Women and Boys -- Sexual Assault or Initiation?
The Law Says Rape, but Americans Are Ambivalent

By Ruth Papazian

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 13.

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 sex offenders.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics' National Crime Victimization Survey shows:

Unreliable statistics

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 victimizing animals.

"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 disturbing.

"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 said.

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.

Different motives

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 caution.

"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....... ruth.papazian@apbnews.com.

Click on banner

Click here