The Gender Bias in Statutory Rape

9 years ago

Near the end of the school year, a 38 year old teacher was arrested in the suburbs of Chicago, charged with having sex with a former student (who is 16 years old). In addition to the inappropriate sexual relationship, the teacher also supposedly supplied marijuana to the gang in which the student belonged, and possibly even joined the gang. After the arrest, the teacher was allowed to return to the home in which the teacher's spouse and two young daughters resided.

There were two things that immediately struck me about this case. First, that the teacher is female and the student is male. I suppose that there are enough salacious details about the case that it would have garnered media attention if the teacher were male and the student female, but it often seems to me that women who deviate into these types of illegally (and morally reprehensible) relationships garner more media attention than the men who do because it violates our socialized idea of sexuality and sexual predators. Mary Kay Letourneau captured national coverage because it was deemed so unusual for a woman to have an affair with a boy. Pathetically, men desiring young girls is practically a norm, particularly the way girls are increasingly sexualized at younger ages in popular culture.

The second thing I thought about was what the consequences would be for the teacher if the tables were turned. If the teacher were male, would he be released into the open arms of his wife and two young daughters? I doubt it, although I could be wrong. Therein lies a more complicated legal understanding and gender bias in statutory rape laws.

In a 2006 article in the Fordham Urban Law Journal, coyly titled "No penis, no problem?" Kay L. Levine comprehensively examined the gender bias inherent in statutory rape laws:

Is the female statutory rapist a new breed of criminal, and the boy a new type of victim? One might think so, given the gendered history of the statutory rape law itself and the academic legal literature on the issue. Legal scholars writing for the past fifty years--a time period that brackets the Supreme Court's decision in Michael M. v. Superior Court of Sonoma Count (7)--implicitly and nearly universally assume that statutory rape defendants are male and their victims female. (8) Moreover, gendered assumptions about the statutory rape drama seem to comport with the obvious facts of life. Society is, after all, dominated by unwritten scripts that tell males and females how to behave sexually and how to respond to stress or fear, (9) and these schemas tend to illuminate acts of male perpetration and female victimization while keeping underground the existence of female-perpetrated abuse and male victimization. (10)

Scientists working in the fields of psychiatry and psychology, however, have uncovered evidence that tells a different story. They have found a surprisingly high percentage of female sex abusers in the population and have documented an extensive array of child sexual abuse committed by women against boys, abuse that includes rape, child molestation, and even incest. (11) In so doing, they have started to identify the motivations that underlie this behavior and to assess boys' experience of sexual victimization, which, contrary to popular belief, can be every bit as traumatic as that suffered by girls. (12)

...Given the scientific data, legal scholars must resist the temptation to rely on the highly gendered notions of age-differential sexual experiences that have animated scholarship in the past. We can and should use studies of female sexual abusers to inform our understanding of female-perpetrated statutory rape and to suggest ways to alter the criminal justice system's responses to both victims and defendants involved in these crimes. To continue to pretend that women are not capable of seducing or manipulating boys to have sex, or to conclude that women who behave this way are too rare to merit attention, will enslave us to the unfortunate habits and stereotypes of the past and cause us to abandon an entire class of victims who deserve better.

The article goes on to explain how defining statutory rape as applying only to girls exploits and reinforces several gender stereotypes: that young women are innately chaste and pure, thus incapable of sexuality; that men are animals who need to be deterred from "corrupting" young women; that boys are entitled to sexual pursuits that girls can't possibly consent to since they can't understand the consequences of their actions; that young men in consensual relationships are automatically aggressors; the infantilization of adult women; etc. Incidentally, when a California statutory rape law was challenged by a young man in the early 1980s, Chief Justice Rehnquist upheld the lower court's support of the law, noting that "the stated purpose of the gendered statute" was "to prevent teenage pregnancy."

Levine points to fascinating - and alarming - statistics about female sexual aggression in her article: 2000, for example, females accounted for one percent of those arrested for rape and eight percent of those arrested for other sex offenses (not including prostitution). (110) Data gathered from random samples of women, though, suggest that abusive behavior is far more common than the sex offender arrest percentages reveal. For example, in a large survey of college-aged women, (111) almost all of the respondents had at some point initiated sexual contact with a male, and their initiatives often were not benign. More than thirty percent of the subjects admitted getting their partners drunk or stoned to have sex, just under thirty percent admitted having taken advantage of a teenager, twenty-eight percent admitted having threatened physical force, and about twenty-five percent admitted having obtained sex by abusing their position of authority. (112) ...In a third study, forty percent of child sexual abuse incidents occurring in a daycare setting involved females, (116) and forty-three percent of college men in a fourth study reported having had a sexually coercive experience with a woman since the age of sixteen. (117)

