Double Standard

The bias against male victims of sexual abuse.


The latest chapter in the infamous saga of mary kay letourneau, the seattle schoolteacher who had a sexual relationship with her student, Vili Fualaau, when she was 34 and he was 12, ended last month when Fualaau and his mother, Soona Vili, lost their civil case against the school district and the local police. The jury refused to award them damages, deciding that the school and the police bore no responsibility for allowing the sexual abuse to happen. Commentators who followed the case said that Fualaau and Vili undermined their own case. He gave contradictory testimony at different times; she was easily painted by lawyers for the defense as a greedy and negligent parent. Yet one has to wonder if there is a gender angle here as well. Do many people, including jurors, still find it difficult to see a male victim in such a case as a true victim?

A few days after the verdict in Fualaau's lawsuit, a controversy in New Jersey provided a shocking illustration of this bias. Pamela Diehl-Moore, a former teacher who repeatedly had sexual relations with a male student when she was 40 and he was 13, was sentenced to probation by Judge Bruce Gaeta. What drew public attention was not the light sentence but the comments made by the judge in explaining it. "It's just something between two people that clicked beyond the teacher-student relationship," Judge Gaeta said. "I really don't see the harm that was done, and certainly society doesn't need to be worried."

It's almost pointless to add that such a reaction would be unthinkable if the sexes were reversed. In 1993 in Virginia, a male teacher who had sex wit h three teenage female students was sentenced to 26 years in prison—while the next day, a female swimming coach who had an "affair" with an 11-year-old boy and sexual encounters with two others got 30 days.

To many men's rights advocates, this double standard reflects an egregious form of political correctness: the refusal to take seriously the victimization of a male by a female perpetrator. (Sexual abuse of boys by adult men is seen very differently.)

But there are those—such as Bill Maher, host of the soon-to-be-extinct television show "Politically Incorrect"—who see political correctness gone mad on the other side. What's ridiculous, they say, is not that grown women who have sex with underage boys are punished less severely than male offenders, it's that the women are punished at all. They scoff at a fixation on gender neutrality which has supposedly led us to ignore basic differences between men and women, such as the "fact" that men and boys are always after sex.

Judge Gaeta seemed to endorse this view when he commented that sex with the teacher might have been an opportunity for the boy to "satisfy his sexual needs."

Do many adolescent and pre-adolescent boys have romantic and sexual fantasies about their teachers? Of course. Do they, in some cases, participate willingly and even eagerly in the "relationship"? Yes. But plenty of girls, too, fantasize about teachers and willingly get involved with adult men. And both girls and boys can be ultimately harmed by an experience they initially regarded as a thrill.

One could argue that older teens should not be presumed incapable of sexual consent (though few would attribute such a capacity to 11- and 13-year-olds). One could ask whether, in some instances, statutory rape laws are too rigid—particularly in states where the law requires no minimum age difference between the perpetrator and the victim, so that a young man just over the age of consent can theoretically go to prison for having sex with a woman a couple of weeks his junior. But gender shouldn't be a factor in these debates.

In this instance, the bias against male victims stems from traditional sex stereotypes, not feminist ones. Indeed, before the feminist push for gender-neutral laws in the 1970s, sexual contact between a woman and an underage male did not legally qualify as statutory rape in most states.

Nevertheless, feminists have not commented much on the lenient treatment of female sex abusers, and some have expressed guarded sympathy for them (some years ago on a talk show, activist attorney Gloria Allred deplored the fact that LeTourneau's husband had deprived her of contact with their children after her conviction). Perhaps it's the habit of solidarity with women. But this issue could provide an excellent opportunity to show that feminists value gender equity more.