Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Cretin-Derham Hall High School, where Cameron Clarkson was a student. The version below has been corrected.
Simone Sebastian is an assistant editor of Outlook.
Cameron Clarkson was a 16-year-old football player when he suddenly landed in the middle of a sex crime investigation at his St. Paul, Minn., high school. Lawyers grilled him on the details of his sexual history. School officials, in a statement to the press, cited him for not invoking the school’s sexual harassment policy and said he “bragged to fellow students about what had happened.” His car was vandalized with red-dyed tampons and smeared with peanut butter, to which he is fatally allergic, by an unknown assailant. The shape of a penis was burned into his front lawn with bleach.
“People kept reminding me that I ruined that poor girl’s life,” Clarkson says.
The “poor girl” was a teacher at his school. Gail Gagne, a 25-year-old basketball and lacrosse coach, was a full-time substitute teacher at Cretin-Derham Hall High School and a couple of months away from becoming a regular physical education instructor. One day, she offered to give Clarkson a ride home after he left the school gym, leading to what he describes as the first of a series of sexual encounters between them in 2008 — in Gagne’s car, in their homes, in hotels. He says their relationship ended two months later; another student told school officials about it the next spring.
Gagne was fired and charged with two felony counts of criminal sexual conduct with a student. But in the investigations that followed, Clarkson was treated more like the perpetrator than the victim. Gagne, meanwhile, faced an easier path in some ways. She denied any sexual contact with Clarkson but entered an Alford plea, in which a defendant does not admit guilt but recognizes that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict her. The deal reduced her charges to a fifth-degree gross misdemeanor with a one-year sentence, which was suspended — a far lighter punishment than the possible four-year prison sentence for the felony charges she faced. (Gagne’s lawyer still says there was no sexual contact.)
For male victims of sexual abuse, this is how it goes. Growing evidence shows that boys who are sexually preyed upon by older female authority figures suffer psychologically in much the same way that girls do when victimized by older men. But in schools, courts and law offices, male victims are treated openly with a double standard, according to interviews with a dozen experts in law, psychology and social work. Some say boys should get the same protective care that girls do; other people who work with these cases argue that male teens are driven by raging hormones and are only too happy to explore their new sexuality with older women. But all of the experts agree that the discrepancy in the treatment of victims of nonviolent sexual abuse by their high school teachers is real. And it shows: Male victims typically receive lower awards in civil cases, the experts say, and female perpetrators get lighter sentences.
There is a clear hierarchy in courtrooms, lawyers say. Cases involving a male teacher and a female student result in the most severe punishments and the highest damages. Los Angeles-based lawyer David Ring, whose firm Taylor & Ring represents plaintiffs in sexual abuse suits, has worked on hundreds of teacher-student cases and says it’s not unusual for those against male teachers to end with judgments of more than $1 million. In one example, a jury awarded $5.6 million to a high school girl in a sexual abuse case involving her 40-year-old teacher. The teacher was convicted of a felony, sentenced to a year in jail and ordered to pay 40 percent of the civil damages to the student, who was 14 at the time of the encounters. (Chino Valley High School was ordered to pay the other 60 percent.)
But jurors and prosecutors don’t have nearly the same outrage for abusive female teachers, Ring says: “ ‘So what? Good for him.’ That’s how society looks at it.” Male students, in his experience, rarely collect damages of more than $200,000. In November, Clarkson settled his case against Cretin-Derham Hall High School for $75,000. The case against Gagne settled for just $1.
Clarkson’s attorney, Sarah Odegaard, says her team made a strategic choice: They stood to win a larger award from the school, so they agreed to a token gesture from Gagne in lieu of a trial in which she would have denied the sexual relationship. In cases like this — with “an attractive, young female” defendant — jury bias doesn’t work in favor of the victim, Odegaard says. “It’s not a bias we want to acknowledge, but we have to,” she says. “There have been some successes involving female teachers and coaches, but more often, you see lower verdicts.”
