Are teachers who sleep with boys getting off?
Six years later, L.C. Miccio-Fonseca, a clinic director in California, compared 18 female to 332 male sex offenders and found that males "had more legal problems" and "more sexual partners than females did," despite the fact that 39 percent of the females said they'd been raped themselves, compared with 4 percent of the males. A 2002 study of registered sex offenders in Arkansas added:
In comparison to males, female offenders in general were slightly younger at the time of arrest for their first sex offense. Females were significantly more likely than males to be a first-time offender at the time of arrest for the sex offense. Males generally had a higher number of sex offenses in their criminal histories compared to females.
Two years ago, in Sexual Exploitation in Schools, Kansas State University Professor Robert Shoop confirmed that many of Matthews' findings applied to abuse of students. "Women seldom use force to compel sex or threaten victims to keep them silent," Shoop reported. Whereas female teachers like Mary Kay Letourneau and Julie Feil tried to marry their students (and Letourneau succeeded), "Most male school employees who sexually exploit students do not have a romantic attachment to their victims." Shoop added that "it is far more common for men to exploit a series of students over time. Such behavior is rare among women."
Every one of these differences between the average male and female offender is a likely factor in sentencing. The acid test is whether they're also used to distinguish lesser from greater offenses committed by women. They are. Using Letourneau's name as the starting point for a series of Nexis searches, I looked at 15 recent cases of sexual abuse by female teachers and four cases of abuse by other women. The two women the media seized on as examples of lenient sentencing—Debra LaFave of Florida and Sandra Beth Geisel of New York—turn out to be exceptions. A judge has rejected Lafave's no-jail plea deal, so in her case, stay tuned. Geisel is the only multiple-victim offender who got less than a year behind bars. Another such offender got just a year because the judge found "no evidence of violence or coercion." The rest got three years or more.
Systematically, any female offender who targeted multiple kids or a kid under 16 was forced to register as a sex offender, ending her career. Systematically, sentences of three years or more were handed out to women who abused multiple kids or kids under 14. Letourneau, who grossly violated her probation, got seven years. Sarah Bench-Salorio, the teacher who had sex with a 12-year-old and two 13-year-olds, got six years. Tani Leigh Firkins, who assaulted a boy dozens of times beginning at age 14, got nine years. Silvia Johnson, who plied multiple victims with drugs and booze, got 30 years.
By the time Bench-Salorio came up for sentencing this month, the uproar over sexist leniency had reached such a pitch that prosecutors used it in court. Women shouldn't get lighter sentences just because they're women, the deputy district attorney told the judge. Damn straight. Nor should they get heavier sentences than their crimes deserve, just because we're trying to look tough on women.
Correction, Jan. 17, 2006: Due to a writing error, the article originally and incorrectly said that none of the female teacher-offenders who turned up in our Nexis search molested victims younger than 15. In fact, several did. Most did not. The sentence was intended to say that none of the female offenders molested multiple victims under 15—but due to a reporting error during the search, this would also be incorrect. One offender, Bench-Salorio, molested multiple victims under 15. Her inclusion raises the average sentence for female offenders who targeted multiple victims including at least one under 16.(Return to the corrected sentences.)
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.