Suzanne Owen made the list just this month. Stephanie Peterson and Brittany Zamora made the list in February and March 2018 respectively. No, this is not People magazine's “Most Beautiful Women in the World" list. These are just a few of the women who have “earned" places on a long list of females with particular commonalities. They're educated, on solid academic career paths, attractive and in many instances married. And, oh yes, they're predators who've had sexual relationships with their underage students! Why do these women choose to jeopardize everything they've achieved to perpetrate this illicit behavior? Although there are definite similarities in the profiles of these women, each case has its own story and conceivable explanation, some obvious, and others inscrutable.
Details of these affairs are fodder for the tabloids, and some aspects of the individual stories are mind-boggling. Suzanne Owen, 35 years old and married with children, was arrested in April for having sexual relations with a student from the Evangelical Christian School in Fort Myers, Florida, where she was a teacher. Stephanie Peterson was a 26-year-old married woman who taught at New Smyrna Beach Middle School in Florida. An illicit affair began when she texted nude photos of herself to a 14-year-old former student of hers who later became her teacher's aide. She would pick him up from his home late in the evening, while her husband, a fireman, was at work. They would spend several hours together having sex at which time she also provided him with marijuana. Ms. Peterson's father, an attorney, is handling her case. Brittany Zamora, a 26-year-old sixth-grade teacher, had sex with a 13-year-old male student, a fact discovered by his parents from texts and sexual pictures they saw on his cell phone while using a parental app. Brittany's husband contacted the boy's father to ask him to meet to discuss not alerting authorities to this matter. The father was not in agreement with this, and Mrs. Zamora was arrested. As this article is being written, new information is surfacing regarding Ms. Zamora and the possibility of an additional victim.
"Brittany Zamora, a 26-year-old sixth-grade teacher, had sex with a 13-year-old male student, a fact discovered by his parents from texts and sexual pictures they saw on his cell phone while using a parental app." Photo Courtesy of AZCentral
Aside from the most publicized of all these women, (perhaps the Harvey Weinstein of teacher-student sex scandals) Mary Kay Letourneau, who made headlines throughout the country back in the early 1990's, we are not privy to the backgrounds of most of these women. Mrs. Letourneau was 34, married and the mother of 4 children when she began a sexual relationship with her 12-year-old student. She had suffered several sad events in her earlier life: Her 3-year-old brother drowned while Mary Kay, 11 at the time, and her older brother were supposed to be watching him. Another sad chapter in her childhood was when her father had to relinquish his professorship when it was discovered he was having an affair with one of his students and fathered two illegitimate children. At the time of Mary Kay's affair, she was suffering from an unhappy marriage with an abusive husband. There were many deeply disturbing years in Mary Kay's life, which may have weakened her emotional stability, but none can be an excuse or justification for her later behavior. Little is known about the history of most of the other offenders to link their backgrounds to their inappropriate behavior. In the cases of some of the particularly attractive women, one wonders if they could be seeking a revival of their most attention-getting years when they were prom queens, most popular girls in school, etc.
For additional insight into more possible reasons for the unacceptable behavior of these women, we turned to Antonia Hall, a psychologist, relationship expert, and author of The Ultimate Guide to a Multi-Orgasmic Life. When asked about her thoughts regarding what might be the main driving force in these cases, Ms. Hall, responded, “The driving force in these cases can vary. Often times the teacher has a fundamental piece missing in her life and finds that one of her students helps to alleviate that need. Perhaps she's lonely, bored, lacks self-esteem, or she feels ignored by her husband. Most of a teacher's day is spent with students, and a small flirtation can spark into chatting with a student, which leads to more. The ease of communicating through social media and texts has opened up a world of inappropriate behaviors that feel oddly detached and safe to the people using them." She also made clear that engaging with under-aged minors is pedophilia and it's never ok.
Ms. Hall commented that she's read of varying cases where women didn't seem to realize that it was wrong while others did. Part of the appeal can be doing something you know you're not supposed to be doing. When a teacher is in her early twenties, not far out of high school herself, she might not see why the young student couldn't be her boyfriend!
When questioned whether some of these women had been abused themselves, Ms. Hall said that was often the case, and then the victim becomes the abuser.
