Monday, May 12, 2008


"Where is the clear, credible evidence that underage sex is always injurious? If you tell me because it is illegal, I reject that"
-U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Marten

Teacher 1
Consider if you will these news stories:
  • Stephanie Ragusa is arrested for sexual activity with her students, at least four of them from ages 13 to 15 over several years.
  • Deborah LaFave is arrested for sexual activity with her 14 year old student.
  • Pamela Turner is arrested for sex with her 13 year old student.
  • Mary Jo Spack is arrested for sex with two of her middle school students
  • Mary Kay Letourneau is arrested for sex with a 6th grader, whom she later marries after she is released from prison in 2005.
  • Pamela Rogers is arrested for sex with her 13 year old student. She is later charged with violation of her probation for sending nude photos of herself to the student.
  • Jennifer Gwynn Tarkenton is arrested for sex with her 15 year old student at a special needs education center.
  • Jenna Ashley Herrmann is arrested for sex with her 14 year old student.
  • Kelsey Peterson is arrested for kidnapping her 13 year old student and taking him to Mexico for sex.
  • Carrie McCandless is arrested for sex with her 17 year old student on a camping trip.
  • Alyssa Ann Johnson is arrested for sex with her underage high school student.
  • Kumi Houston is arrested for sexual activity with an 11 year old special education student as a teacher's aid.
  • Regina McKay is arrested for having sex with her 17 year old student in exchange for buying him beer.
  • Theresa Getz is arrested for sexual activity with her 14 year old student, who claims she gave him an STD.
  • Early in her teaching career, Diane Cherchio West was caught fondling a 13 year old student. Then she became involved with an 11th grader with whom she first had a child, then married, and eventually divorced. Then she had sex with her son's 15 year old friend in 2001, and no action was taken until 2005 when the boy sued her. Finally she was found guilty of statutory rape in 2005.
One final example is that of Pamela Diehl-Moore who plead guilty to sex with a minor, her 13 year old student. The judge found her guilty and announced the sentence:
"I really don't see the harm that was done here," the judge proclaimed, "and certainly society doesn't need to be worried. I do not believe she is a sexual predator. It's just something between two people that clicked beyond the teacher-student relationship."
"Maybe it was a way for him, once this happened, to satisfy his sexual needs," the judge added. "People mature at different rates."
"I don't see anything here that shows this young man has been psychologically damaged by her actions. And don't forget, this was mutual consent. Now certainly under the law, he is too young to legally consent, but that's what the law says. Some of the legislators should remember when they were that age. Maybe these ages have to be changed a little bit."
The sentence was 5 years probation.

What's the point of this litany of teachers gone wild? Well they all have something in common: they are older female teachers - some of them very attractive - who have engaged in sex with their male younger students. I was actually shocked at the sheer number of cases I found in a 30 second internet search just since 2001 - and this is far from an exhaustive list. Yet consider the general reaction to this kind of news.

The general reaction, indeed the reaction of the judges I quoted above, is one of unconcern. So? The kid scored, good for him. Technically it's illegal but really who cares? Most male bloggers and commenters cheered the child on and expressed regret that their teachers weren't like that. Apparently, quite a few are, according to a recent study. The attitude is often approval, dude you scored with your teacher, that's so hot!

The funny thing is that these same people are uniformly in disapproval of another form of sexual abuse by an older authority. A study commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops concluded 10,667 young people were sexually mistreated by priests between 1950 and 2002. According to the survey, 78 percent of those abused were between 11 and 17, the remaining 22% age 10 or younger.

That means almost 4 out of 5 of the abuse cases were the same age as the kids listed in the teacher-student scandals above. This is an aspect not exactly emphasized in reports of Roman Catholic priest abuse scandals. The cases of abuse in over fifty years of study were a small fraction of just ten years in the public schools - wildly out of proportion even when the number of people involved is accounted for.

In 2004, the Department of Education commissioned a study Titled "Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature" (pdf file). This study found that nearly 10% of US public school students have been exposed to sexual attention by school employees. The study uses a previous work by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation in 2000, concluding that roughly 4.5 million students experienced some sort of physical sexual abuse by a public school employee between 1991 and 2000.

This includes male and female students, for now I'll just focus on male. These are students under the age of 18, who are being targeted by teachers and teaching assistants for sexual activity.

The outrage, cries of indignation, accusations, and anger about the priest abuse scandal was at the proper level, I believe. This is an inexcusable abuse of power, taking advantage of young people and engaging in sexual activity with them far before they are emotionally and intellectually ready, even if they physically are capable. Condemnation of these priests was loud and resounding, and of the Roman Catholic Church for tending to cover up, or even ignore the cases, despite their obvious theological implications, to say the least.

Comedians joke about Roman Catholic priests, the general consensus of all is that this was just terribly wrong. The news coverage was loud and persistent, and still is out there today should any such situation recur.

What's the difference here? Teachers and people in authority over children take advantage of them sexually, even consensually, yet in one case the boys are cheered and the predators admired or at least excused and in the other, the boys are pitied and the predators despised.

