was reluctant to believe women were capable of sexual abuse (even though they very much were), especially to adolescents and children. The idea that women could abuse children sexually not only "undermined feelings about how women should relate to children" (primarily as caregivers and protectors against so-called predatory men) but also put women in a sexually aggressive role, disrupting the notion that a woman could not morally or physically commit rape or abuse.
"Conservative estimates suggest that 5% of girls and 20% of boys who have reported being abused have been abused by women," in 2009. "From my own research--I have had 800 cases reported to me--I believe the more likely figure is that it is 20% of all sexual abuse that is done by women."
In 1995, three researchers conducted a report that divided female sex offenders into four categories. The first was the "Predisposed Intergenerational": a lone female perpetrator with a history of incest with more than one person. The second, "Male-Coerced," who abuses on behalf of a male partner, as in the Homolka case. The third is the "Experimental/Exploiter": a lone perpetrator who targets young male children within a babysitting context. The fourth and final type is the most often mined for sexist listicle content: the "Teacher/Lover," a lone perpetrator who falls in love with an adolescent male.
Besides these categories, female sex offenders differ from males in several key ways. Women are rarely repeat offenders, but when they are serial they do not hit the same number of victims that men do. Women rarely stalk or attack random children or adolescents; furthermore, they often develop or, in the case of family or an institution, feed off of a so-called relationship to their victim and consider it love. They end up seeing themselves on a peer-to-peer basis with their victims, as Lafave did.
It isn't only men, you know--my mother did it to me.
"A [pedophile] who abuses was 99% surely abused," Dr. Richmond told me over the phone. "But a person who was abused is by no means going to go on to become an abuser. Sexuality is entrenched into our psyche. We all have an erotic template of what we find sexy. It's how our sexual identity is built. When someone is abused, that is thrown way off." One can require a chokehold or high heels wedged into their testicles to orgasm, but when that erotic template harms another person's sexual freedom then it's wrong.
Anderson explained to me that many perpetrators have attempted to have their sexual crimes excused based on neurological disorders. Most famously was New Jersey teacher Nicole Dufault, whose lawyer claimed the brain surgery she had after the birth of her child created "frontal lobe syndrome" which clouded her judgment when she sexually abused five male students. Anderson also mentioned another case in which a woman developed a brain tumor and began sexually abusing her daughter. When doctors removed the tumor, the abuse stopped. When it grew back, the abuse began again.
In the case of female educators who are sexual offenders, by Charol Shakeshaft for the US Department of Education found that 24% of cases with same-sex offenders did not determine or coincide with the victims' sexual orientation. I asked Claudia, the woman who had a relationship with her older counselor at her residential treatment center, if she thought that her relationship to her 27-year-old female counselor would have been different if her perpetrator were a man and Claudia herself did not now identify as lesbian.
"100%," she replied. "It was easier for me to believe that she and I had an emotional connection because society tells us that adult men prey on young women, but the only thing we have as far as adult women are stories of 'forbidden love'. We're taught that men are always in control of their emotions, methodical in their decision-making and deliberate in their actions. Women, on the other hand, are framed as being subject to feeling, emotional in their decision-making and reactive in their actions. Women who 'can't help themselves' from engaging in a situation are at the mercy of their feelings, while men in the same position are seen as giving into carnal urges and exploiting power. Women can't be predators because they are just seen as victims themselves."
Perhaps the most infamous female sexual offender in the teacher/lover category is Mary Kay Letourneau. When Letourneau was a 34-year-old mother of four, she began a sexual relationship with her 12-year-old student Vili Fualaau. They birthed two children together (one conceived when Fualaau was only 13 years old) during the seven-year sentence Letourneau served in jail for child rape. Earlier this year, Letourneau and Fualaau, now married, did an interview with Barbara Walters. It was so rose-tinted, it made many people upset.
"Never mind that those children are a product of rape," said Anderson. "When ABC puts a soft focus lens on the camera, you know, let's just sit here and accept this story. [Fualaau] has come out and said [he] realizes now that he never had a childhood. He never had the opportunity to the life he wanted to have. He has struggled with alcohol and depression."
In a 2004 interview with Walters, Letourneau was asked about her first marriage to Steve Letourneau. Walters asked, "When you were in college, you were pregnant and married Steve Letourneau. Would you have married him if you were not pregnant?"
"I don't think I'll ever know that," Letourneau sighs. "I wasn't happy that I had to make a decision to marry someone while I was pregnant. I did a lot of praying about it."
"We think we know what a predator looks like," Claudia told me, and I agreed. I always imagine an older man--a teacher, a stepfather, a neighbor, the guy at the end of the bar. He impresses younger women with his life experience, letting her into his world so she too is mature. "We don't have a touchstone by which we can identify female predators. Because our idea of a predator isn't a 5'2", 90-pound social work grad student, women are able to evade scrutiny and manipulate the narrative to the point where they even believe it themselves."
*Name has been changed.
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