Women and Boys -- Sexual Assault or Initiation?
The Law Says Rape, but Americans Are Ambivalent
By Ruth Papazian apbnews.com
March 30, 2000
NEW YORK (APBnews.com) -- Americans
continue to be fascinated and disturbed by
the strange case of Mary Kay Letourneau,
the elementary school teacher who began
an affair with a former student when he was
Sex between an adult and child is a crime
in every state, whether the older partner is male or female. But most
experts believe that affairs between grown women and teenage boys are
less likely to be reported than those involving men who have sex with
boys or girls -- and that the women are likely to be treated more gently
by the legal system.
Letourneau's case seems to bear this
out. She was already over 30, married
and a mother when she began the affair,
which resulted in two children. After she
pleaded guilty to child rape, a
sympathetic judge suspended all but 80
days of a 7 1/2-year sentence, and
returned Letourneau to prison only when
she violated a court order by continuing to
see her teenage lover.
A television movie, The Mary Kay
Letourneau Story: All-American Girl,
starring Penelope Ann Miller, was
broadcast in January.
Victims seen as 'lucky'
Ruben Rodriguez, an ex-police officer and
a unit director for the National Center for
Missing and Exploited Children, told
APBnews.com that "society views male
and female sex offenders differently."
"When [the offender is] a male, the boy
has been violated -- typically sodomized
-- which people view as a brutal assault,"
he explained. "When [the offender is] a
female, some people consider this a
sexual initiation of the boy."
Howard Davidson, director of the
American Bar Association's Center of
Children and the Law, said that cases of
older women and teenagers "invite more
snickering than serious legal discourse
about improving the system to identify
these crimes. People don't look at the
[male] kid as being a victim. They look at
him as being lucky."
This societal ambivalence affects how
these cases are investigated and prosecuted.
FBI: Male teens don't report abuse
Kenneth V. Lanning, supervisory special agent at the FBI Academy at
Quantico, Va., believes that sexual assaults are much less likely to be
reported when the victims are teenage boys.
"There is the stereotypical concept that only women and children get
victimized," said Lanning, who is one of the agency's top experts on
The Bureau of Justice Statistics' National Crime Victimization Survey
|Overall, one out of 10 reported victims of rape or sexual assault
There was one reported rape or sexual assault for every 5,000
boys age 12 or older in 1994; for girls, there was one per every
Nearly all arrestees for forcible rape in 1995 were male (99
percent), while about 8 percent of those arrested for other sex
offenses, such as lewd acts with children, fondling and
molestation, were female.
Surveys of adults conducted over the past 20 years suggest that
adolescents are the victims in 90 percent to 95 percent of all sex
crimes against males, said David Finkelhor, director of the University of
New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center. Men were
the perpetrators in 80 percent of the cases.
But Finkelhor believes these statistics are unreliable because "people
forget or don't want to disclose the abuse."
Kathleen C. Faller, a professor of social work at the University of
Michigan, is a prosecution consultant on child molestation who has
been studying victims and perpetrators for 22 years.
She recently looked at 50 male victims; 23 were between 10 and 17
years old when the abuse began. And of 323 sexual offenders she
studied, only five were women, and only one of them molested an
adolescent boy. Faller's findings are to be published this summer in
Child Abuse and Neglect.
Targets of seduction
Lanning said that cases involving teenage boys who have been seduced
are among the most difficult for investigators.
"There is no human being on the face of the earth who is easier to
seduce into sexual activity [than] an adolescent boy, because they are
aggressively interested in sex," Lanning said. "[Boys are] exploring
their sexuality, are easily aroused, are sexually naive and are rebelling
against society," he said.
Boys who might be willing to report a violent assault may also be
unwilling to turn in an adult, male or female, who showed interest in
them -- even if the interest included sex. When the adult is a woman,
the line between experimentation and exploitation is blurred for many --
including the boys themselves.
Prey become predators
"What makes a situation one of sexual abuse is that its purpose is to
make the predator feel good, it is accomplished by manipulation, and
the adult has some sense of the inappropriateness and impact of the
behavior which the child would not have," Faller said.
Faller added that she has worked with men who were seduced by older
women as adolescents and later became sexual predators, even
"This is their way of gaining sexual mastery that they may not have had
in an encounter with an adult female," she said.
Davidson said that "there's real trauma whether the perpetrator is male
or female. No one in this field will tell you that there's nothing harmful
about a 16-year-old boy being in a relationship with a 30-year-old."
Mark F. Schwartz, Ph.D., director of the Masters and Johnson Clinic in
St. Louis, agrees that sexual initiation by an older woman can be
"Some men are traumatized as a result of their first sexual experience
not being an idealized encounter, and they regard it as a violation," he
Looking for a female jury
Over the past 20 years, state legislators began updating child sexual
abuse laws that once assumed male offenders and female victims,
rewriting them to be gender neutral.
But prosecution can still be difficult, with the first hurdle finding a
prosecutor willing to take the case. Rodriguez said that many people
are still influenced by the belief that the "penetrator" -- the male -- is
always the aggressor.
Faller said that prosecutors and jurors "have to overcome their
prejudices" about sex between women and boys. She would try to pick
a female jury.
"Women take their roles of caretakers very seriously and when they
hear of someone who's taken advantage of a child, they react more
strongly than men do," Faller added.
Patricia Davin, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist in Carson City,
Nev., said little is known about female sex offenders. Davin is a
co-author of the book Female Sexual Abusers: Three Views, published
in 1999 by The Safer Society Foundation.
"These women aren't sexually attracted to the boys, they are
emotionally attracted to them," said Davin, whose book is based on
interviews with 76 women in prison for sex crimes. "This is a wish for
intimacy; it's about being wanted, loved and validated. Some [of the]
women are in very vulnerable situations in their lives and have low
self-esteem when these events happen."
Schwartz said that most female sex offenders are victims of abuse,
re-enacting their own experience.
"They may be psychologically unstable and may have borderline
personality disorders or psychoses -- which means they are more
treatable," he added.
Davin agrees that women "do well in treatment," but she has one
"It's too early to tell whether the recidivism rate would be lower in
women than in men."
Ruth Papazian is editor of the APBnews.com Safety Center
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