Betsy Karasik is a writer and former lawyer.
There is a painfully uncomfortable episode of “Louie” in which the comedian Louis C.K. muses that maybe child molesters wouldn’t kill their victims if the penalty weren’t so severe. Everyone I know who watches the show vividly recalls that scene from 2010 because it conjures such a witches’ cauldron of taboo, disgust and moral outrage, all wrapped around a disturbing kernel of truth. I have similar ambivalence about the case involving former Montana high school teacher Stacey Dean Rambold. Louie concluded his riff with a comment to the effect of “I don’t know what to do with that information.” That may be the case for many of us, but with our legal and moral codes failing us, our society needs to have an uncensored dialogue about the reality of sex in schools.
As protesters decry the leniency of Rambold’s sentence — he will spend 30 days in prison after pleading guilty to raping 14-year-old Cherice Morales, who committed suicide at age 16 — I find myself troubled for the opposite reason. I don’t believe that all sexual conduct between underage students and teachers should necessarily be classified as rape, and I believe that absent extenuating circumstances, consensual sexual activity between teachers and students should not be criminalized. While I am not defending Judge G. Todd Baugh’s comments about Morales being “as much in control of the situation” — for which he has appropriately apologized — tarring and feathering him for attempting to articulate the context that informed his sentence will not advance this much-needed dialogue.
I do think that teachers who engage in sex with students, no matter how consensual, should be removed from their jobs and barred from teaching unless they prove that they have completed rehabilitation. But the utter hysteria with which society responds to these situations does less to protect children than to assuage society’s need to feel that we are protecting them. I don’t know what triggered Morales’s suicide, but I find it tragic and deeply troubling that this occurred as the case against Rambold wound its way through the criminal justice system. One has to wonder whether the extreme pressure she must have felt from those circumstances played a role.
I’ve been a 14-year-old girl, and so have all of my female friends. When it comes to having sex on the brain, teenage boys got nothin’ on us. When I was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, the sexual boundaries between teachers and students were much fuzzier. Throughout high school, college and law school, I knew students who had sexual relations with teachers. To the best of my knowledge, these situations were all consensual in every honest meaning of the word, even if society would like to embrace the fantasy that a high school student can’t consent to sex. Although some feelings probably got bruised, no one I knew was horribly damaged and certainly no one died.
On the other hand, awareness of sexual harassment was also much lower. Pretty much every woman I know has been sexually harassed in at least one, and usually many, of her jobs and/or academic settings. I was fired from a waitressing job in Boston in 1979, during my first year of law school, after I refused to sit in the manager’s lap like the other girls. I would have much rather seen that sleazebag dragged through the legal system than certain teachers I considered friends despite their sexual relations with students that today would land them in jail.
The point is that there is a vast and extremely nuanced continuum of sexual interactions involving teachers and students, ranging from flirtation to mutual lust to harassment to predatory behavior. Painting all of these behaviors with the same brush sends a damaging message to students and sets the stage for hypocrisy and distortion of the truth. Many teenagers are, biologically speaking, sexually mature. Pretending that this kind of thing won’t happen if we simply punish it severely enough is delusional. If anything, to return to Louis C.K., the indiscriminate criminalization of such situations may deter students struggling with sexual issues from seeking advice from a parent or counselor.
If religious leaders and heads of state can’t keep their pants on, with all they have to lose, why does society expect that members of other professions can be coerced into meeting this standard? A more realistic approach would be to treat violations in a way that removes and rehabilitates the offender without traumatizing the victim. The intensity of criminal proceedings, with all the pressure they put on participants, the stigma, the community and media scrutiny, and the concurrent shame and guilt they generate, do the opposite of healing and protecting the victim. Laws related to statutory rape are in place to protect children, but the issue of underage sex, and certainly of sex between students and teachers, may be one in which the law of unintended consequences is causing so much damage that society needs to reassess.
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