Abuse cases face double standard
USA TODAY, By Charisse Jones, U.S.A. national newspaper, February 11, 2005
When a female teacher in Tennessee was charged this week with having sex with a 13-year-old male student, the case focused attention on a type of sexual abuse that often goes unreported.
23-year-old Florida teacher Debra Lafave, left, is accused of having a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old male student.
While there is a greater awareness of such crimes, the Tennessee prosecutor pursuing the recent case, along with several psychologists, say such incidents are still viewed less seriously than those involving grown men and girls.
"Unfortunately, they look at it as the 'Mrs. Robinson syndrome' and think everything is OK," says Dale Potter, district attorney for Warren and Van Buren counties in Tennessee. He was referring to the woman in the 1967 film The Graduate who seduces a younger man.
"But it's my understanding there are some long-term effects for male victims in this kind of situation," he says. "And from my perspective, a sex-abuse case is a sex-abuse case. We don't look the other way as to who the victim is and who the suspect is."
Pamela Turner, 27, an elementary school teacher in McMinnville, Tenn., was charged Monday with having sex with a student at his home and at school.
One of the most publicized cases involved Mary Kay Letourneau, an elementary school teacher in suburban Seattle who spent 7 years in federal prison for having sex with a student that began when he was 12. Letourneau, 43, had two children with the boy, Vili Fualaau, who is now 21. She was released from prison in August.
Another teacher, Debra Lafave, 23, in Florida was arrested in June on charges that she had sex with a 14-year-old student. The number of female sex offenders is "significantly smaller" than male offenders, says Dale Bespalec, chief psychologist at the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility and a former sex offender specialist for Wisconsin's Department of Corrections. He says the ratio of male-to-female offenders is about 500-to-1.
Bespalec says some female sex offenders have a deviant sexual attraction to children or are severely mentally ill. But the largest number have "boundary issues" about crossing the edges of appropriate behavior. "And they're frequently involved in care-giving or situations where those boundaries are more easily traversed," such as teaching, he says.
Boys are also less likely to report abuse than girls, Bespalec says. That's often because boys in general are discouraged from complaining. They could be embarrassed if the abuser is a male. And society is disinclined to believe that women are sexual abusers, he says.
But the impact of sex abuse on boys can be just as devastating as it is for girls.
"There's a betrayal of trust (by) an adult who violated boundaries," says Louis Schlesinger, a forensic psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
Effects of the abuse can vary, he and other psychologists say, from difficulty forming healthy relationships to sexual problems. Boys may also suffer among their peers.
"They're subject to humiliation and being made fun of in ways that a female victim may not be," Schlesinger says.
Female offenders also tend to be treated Read More ..niently by the criminal justice system than their male counterparts.
"In some ways, males are likely to be seen as more predatory and females more likely to be seen as having a mental health issue," Bespalec says. Women are frequently referred to counseling, while men typically serve some time in prison and attend a treatment program for sex offenders, Bespalec says.
Letourneau, for example, was initially given conditional release and told to seek treatment. She had to serve her prison term after being caught again with the student.
Some psychologists also note that Letourneau, Lafave and Turner are attractive women a factor in the amount of publicity their cases received.
"I think people can't quite fathom why somebody so attractive wouldn't go for somebody who has more status and power," says Miriam Ehrenberg, a psychology professor at John Jay College who has specialized in the psychology of women. "So it's a story that piques people's interest."