Female sex offenders reveal cultural double standard
It all seems so terribly familiar. A trusted, even respected or beloved teacher is accused of having a sexual relationship with a student...
Special to The Seattle Times
Warning signsFor every teacher, coach, priest, counselor or Scout leader who sexually abuses children, there are thousands more who mentor, nurture, even parent a child in a healthy way outside a classroom or a church. How are parents to know the difference? According to Dr. Leigh Baker, author of "Protecting Your Children From Sexual Predators":
A predator — male or female — will "groom" the child, lavishing him with time, attention and gifts.
The relationship has an element of secrecy.
There is usually exclusivity (the parents or other children are not included).
There may be change in a child's behavior.
It all seems so terribly familiar.
A trusted, even respected or beloved teacher is accused of having a sexual relationship with a student.
What used to shock us, but is now much too commonplace, is that the teacher is a woman.
Their names become tabloid headlines: Mary K. Letourneau, Debra Lafave, Pamela Diehl-Moore and others.
And now two more cases, both local.
Jennifer Leigh Rice, a 31-year-old former Tacoma teacher, was charged with having sex with a 10-year-old boy who had been in her fourth-grade class. The boy's father says she lavished the boy with attention until she was told not to come to their house anymore.
So she abducted the boy, police say, drove him to a highway rest stop outside Ellensburg and had sex with him. After her arrest in early August, Rice said she'd had sex with the boy four or five times, including once when she sneaked into his house as his parents slept.
Earlier this year, former Tenino math teacher Dawn Welter, 38, was charged with second-degree sexual misconduct after spending the night at a motel with a 16-year-old female student. Her lawyer explained her relationship with the student as "horseplay that became sexual."
The decadelong wave of sexual offenses committed by women — teachers in particular have exposed a cultural double standard: The public is more willing to accept the female abuser's claim that she had a "relationship" with the victim. And in cases in which the male is a teenager, the sexual abuse is more likely to be dismissed as a rite of passage. The questionable, yet overriding assumption, is that women predators are somehow different from men.
"Men are demonized, women are diagnosed. Men are beasts, but women are troubled or mentally ill," said media scholar Matthew Felling in an interview with Fox News. In fact, accounts of women sexual offenders are often more titillating than harsh. Felling calls the news coverage of young, attractive teachers involved with their students "part crime drama, part Penthouse letter."
About 25 percent of women and up to 17 percent of men say they experienced sexual abuse as children, ranging from seeing someone exposing themselves to intercourse. Boys are less likely to report abuse.
Despite the troubling news accounts, the National Education Association says schools are still among the safest places for children to be. The number of cases of sexual abuse by teachers, male and female, is less than 10 percent of all sex crimes against minors.
The current awareness of women predators began with Mary K. Letourneau, a 34-year-old elementary-school teacher and a married mother of four, who in 1996 began a sexual relationship with a 12-year-old former student, Vili Fualaau. Letourneau eventually had two children with him and served more than seven years in prison. She resumed contact with Fualaau, by then an adult, after she was released. While a male offender might have been publicly shunned, Letourneau's 2005 wedding to Fualaau was covered by "Entertainment Tonight."
Female predators' crimes are often attributed to marital problems, depression, loneliness, immaturity or self-esteem issues. Letourneau was reported to have "a loveless marriage" and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Not only do we look at female offenders differently, so do the offenders themselves. Women predators are more likely to see the abuse as a romantic relationship. Letourneau told CNN's Larry King that she and Fualaau had a "deep spiritual oneness" before they were ever sexual, and that she did not consider herself a sexual predator.
Dr. Leigh Baker, a clinical psychologist in Colorado, interviewed hundreds of male and female predators for her book "Protecting Your Children From Sexual Predators." All were incarcerated at the time, and their stories help form her theory that there are four types of predators: inadequate, narcissistic, anti-social and pedophile.
An inadequate adult (and predator) has trouble forming attachments with other adults and is most comfortable with children, she says. A narcissist loves him- or herself to the detriment of others; someone who's anti-social doesn't abide by society's rules; and a pedophile is sexually aroused by children.
While some women are pedophiles and some men do profess their love for the children they sexually abuse, women are more likely to "couch it as a relationship," according to Baker. Men are more likely to be serial pedophiles; women seek that "deep spiritual oneness" that Letourneau says she found.
The traits women predators exhibit — seeing themselves as a victim, low self-esteem, a sense of inadequacy, needing to be the center of attention, putting their own need for a connection before common sense — probably place most women predators into two of Baker's four categories.
"My suspicion is if you took a large enough number of female predators, they would fall into all four types. But, we know women are less anti-social than men, and there are fewer female pedophiles, so I think most women are narcissistic or inadequate types of predators."
There are signs of the inadequate, the narcissist and the anti-social predator in Letourneau. She formed an inappropriate bond with a 12-year old, ignoring society's mores and the well-being of her own four children.
While a mental illness may produce hypersexuality, impulsiveness and poor decision-making, such a diagnosis for a sexual predator is rare, according to Baker. They are more likely to have a personality disorder (such as a anti-social, or narcissistic) or to have been sexually abused themselves.
The "Mrs. Robinson Syndrome"
To watch NBC's "To Catch A Predator" you'd think all predators are men. The series uses decoys on the Internet to lure men hoping to hook up with underage teens. Robert Weiss, executive director and founder of the Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles, who provided his expertise in one of the episodes, says sexual compulsions on the Internet are male-dominated.
But female predators are beginning to use the Internet — not in an anonymous way to find children but to stay in close touch with those they are involved with. Rice, the former Tacoma teacher, communicated online often with the 10-year-old she had sex with, according to court records.
Then there is the ultimate double standard: The wink wink, nudge nudge, of boys getting their sexual initiation from grown women.
"Society sees it as they got 'lucky' " to receive a sexual initiation from a woman, according to Dr. Keith Kaufman, chairman of the department of psychology at Portland State University. "But their brain maturation isn't complete. Boys aren't in a position to give consent to a sexual relationship. Girls see it as abusive much more quickly. Boys won't want to see themselves as a victim."
There is a prevailing sense that boys are not harmed by sexual liaisons with older women. It's called the "Mrs. Robinson Syndrome," after the character in the 1967 film "The Graduate." But Benjamin, Mrs. Robinson's target, wasn't a child; he was in his 20s, had just graduated from college and was contemplating that career in plastics.
"We tend to see the female teacher-male student relationship as less abusive and less harmful psychologically," according to Dr. Susan G. Kornstein, a psychiatrist and director of the Institute for Women's Health and the Mood Disorders Institute at Virginia Commonwealth University. "But in fact, a sexual relationship between a female teacher and a male student can be just as harmful and can have both short- and long-term consequences on the child's emotional stability and psychological and sexual development."
Boys who have sex with grown women are anything but "lucky." "It is always abuse," says Dr. Kaufman.
Rebecca Morris has been a broadcast and print journalist for 33 years. She teaches journalism at Bellevue Community College.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company