Is it wrong to engage in sexual activity with someone much younger than you, under age 17, while in a position of authority over them, or not? Is it bad for kids to have sex at age 13 or not? Which is it, folks, why the double standard?

I submit there are three causes here.

Teacher 2First, many guys have had sexual fantasies about a teacher in the past, and this is just a fulfillment of that fantasy. Sweet, he scored! Wish I could have! Instead of approbation, the response is admiration in memory of personal desires at that age. I never had a teacher attractive enough to stir this sort of fantasy but I expect it is not particularly uncommon. Yet notice: the guys have these fantasies about a female teacher (although presumably there were some gay guys who had this fantasy about a male teacher). When the situation is a male adult, they suddenly aren't as accepting. That's not the fantasy.

Second, there is a double standard that exists, where a guy that has sex with a girl is considered not just normal but even proper: that's what guys are like, they're animals. At that age, they are a storm of hormones, they can't help themselves, the teachers are just helping out, teenage boys are unstoppable sexual juggernauts with unrestrained desire, it's not possible to restrain that. Except, again, if it's a male priest with the boy, then it's just nasty and that priest is a monster, a predator, just plain wrong.

Third, there is a none too subtle negative attitude toward Roman Catholic priests in many parts of the culture. Suspicion or even hostility toward religion in general and Christianity in particular is a rising if small segment of modern society, and the Roman Catholic Church is quickly associated with the sins of the denomination in centuries past. This is the religion of the inquisition! Thus, priests are easy targets: already held in contempt by some (particularly in the legacy media), continually portrayed as either perverts or power mad in film and television, the image is continually negative.

Yet when you look at these bases for objection, there's a theme lying beneath the first two that is left spoken or even ignored: the negative reaction is to the homosexual nature of the priests. The victims are the same in most cases (boys between 11-17, the study on teacher abuse actually included students below 11 in US public schools, but we'll focus on this age group), the situations are very similar if not identical (an adult authority figure and often teacher abusing a younger student). The difference is that in one case it's a female adult and in the other its a male adult.

The reaction to the male adult with underage boys is rejection and anger, revulsion even. Now, in a culture that tries it's hardest to be neutral or even positive about homosexuality, in a society that feels the compulsion to add "not that there's anything wrong with that" when discussing gays, this seems contradictory. Ask any ten students about homosexuality and they'll glaze over and give you the rote answer: it's a choice, nothing wrong with it, perfectly normal, lifestyles differ, tolerance, etc. Talk to adults about homosexuality and you'll tend to get the same response. We've all been trained by popular entertainment, news media, education, and societal pressure to treat homosexuality as no big deal, just a harmless variation in sexuality, if that's your thing, OK.

The problem with this is that it is a very thin veneer on top of what I believe is the real feelings and reaction of people that is hidden. Afraid of societal shame, people will mouth the politically correct responses and put on a brave show, but do they really think so deep down? Show those same 10 students above a film of two guys kissing and most of them will go "ewww" and look away or squirm, breaking into nervous laughter.. If their stated position was held for real, they wouldn't respond like that, they'd shrug and think of it no different than a pair of cats bumping noses: that's natural for them. There's a reason teenagers use the term "gay" as a pejorative.

The truth is, deep down people know homosexuality isn't normal, and most have a negative reaction to it, no matter what they've been trained to say. Societal pressure may shame people for thinking gays are gross or wrong, but that doesn't stop people from doing so. If you want to refer to what's natural, the natural reaction of people - not trained, but ingrained - is to be repulsed by homosexual activity (note: few gays are repulsed by a guy and a girl kissing). By definition any activity that a few people engage in that is contrary to general and majority behavior is not normal. Sometimes that abnormal behavior generates a visceral reaction, such as self mutilation.

The PC line is that we're all trained to consider homosexuality wrong, and it's quite normal and even typical for the very young (according to Freud) yet the truth is the opposite: we consider homosexual activity wrong and even disgusting by nature and are trained to act like we do not. This is just one example of such an attitude: boy scores with older female - good. Boy scores with older male - ewww!

Now, some will say at this point that the boys were taken advantage of by these priests, that this was unwanted sexual activity, that it was coercion, no consensus was reached. The boys with the teachers were almost all willing participants, and thus consensual and not improper. That is the conclusion that the judges above reached.

I'll set aside the fact that some of the boys in the cases where teachers abused them were not willing participants, and some of the boys in the cases where the priests abused them were willing, as I can't find any numbers on that. I'll just note this: the general reaction to guys who said no to their female teachers is mockery or confusion, the idiot should have gone for it!

No, the problem with this theory is that the law, and for decades now western culture (outside France at least), has dicated that no one under a certain age can actually give consent for sexual activity with an adult. That is the entire point of statutory rape laws: that under a certain age, young people are not ready and are neither emotionally mature nor wise enough to give consent to some activities. They are not prepared to understand the consequences, meaning, and import of this activity.

