In 2004, alleged rapist Matt Lauer, then the host of NBC’s Dateline, sat down to interview convicted pedophile Debra LaFave. All irony aside (even though there’s plenty), the 25-minute interview — spliced with images of LaFave straddling a motorcycle in a blue bikini and hunched over the hood of a car in black lingerie — is objectively horny. Sure, Lauer briefly but cautiously does the whole “reporter thing” by gently pressing LaFave on the fact that she, “a beautiful teacher,” raped her 14-year-old student inside her classroom, her car and at his house, albeit while retelling the details in such a way that it comes across more akin to audible erotica than journalistic interrogation. But the main takeaway, shored up by moody 1990s porn music is clear: It’s every boy’s dream to fuck their teacher.
“That’s exactly the problem,” says Terri L. Miller, president of S.E.S.A.M.E., an organization aiming to, as the acronym says, Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation. “Her defense attorney argued that she was too pretty to spend time in prison. And the judge bought it!”
To be fair, it wasn’t a hard sell. In fact, there’s no way for me — a heterosexual man who had a crush on his high school English teacher, and who dreamt of any scenario wherein she asked me to stay after class — to write honestly about this form of abuse without at least aknowedlging that my brain is poisioned. Conversations with friends reveal more of the same contamination: “I know it’s wrong, but it seems less wrong,” one friend tells me when we discuss a female teacher “having sex” with a male student, versus a male teacher with a female student. Another believes that while it may be illegal, it’s still consensual and therefore not nearly as traumatic because, “is he really being forced into it?”
But let’s step back and acknowledge what we’re talking about when we glamorize a female teacher’s sexual advances toward her male student. Parents place an incredible amount of trust in their kids’ teachers, and so, kids are taught from a very young, impressionable age to do what their teacher tells them — to mind their teacher. “These are the last words they hear when they walk out the door, or step out of the car,” Miller explains.
In other words, to validate a teacher, male or female, who takes advantage of that trust and uses it to develop a sexual dynamic with their student, is to invalidate the power disparity between student and teacher. “There’s a lot of things that teachers have control over with their students, including their grades, their playing time, their letters of recommendation or many, many other things that they have control over that can cause this abuse to occur,” says Billie-Jo Grant, a professor at Cal Poly University who studies educator abuse. “But even the reporters who write about it, write about a ‘relationship.’”
Again, the adult male psyche — groomed to yearn for any opportunity to get “lucky” — looms, invoking a shroud of doubt when it comes to believing that any male student didn’t “want it.” According to Miller, this psychological double-standard toward female sex offenders is rooted in the way the media romanticizes the power imbalance when the perpetraror is a woman. “Starting with The Graduate — Mrs. Robinson went after her future son-in-law, and it was romanticized,” says Miller. “The same with the movie Summer of ‘42, the elder woman taking advantage of the young boy, bringing him around, offering him jobs in her home and then seducing him. It’s portrayed in a way that boys get lucky, and girls do not.”
There’s that word again: “Lucky.” When boys have sex, they’re lucky. When girls have sex, they’re something else, something ostensibly unlucky. Jennifer Howell, a professor of psychological sciences at the University of California, Merced, tells me that research on perceptions of sex between men and women suggests that the male student wants it, but the female student doesn’t (or shouldn’t). “We often perceive women as providing a delightful, even if illegal, sexual experience and the man as coercing sex,” says Howell. “I think that the reverse sexual double-standard suggests that men with young women will be perceived as committing rape generally, whereas women with young men will be seen as ‘technically’ committing statutory rape.”
Howell explains that this perceptive reality stems from our traditional — and flagrantly inaccurate — understanding of the difference between how men and women think about sex. “Seeing men as pursuing women for sex, and women obliging to try to win love out of men, perpetuates the public’s distorted understanding of female perpetrators,” says Howell. “This general narrative of men wanting sex more than women makes sexual abuse of a student by a woman versus a man seem very different. If you see men as the people who want sex and women as the people who don’t, young men seem to actually be gaining something positive from a sexual experience with a female teacher, whereas young women are being taken advantage of or abused by a male teacher.”
That perversion extends to the way in which the media covers actual instances of female educator abuse. When the perpetrator is a female teacher, the public’s perception of the relationship between abuser and victim is airbrushed by the press: The female teacher participates in a “sex romp” or “has an affair”; the male teacher rapes. “The terminology is very, very different,” says Grant. “Not to mention the fact that [the media] pull these sexual pictures from Facebook of that [female] teacher, posing with her lips kissing or with a bathing suit on, instead of posting a picture of their mugshot.”