The reliability of these percentages is subject to further challenge because the overall number of reported cases remains small, and the amount of crime that goes unreported and undetected is largely unknown. Sexual victimization by women is, in other words, potentially far more prevalent than the numbers indicate. Instances of female abuse of children may remain underground because women are expected to have frequent and extensive bodily contact with children. These opportunities allow them to mask abuse as innocent behavior, such as bath time ritual or cuddling. (118) Additionally, inappropriate sexual acts by women may not be reported because such behavior is considered to be less serious when committed by a woman; (119) only females who have committed the most serious forms of sexual abuse are likely to be charged, (120) and juries may be less likely to convict females for lesser sex offenses. (121) Finally, cultural constructions of normal behavior can blind us to actions that do not conform to expected roles.

Levine's article opened my eyes to a lot of stereotypes and biases that I held. Mostly, I felt that because men are still statistically more likely than women to perpetrate sexual crimes, and because there remains a "blame the victim" mentality for rape, that there is less media attention given to teacher-student sexual relationships when the teacher is male and student is female. But it's more than that. The fact that society views women incapable of engaging in this type of crime is a big problem, as it undermines the agency of all women. Further, as Levine points out, it hurts boys who are damaged by inappropriate sexual relationships because instead of viewing them as victims, we give them a high-five for "scoring," reinforcing the idea that boys just want sex and shouldn't care who they have it with or under what circumstances they get it.

Recently, a child care worker in the UK was caught molesting the children in her care. The reaction was as it should be: anger, revulsion, and disgust. But Michelle Elliot argued in The Guardian that precisely because women are thought to be incapable of sexual assault, the reaction to this outrage was disproportionate:

About 20 years ago, I gave a talk about sexual abuse to the RAF. At the end, a young airman came up to me and said, "It's not just men, you know," before hurriedly walking away... Up till then, like most people working in the area of sexual abuse, I'd always assumed the abusers were men.

This just isn't so. We can't be sure of the precise prevalence of sexual abuse by women, as there hasn't been enough research into the subject. Academics have just assumed it doesn't happened. But conservative estimates suggest that 5% of girls and 20% of boys who have reported being abused have been abused by women. From my own research – I have had 800 cases reported to me – I believe the more likely figure is that it is 20% of all sexual abuse that is done by women.

...Women abusers are also treated very differently by the media. If, as in the current Plymouth case, a woman is accused of abusing very young children, then she is likely to be far more vilified than if she were a male. It is as though we don't really expect any better from men, but from a woman, it is the ultimate taboo.

Yet, when women are accused of abusing teenagers, a very different picture emerges. Women become Mrs Robinson characters – temptresses – and there's an unspoken assumption that the child somehow "got lucky". You can see that in newspaper headlines, such as "Lessons in Lust", that was used recently in the Sunday Times. There's a collusion that implies that it's somehow not as serious if there is a woman involved. People are more inclined to look for excuses – "the teenager came on to her and she couldn't help herself" – and don't apply the same rules as they would for men.

In a follow up to the Plymouth case, womensgrid notes that:

If nothing else, the case raises awareness of a topic that society as a whole – from police officers to social workers, teachers and the general public – has historically failed to acknowledge fully. Women can and do sexually abuse children. What’s more, according to recent research, the failure to recognise this can hinder child abuse investigations and the detection of female abusers.

Given all of these stereotypes, it is important to set the record straight. At Purple PJs, a site for teens by teens, Janet Fraser wrote a great article about what statutory rape is. Explaining the meanings of various statutory rape laws, Fraser wrote:

This leads to one myth that is slowly being debunked: yes, women can commit statutory rape. Though its true that women get charged for it far less often and cases of women raping men are reported substantially less frequently as a ratio of the whole than men raping women. But the point still stands, if you are a woman and you get going with a guy and he says no, no means no regardless of the sex of the person the mouth is attached to.

Again, before I wrote this post, I also tended to think of statutory rape and sexual abuse perpetrated by men as somehow "worse" because the acts were more statistically prevalent and we live in a society that encourages turning girls into sexual objects. But this morning I realized how hurtful that view is to everyone - not just men. I've never believed that women were somehow purer or better or more wholesome than men, but by focusing exclusively on male deviance, I not only perpetrated that stereotype, but also bought into other myths that enable abusers to "get away with it." In no way am I trivializing the problem with male sexual abusers, but I think it is critical to protect youth by understanding the full nature of the problem, and that means we have to think about women differently.

The situation involving the teacher in the Chicago suburbs is tragic for all, but it certainly led me to learn about a topic to which I'd always treated with a cursory, gut reaction. I hope others will start viewing the problem differently, too.

Suzanne also blogs at Campaign for Unshaved Snatch (CUSS) & Other Rants

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