Is this wrong? Is it possible for young people to be so mature and ready that sexual activity is not improper at that age? Or is it true, as is insisted in modern culture, that sex is so meaningless and without moral or psychological import that there need be no barriers of age or maturity? There is a distinct effort, particularly since the 1960s, to portray sex as being "natural" and thus similar to eating or sleeping: everyone can and even should do it, regardless of the age. Why, it's just a normal physical activity, there's nothing to it beyond mechanical motion.

This attitude is distinctly in opposition to the abundant evidence that sex under a certain age causes psychological and even spiritual damage, resulting in hyper sexual activity, poor judgement and damaged perception of the opposite sex, and other problems. Girls who were sexually abused at a younger age tend to be sluts, to put it crudely. Awakened to something they are unready to face or deal with, their entire viewpoint of the world and themselves is damaged.

Sex matters more than physical activity: it is not the same as eating. The fact that sexual activity is natural does not then mean that it ought to be engaged in regularly or at any age, without restriction or meaning. Many things are "natural" as in they occur in nature and are part of normal activity. Animals regularly kill and eat each other, even their own species, even their own young in some cases. That's natural, is it proper, is it something we should engage in?

This reduction of everything to naturalistic and utilitarian minima is incredibly damaging and irrational. It attempts to strip all moral aspects of life away, attempts to reduce everything to what can be known scientifically and through the senses, ignoring what we know and learn without those tools. Taken to its logical extreme and we'd be cannibals, as noted above. Ultimately I suspect it comes down to a desire to engage in sex when ever and with whoever you desire without feeling guilty. Don't harsh my buzz dude!

It is, in short, an attempt to abandon responsibility, to act without restraint or concern for consequence or meaning. It is a love of personal comfort and pleasure without morality or truth. Who cares as long as I get mine!

Young people are not ready for certain things until they learn and grow and mature. This is just a fact of life, there's a reason that certain things are prohibited younger people, and it is not fascist tyranny or foolish adherence to tradition. Children are not miniature adults, they must learn and grow. They are incapable of knowing some things because they lack the experiences and learning to know and deal with them. Until you reach a certain level of wisdom and maturity, some things must be denied you because you will not use them responsibly and will damage not just yourself, but others, and through that society as a whole.

You don't get cookies until after dinner, sonny.

Olivia HusseyOf course, at this point, often someone will note that in days of yore, people married and had children much younger, and thus logically engaged in sex much younger. Romeo and Juliet was a story about teens, probably 13-14 years old. The Zefirelli production of the movie had a dewy young Olivia Hussey (16 at the time) playing the part in an attempt to match the ages. It was not uncommon for girls as young as 13 to marry in the past, and it still happens in some cultures. The legal age for marriage in some states was that low in recent decades in the US.

Yet this does not mean somehow that it is a good thing for this to happen (Romeo and Juliet didn't end well, if you recall). This appeal to tradition is ironic in people who otherwise would utterly reject anything in the past as unenlightened and shun tradition as necessarily regressive. Further, the usual pattern was for a young woman to marry an older man. The pattern was like this for two reasons. First, men couldn't marry until they were able to demonstrate personal ability to care for their wife and household independently: He had to be stable, with an income. Second, girls were shuttled out of the house as soon as possible because they were an economic drag, not a boon: they wouldn't produce food or money and thus were a net cost to care for.

In any case, it is undeniable that in past ages, younger people were far more mature than today. In 1532, age 14 was when you a boy was a young adult, working, you were not a kid in school. Today, twenty-four is likely to be immature and unready for marriage, let alone a household and a career. It is a question of maturity and wisdom at stake, not necessarily biological age. If anything, the age for various activities ought to be increased in modern culture, not decreased. In a society where boys in their 30s are still living with mommy and daddy, looking for what they want to do with their life, lowering the age of consent seems contrary to reason.
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Eric said...

Interesting essay, I agree with a lot of what you say here, but take some exception to your points on homosexuality. I think someone can rightly find homosexuality to be revolting without considering it to be immoral. You seem to imply that the former is evidence of the latter, that because heterosexuals often find homosexuality to be gross, it is therefore immoral(I admittedly may be reading more into it than what you meant, but that implication seemed to be an unstated corollary to the point you were making). I think two guys kissing is fairly disgusting, but that doesn't mean I think they are doing something wrong, or something that is inherently damaging to themselves or others. Some people eat thier own boogers, which I also find gross, but I don't feel a need to moralize about it.

I'd also note that many of the arguments you make here about homosexuals could have, at one time, been rightly made about interracial relationships... for many years, even decades, large swaths of American society found the concept revolting even though they faced social pressure to be more accepting of it. However, I think you'd agree that this had no bearing on the morality of those relationships, it only reflected societal and cultural bias.

Regardless, I think rational people can agree that it is wrong for adults who have authority over children and adolescents to engage in sexual relationships with them, wheteher those relationships be hetero or homoesexual in nature.
The real issue here is that we should use the same set of rules to condemn and punish female teachers who sexually abuse their students as we do male teachers.

Christopher Taylor said...

I wasn't trying to draw a parallel between revulsion and morality, I was simply pointing out that people act like they don't care, but find it disgusting, and that's much of the reason they cheer the one and reject the other. The morality is another issue, although related.