Sunday, December 11, 2005

Hot for Teacher

When, say, a fifteen year old has sex with, say, an older woman, possibly his teacher, does it constitute sexual abuse. The NYTs Kate Zernike broaches that question today. She does a good job of cutting through the crap.
Certainly no one doubts that a teacher who has sex with her students should lose her job. Or that a 37-year-old mother should not find herself pregnant by her son's 15-year-old friend. Or that a 41-year-old mother who provides sex, drugs and alcohol to teenagers so she can be cool among her daughter's friends is troubled.

But when the women face prison, questions are raised about where to set the age of consent. And because many of those named as victims refused to testify against the women in what they said were consensual relationships, not everyone agrees that the cases involve child abuse.
There is no doubt teacher-student relationships are immoral and open to tons of abuses. Will it lead to favoritism? Did the teacher use her authority to coerce sex from her student? And on and on and on.

Yet, I can't help but agreeing with Judge Stephen Herrick of Albany County Court in New York, who agreed that former Catholic schoolteacher Sandra Beth Geisel had acted immorally and illegally but that the sixteen year old was only a "victim" in a strictly legal sense. I remember high-school fondly and, I'm sorry, but I had many dreams reminiscent of Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher." If I had the opportunity to make those daydreams reality, I know I would have.

Therefore, the issue needs to be separated by its consensual nature and empirical research. Sure, the female teacher deserves to lose her job, but does she really need to go to prison. To be honest, the social ostracism should be punishment enough. She'll effectively be Hester Prynne. Besides, it's literally impossible for a woman to "rape" a man or a teenage boy. Sure it's possible, but it's not probable. And I think that should be one of the more pressing reasons to establish a double standard on this issue. A man has the physical power to force himself on younger females. So there is always room to belief that the male could have forced himself on a female teenager and used either guilt or threats to coerce her silence or agreement that the sex was indeed consensual.

On the empirical side, there's evidence that teenage male sex with older professional women isn't psychologically harmful.
[S]everal studies have raised questions about whether the recent cases should be filed under child sex abuse.

The most controversial study was published in 1998 in Psychological Bulletin. The article, a statistical re-analysis of 59 studies of college students who said they were sexually abused in childhood, concluded that the effects of such abuse "were neither pervasive nor typically intense, and that men reacted much less negatively than women."

The researchers questioned the practice, common in many studies, of lumping all sexual abuse together. They contended that treating all types equally presented problems that, they wrote, "are perhaps most apparent when contrasting cases such as the repeated rape of a 5-year-old girl by her father and the willing sexual involvement of a mature 15-year-old adolescent boy with an unrelated adult."

In the first case, serious harm may result, the article said, but the second case "may represent only a violation of social norms with no implication for personal harm."

They suggested substituting the term "adult adolescent sex" for child abuse in some cases where the sex was consensual.

"Abuse implies harm in a scientific usage, and the term should not be in use if there is consent and no evidence of harm," said Bruce Rind, an author of the study and a psychology professor at Temple University.
So here we may have another debate that pits emerging scientific evidence against cultural norms that may not apply. Also, maybe there's a psychological difference between the way male and female teenagers process such sexual encounters with adults. I'm not sure, but it's a question worth pursuing.

Nevertheless, I think there's agreement that teacher-student relationships should be barred, regardless if they can be proven to be unharmful to adolescent boys that sleep with their female teachers. But let's not get all PC and try to coax ourselves into believing that these young Casanovas perceive themselves as anything close to "victims."