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!
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.