Why Do We Punish Male and Female Teachers Differently for Sexual Abuse?

Murder, theft, and other wickedness.
May 16 2012 4:51 PM

Not Every Schoolboy’s Fantasy

Arizona teacher Gabriela Compton sexually abused two teenage boys. Why did she get off with a slap on the wrist?

Gabriela Compton.
Gabriela Compton

Maricopa County Jail.

When male teachers sext or have sex with their students, nobody laughs. When female teachers do this, the titters don’t stop. Fictional examples: Skins, Big Love, and many more. Real-life example: this wink-wink blog post about Gabriela Compton, a 21-year-old (former) middle-school teacher’s aide in Phoenix, Ariz. Compton sent a 14-year-old boy at her school a picture of herself topless. He sexted back a photo of a penis he’d found on the Internet. A few sexts later, Compton found herself accused of having sex with the boy in the back of her van. A 13-year-old went to the police and said he’d sexted with Compton, too, and she reportedly admitted to that and the sex, too. She was charged with three counts of sexual abuse, three counts of sexual abuse with a minor, and one other related count. Altogether the charges carried a maximum sentence of 39 years in prison. In March, she pled guilty to the sexual abuse counts—and got a sentence of lifetime probation. She’ll have to register as a sex offender, but she won’t go to prison.

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

As law professor and sentencing guru Doug Berman points out, it is not really possible to imagine a male teacher getting off so lightly for having sex with a 14-year-old girl. Is Compton’s light sentence typical? Can it be justified?

The answer to the first question is mostly no: Compton’s wrist slap is in important ways an outlier. My colleague Will Saletan has been here before me. A teacher named Beth Geisel pled guilty to molesting a student in 2006, prompting CNN’s Nancy Grace to ask: “Why is it, when a man rapes a little girl, he goes to jail, which I’m all for, by the way, but when a woman rapes a boy, she had a breakdown?” Saletan pointed out a 1991 study that found little difference in the likelihood that male and female sex offenders would go to prison. And he updated the numbers with his own informal survey of 37 inmates who’d recently been sentenced. What was different was how long they would remain incarcerated: Will found that the men were in prison for an average of 11 years, while the women were there for less than two. But the women were also far less likely to have molested multiple children or to have molested kids under the age of 16. That is where Compton is in unusual and unfortunate territory. Since she was accused of having sex with a 14-year-old and sexting him and a 13-year-old, she’s not a Notes on a Scandal gal having sex with an older teen. She was doing something ickier.

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Is her sentence of probation nonetheless justified because women molesting boys is just different than men molesting girls? There are salient differences between men and women when it comes to sex offenses. For starters, men are far more likely to commit sexual assault than women are, accounting for 96 percent of the total. They are also rearrested much more frequently.

The women who perpetrate this misconduct not surprisingly have serious problems. Like the men, they have poor coping skills and trouble showing empathy. This report by the Center for Sex Offender Management breaks female sex offenders into three types, based on clinical observations. The first group were coerced by men into abusing children, even their own. The second were themselves victims of incest or other sexual abuse—this kind of history is far more likely for women sex offenders than for men, and the women in this category also tend to victimize young children in their own families. The third type, labeled “teacher/lover,” sounds more like Gabriela Compton. They were “often struggling with peer relationships, seemed to regress and perceive themselves as having romantic or sexually mentoring ‘relationships’ with under-aged adolescent victims of their sexual preference, and, therefore, did not consider their acts to be criminal in nature.”

All the joking assumes that 13- and 14-year-old boys just want to have sex, but the law provides that it is in fact criminal behavior for an adult, male or female. Saletan has written about how the age of consent varies by time and place. The research on the cognitive ability and psychosocial maturity of teenagers shows (not surprisingly) that both tend to rise as they get older. Did the student who sent Compton Internet photos of a penis understand what he was getting into? What about the 13-year-old who went to the cops—does that suggest that something was off here, and that it makes sense to view the pairing of a young teenager and an adult as a crime, no matter who is which gender?

I’d rather the law err on the side of caution and uniformity here. And I can’t really get my mind around probation for a woman who was facing nearly four decades in prison, even if it is probation for life that includes sex-offender registration. Thirteen-year-old boys should be shielded from predatory adults the same way girls are. If they don’t think they want the shield, well, maybe they don’t know what’s good for them.

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