Are teachers who sleep with boys getting off?

Science, technology, and life.
Jan. 16 2006 1:22 PM

Teachers' Pets?

Are teachers who sleep with boys getting off?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

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?"

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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.

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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."

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.)