"An illicit affair began when Stephanie Peterson texted nude photos of herself to a 14-year-old former student of hers who later became her teacher's aide." Photo Courtesy of Crimeonline
Ironically, we do not search deeply for reasons when a male is a perpetrator because it is considered a natural function of the male anatomy, although his actions are often perceived as much more vile. When the “victim" is a male, it is viewed by many as much less harmful to his psyche. When these stories were published on the Internet, many of the comments were congratulating the victim and saying they only wish they had one of those teachers when they were growing up. When learning that a fellow student is having sex with a teacher, the news is often met with a “high five." Even many male adults consider it a “rite of passage."
These women have done more than flout cultural norms; they have broken the law as well as the trust they were given to put the welfare of their students first. Sure, being a “cougar" can be a pretty enviable role for some women, but their targets are just little “cubs" themselves. This cannot be romanticized or compared with some celebrity couples where the wife is much older than the husband. We're talking about boys 14, 15 and 16, and, yes, some targets as cringe-worthy as 12.
The Legal Double Standard
Ms. Hall also suggested that our culture has long perpetuated specific ideas about the proper age combinations of couples. It has always been generally more acceptable to see an older man with a much younger woman than the reverse.
This belief has often permeated our legal system, creating a gender-based double standard for prosecution and sentencing of rape offenders.
First, and perhaps most telling, is the fact that until 2013 the legal definition of rape was “carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will." This law was restructured to include a broader definition of rape, wherein a woman may be identified as a rapist.
In the cases we're referring to, these acts are sometimes charged as statutory rape; that is, where one of the participants is legally unable to make a binding decision to participate in sexual activity because of age, mental disability, or other factors. State laws have differing age requirements regarding statutory rape, and some states hand out stricter sentences to teachers and other school professionals because they have supervisory or disciplinary power over their victims. Although gender is no longer written into this law, in the past it obviously influenced these proceedings.
While there currently is no clear database covering these statistics, from anecdotal information it appears that women have often been given lighter sentences for very similar charges. Women were often given suspended sentences while male teachers often received the maximum sentences allows. It was well known that women often received only “a slap on the wrist." This is now changing, perhaps because there are more women judges, police officers, and attorneys. While it may seem counter-intuitive for them to push for sterner sentencing for women than have been previously meted out, it is because the lighter sentences served to preserve the myth that females are more defenseless to emotional, physical and social harm resulting from these inappropriate sexual encounters. The very idea of females as sexual offenders challenges cultural norms. Patriarchal protection as part of the law again perpetuates this perception.
Two interesting perspectives may be inferred from the two following comments:
When Erica Ann Ginnetti was being sentenced for having sex with a student, the Montgomery County, Pennsylvania Judge, Garrett D. Page, actually asked, “What young man would not jump on that candy?"
In Michigan, Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Nanci Grant sentenced Spanish teacher Kathryn Ronk six to 15 years in prison for having sex with a 15-year-old student. She stated that to have a continuing double standard is unacceptable. She said the law does not have a double standard and is clearly on point when it recognizes that children of both sexes are developing human beings. Judge Grant pointed out that this teacher was a person with power and influence over the child.
Another interesting development in this teacher-student sex issue is the State of New Jersey's April 2018 passage of a law that empowers school administrators to warn other districts about teachers accused of sexual abuse, potentially stopping them from getting new teaching jobs. While not foolproof, this law should mitigate the cycle known as “passing the trash," in which teachers accused of misconduct move to a new school district while their former employer stays silent. Of course, this law's effectiveness will depend on the honesty of the administrators and whether they will reach out to other districts.
After working on this article, it has become very clear why it was mandatory for me to attend a course on “Protecting Our Children" before I began my volunteer work at an elementary school this past fall. We learned how to avoid the possibility or even appearance of any misconduct and how to recognize possible offenders working alongside us. At the time, I thought the danger was exaggerated. Obviously, it wasn't!
Women in the workplace have always experienced a certain degree of discrimination from male colleagues, and according to new studies, it appears that it is becoming even more difficult for women to get acclimated to modern day work environments, in wake of the #MeToo Movement.
In a recent study conducted by LeanIn.org, in partnership with SurveyMonkey, 60% of male managers confessed to feeling uncomfortable engaging in social situations with women in and outside of the workplace. This includes interactions such as mentorships, meetings, and basic work activities. This statistic comes as a shocking 32% rise from 2018.