To that end, author Alissa Nutting, whose debut novel Tampa is told from the point-of-view of a female predator, explained to Jezebel that the reason conventionally attractive female predators get national attention is because, “they play the best into the tendency of our culture to showcase female sexuality in the way society is most comfortable with: packaged as something for men to enjoy. There’s a sense of, ‘adult men would want to have sex with this woman, so she’s incapable of committing a sexual crime.’ This perpetuates the harmful patriarchal stereotype that female sexuality can’t be violent — that it’s simply there for male use with no agency of its own, that it doesn’t hold power.”
Howell tells me that while we don’t have a ton of data on how physical attractiveness in the context of student-educator sexual relationships affects public perception, the literature generally suggests that it does dial down people’s perception of abuse. “If someone is attractive, we think the victim wanted the sexual encounter to happen,” says Howell. “This is particularly true if the perpetrator is more attractive than the victim. So I’m not sure that we have a good sense of whether educator attractiveness exacerbates or attenuates the reverse sexual double-standard, but I do think we know that it changes perceptions of coercion.”
This perception of coercion and who’s capable of being coerced, Grant says, is why we’re horrified and justifiably disgusted by male teachers who rape their students, but we dramatize a male student as “lucky” when they’re raped by a female pedophile. “Men have been taught that if they’re going to have sex with someone that they’re ‘scoring,’ and that they’re in charge of pursuing it,” she says. “And so, if it’s happening to them, it’s because they’re choosing for it to happen.”
More to her point, sexual assault inherently implies that the act was non-consensual. But since educator sexual abuse and misconduct is often based in a power imbalance rather than an act of violence, it can further confuse people who want to see all sexual abuse as black and white. “[Educator sexual abuse] has to do with the grooming,” says Miller. “It has to do with the preparation of that child to be physically violated. It’s methodical, it’s calculated and it’s carried out over a period of time to gain trust, just like a sexual predator online.”
Perhaps it goes without saying, then, but the problem with the public’s double-standard toward male students who have been raped is that it undermines their ability to process their experiences. Sexual assault by an adult can be greatly traumatizing and is linked to a host of negative outcomes later in life and in other sexual relationships. “However, if everyone around a young man thinks that he is, in fact, ‘lucky’ to have sex with a woman (particularly with an older, more mature women), it can reduce his ability to process trauma and reach out for help,” says Howell. “People ignore the possible exploitation of power by women because they assume that the man wants it. If he doesn’t, that could be incredibly traumatic (it can also be traumatic if he does want it, for a host of reasons, but that’s beyond the scope here).”
Basically, when all your friends are giving you a pat on the back after the rumors start circulating in school about how you had sex with your teacher, how do you then say, but I was raped by this woman? “You can’t,” says Howell.
As counterintuitive as it might sound, studies comparing males who have been victimized by males, versus males who have been victimized by females, show that the latter are more likely to suffer more severe psychological trauma, according to Howell. “They’re more likely to drop out of school,” she says. “They’re more likely to anesthetize with drugs, and they’re more likely to become physically or sexually abusive in their adult life because they’re trying to overcome the fact that they’ve been dominated by a woman. It’s not normal for that to happen, so they’re trying to overcompensate for that victimization.”
Of course, simply acknowledging that every victim of abuse should be awarded the same level of sensitivity regardless of gender when they tell their story is easy to do — actually changing the culture that reenforces the current view is a lot more difficult. So what can be done to reconfigure the prism through which we view stories from male victims?
First, unlike most reports of female educator abuse, we have to dispel this idea that women who perpetrate abuse are misguided because women are simply too weak to be predatory, as sexual assault specialist Holly Richmond told Anna Dorn in her essay “Why We Can’t See Women as Sexual Predators, and Why It Matters.” “Women can be sexy, but when it comes to female pleasure for its own sake (not her partner’s) and for her own sexual self-efficacy, we tend to take that much less seriously,” said Richmond. “To give a female sexual predator that much sexual power is culturally antithetical to what we’ve been taught.”
That’s more than clear in Lauer’s interview with Lafave. Apart from openly saying that, “There are some people out there who say this is every 14-year-old boy’s fantasy,” he further sets up the story by contending that we should sympathize with LaFave, who herself was a victim of rape and who suffers from depression and bipolar disorder. Essentially, Lauer is suggesting that the real tragedy befell the beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed woman sitting across from him, who had a brief, albeit serious crisis of conscience, but who isn’t really dangerous, because how could such a desirable woman possibly be abusive?
The other thing we can do, per Howell, is to increase visibility of male victims. “People don’t really hear about male victims’ trauma,” she says. “In general, people’s perceptions change when they meet people who defy those perceptions, and particularly if they see multiple instances defying those perceptions.”
But the heart of the issue, Howell explains, goes back to the way we differentiate between how men and women think about sex. She reiterates that until we stop feeding into the narrative that “men want sex and women don’t,” the consequences of dismissing male victims of rape as “lucky” — while scorning them for thinking otherwise — will continue to persist.