Are teachers who sleep with boys getting off?
Move over, Mrs. Robinson. The new public enemy is the bespectacled babe who teaches our kids math in the classroom and sex in the parking lot. Dozens of female teachers have been caught with male students in recent years, and the airwaves are full of outrage that we're letting them off the hook. On cable news, phrases like "double standard" and "slap on the wrist" are poured like pious gravy over photos of the pedagogue-pedophile-pet of the month. "Why is it when a man rapes a little girl, he goes to jail," CNN's Nancy Grace complains, "but when a woman rapes a boy, she had a breakdown?"
I hate to change the subject from sex back to math, but this frenzy—I'm trying hard not to call it hysteria—reeks of overexcitement. Sex offenses by women aren't increasing. Female offenders are going to jail. And while their sentences are, on average, shorter than sentences given to male offenders, the main reason is that their crimes are objectively less vile. By ignoring this difference, we're replacing the old double standard with a new one.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, women committed only 3.5 percent of all single-perpetrator sexual assaults or rapes in this country in 2003, consistent with their share of these crimes since at least 1996. In California, where recent teacher-student cases have made news, the number of female offenders convicted annually has stayed flat for years at about 4 percent of the number of male offenders. Even in teaching, where women are highly overrepresented, five of seven studies reviewed by the U.S. Department of Education two years ago indicated that 80 percent to 96 percent of offenders were male.
Are women getting lighter sentences? It's not clear they ever did. In the 1991 study Women and Men Who Sexually Abuse Children: A Comparative Analysis, researcher Craig Allen studied 75 male and 65 female offenders in the Midwest. "Relatively similar proportions of female and male offenders had charges pressed against them (52% and 55%, respectively)," Allen reported. "However, more female offenders (30%) were put in jail than male offenders (25%)." Five of the 65 women were in prison during the study, which inflated the female number. But at best, the gender comparison was a wash.
Have the numbers changed since then? Since the government doesn't break down current data, Slate intern Ben Raphel went back through the Nexis database from the beginning of 2005 to last Thursday, identifying every case in which the terms "teacher," "sentence," and "sexual assault" appeared. Lots of cases don't involve the term "sexual assault," so this list is partial, but we stuck to that phrase to be consistent. Raphel found 43 offenders—26 male and 17 female—of whom 37 had been sentenced.
At first glance, the sentences look biased. The men got an average of more than 11 years; the women got less than two. But compare the crimes, and the story gets more complicated. Most of the men molested victims younger than 15; most of the women didn't. * Half the men molested multiple victims; only three of the women did. Ten men on the list had multiple victims, including victims younger than 16. These men earned an average sentence of more than 17 years, drastically inflating the average.
Only two female teachers fell into the under-16, multiple-victims category. * One was younger than any of the male offenders in that category, and her victims were older (15) and fewer (two) than most of theirs. She also had the good luck to be prosecuted in Vermont, where she got a one-year sentence. The other had sex with a 12-year-old and two 13-year-olds in California. She got six years, the maximum under her conviction. The Nexis search turned up a third woman in this category. She wasn't a teacher, but she had molested more victims (five), was as old as many of the men who committed similar crimes, and was prosecuted in Colorado. No slap on the wrist for her: She got 30 years.
At the other end of the gravity spectrum, two of the women confined themselves to single victims 16 or older. One got a two-year sentence; the other got a one-year sentence—an average of 18 months. Did they get off easy? Before you answer, look at the four men who, like these women, targeted single victims 16 or older. They drew an average sentence of 14 months. For comparable crimes, men got less jail time than women did.
In the middle categories—crimes against single victims under 16, and crimes against multiple victims age 16 or older—men did get heavier sentences. One reason is that women's victims were, on average, fewer and older. But let's broaden the variables and the pool of data.
In 1994, summarizing her work with 800 male and 36 female offenders, psychologist Jane Kinder Matthews reported: 1) "None of the women we have worked with has coerced others into being accomplices." 2) "Women used force or violence in committing their crimes far less often than men." 3) "Women tend to use fewer threats in an attempt to keep their victims silent." 4) "Women are less likely to initially deny the abuse, and they are more willing to take responsibility for their behavior."
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.