What appears the be the crux of the matter is that men are afraid of being accused of sexual harassment. While it is impossible to discredit this fear as incidents of wrongful accusations have taken place, the extent to which it has burgeoned is unacceptable. The #MeToo movement was never a movement against men, but an empowering opportunity for women to speak up about their experiences as victims of sexual harassment. Not only were women supporting one another in sharing to the public that these incidents do occur, and are often swept under the rug, but offered men insight into behaviors and conversations that are typically deemed unwelcomed and unwarranted.
Restricting interaction with women in the workplace is not a solution, but a mere attempt at deflecting from the core issue. Resorting to isolation and exclusion relays the message that if men can't treat women how they want, then they rather not deal with them at all. Educating both men and women on what behaviors are unacceptable while also creating a work environment where men and women are held accountable for their actions would be the ideal scenario. However, the impact of denying women opportunities of mentorship and productive one-on-one meetings hinders growth within their careers and professional networks.
Women, particularly women of color, have always had far fewer opportunities for mentorship which makes it impossible to achieve growth within their careers without them. If women are given limited opportunities to network in and outside of a work environment, then men must limit those opportunities amongst each other, as well. At the most basic level, men should be approaching female colleagues as they would approach their male colleagues. Striving to achieve gender equality within the workplace is essential towards creating a safer environment.
While restricted communication and interaction may diminish the possibility of men being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment, it creates a hostile
environment that perpetuates women-shaming and victim-blaming. Creating distance between men and women only prompts women to believe that male colleagues who avoid them will look away from or entirely discredit sexual harassment they experience from other men in the workplace. This creates an unsafe working environment for both parties where the problem at hand is not solved, but overlooked.
According to LeanIn's study, only 85% of women said they feel safe on the job, a 5% drop from 2018. In the report, Jillesa Gebhardt wrote, "Media coverage that is intended to hold aggressors accountable also seems to create a sense of threat, and people don't seem to feel like aggressors are held accountable." Unfortunately, only 16% of workers believed that harassers holding high positions are held accountable for their actions which inevitably puts victims in difficult, and quite possibly dangerous, situations. 50% of workers also believe that there are more repercussions for the victims than harassers when speaking up.
In a research poll conducted by Edison Research in 2018, 30% of women agreed that their employers did not handle harassment situations properly while 53% percent of men agreed that they did. Often times, male harassers hold a significant amount of power within their careers that gives them a sense of security and freedom to go forward with sexual misconduct. This can be seen in cases such as that of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Men in power seemingly have little to no fear that they will face punishment for their actions.
Source-Alex Brandon, AP
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook executive and founder of LeanIn.org., believes that in order for there to be positive changes within work environments, more women should be in higher positions. In an interview with CNBC's Julia Boorstin, Sandberg stated, "you know where the least sexual harassment is? Organizations that have more women in senior leadership roles. And so, we need to mentor women, we need to sponsor women, we need to have one-on-one conversations with them that get them promoted." Fortunately, the number of women in leadership positions are slowly increasing which means the prospect of gender equality and safer work environments are looking up.
Despite these concerning statistics, Sandberg does not believe that movements such as the Times Up and Me Too movements, have been responsible for the hardship women have been experiencing in the workplace. "I don't believe they've had negative implications. I believe they're overwhelmingly positive. Because half of women have been sexually harassed. But the thing is it is not enough. It is really important not to harass anyone. But that's pretty basic. We also need to not be ignored," she stated. While men may be feeling uncomfortable, putting an unrealistic amount of distance between themselves and female coworkers is more harmful to all parties than it is beneficial. Men cannot avoid working with women and vice versa. Creating such a hostile environment is also detrimental to any business as productivity and communication will significantly decrease.
The fear or being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment is a legitimate fear that deserves recognition and understanding. However, restricting interactions with women in the workplace is not a sensible solution as it can have negatively impact a woman's career. Companies are in need of proper training and resources to help both men and women understand what is appropriate workplace behavior. Refraining from physical interactions, commenting on physical appearance, making lewd or sexist jokes and inquiring about personal information are also beneficial steps towards respecting your colleagues' personal space. There is still much work to be done in order to create safe work environments, but with more and more women speaking up and taking on higher positions, women can feel safer and hopefully have less contributions to make to the #MeToo movement.