Exact comparisons between cases are difficult to make; every case is unique. Sentences and monetary damages are shaped by the number and type of sexual encounters, the age of the victim relative to the state’s age of consent, and — rightly or wrongly — the level of suffering the victim displayed during the investigation, among other factors. But while there’s no data tracking the nationwide disparity in how male and female sexual abuse victims are treated (one possible reason: male abusers tend to be significantly older than their female victims, which leads to larger penalties, according to several lawyers who work on these cases), everybody seems to agree that the disparity exists.
The problem, rather, is that not everyone sees a problem with it. “I think they should be treated different,” says Minneapolis-based defense lawyer Joe Friedberg. “Every high school boy had some kind of fantasy about some female teacher. I walk away from these cases and say, ‘That would have been my finest hour.’ I don’t know that I see the damage to the victim in those cases.”
Many more studies track female victims than male ones, but the research matches experts’ anecdotal observations about the severity of male suffering. In a 2004 study, researchers in Australia reviewed the psychiatric histories of more than 1,600 people who had been sexually abused as children. They found that both male and female victims had higher rates of psychiatric treatment for personality, anxiety and other disorders compared with the general population. Nearly one in four male victims had received treatment, compared with 10 percent of female victims.
In another 2004 study, researcher Myriam Denov, then at the University of Ottawa, conducted in-depth interviews with 14 victims of sexual abuse by females. Both male and female victims reported experiencing damaging long-term effects, including depression, substance abuse, self-injury, dysfunctional relationships with women and even suicide attempts.
“I’m sick of life and how I’m lying / I’m sick of this earth and what I’m trying to do,” a 16-year-old boy wrote in a seemingly suicidal poem to Denise Keesee, then a 32-year-old teacher at Sherwood High School in Oregon with whom he had sex, according to news reports. Last April, a judge sentenced Keesee to just one month in jail for sexual abuse of the student. Her lawyer declined to comment.
Girls are four times more likely to be victims of sexual abuse than boys, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime. That imbalance has meant that sexual assault policies are not applied to the one in 20 abused boys with the same urgency they are applied to female victims. “You are laughed at and not believed,” says Denov, the researcher who conducted the 2004 study.
The victims are disbelieved precisely because they are so rare, and the failure to be heard adds another layer of trauma. “Because of our views of mothering and nurturing,” Denov adds, people wonder: “ ‘How is it possible that a woman can commit a sexual offense?’ People can’t get their head around what that means.”
Evidence of arousal is often used against boys, too. Clarkson says, “I was asked [by lawyers] how something that ended in me ejaculating could possibly be abuse,” he recalls.
That’s a common mistake, says psychiatrist Brian Jacks. Even if a boy cooperates in the sexual encounter — and brags about it to friends — that doesn’t mean the experience won’t have long-term, negative effects. “They are swaggering around at this point,” Jacks says. “You don’t realize the consequences until later in life. You realize that you were taken advantage of. . . . I promise you, it’s going to mess up your life.”
Clarkson said the psychological effects of his relationship with Gagne caught up with him soon after it ended. He started skipping school, spending the day sitting in his bedroom in the dark. He lost interest in the activities most important to him and gave up on his dream of playing football in college. In his first year of college at Howard University, he smoked marijuana heavily, drank copiously and struggled to engage in social activities. Psychiatrist Raymond Patterson diagnosed Clarkson with depression, saying it was “directly related to the sexual abuse he suffered,” according to court documents.
“There are people who believe that I cannot possibly be a victim of abuse because of my appearance,” says Clarkson. Gagne’s lawyer struggled with exactly this point during an interview. “He looks like he is 35. And Gail looks 20,” he says.
Clarkson believes that race compounded the discrimination against him. He is black; Gagne is white. Society views black men as sexual predators rather than as victims, he wrote in a summary of his experience. “I was referred to as simply a physical body, with no regard for the development of my mind or soul.”