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!
I walk into a room full of men and I know exactly what they're thinking: "What does she know about whisky?"
I know this because many men have asked me that same question from the moment I started my career in spirits a decade ago.
In a male-dominated industry, I realized early on that I would always have to work harder than my male counterparts to prove my credibility, ability and knowledge in order to earn the trust of leadership stakeholders, coworkers, vendors and even consumers of our products. I am no stranger to hard work and appreciate that everyone needs to prove their worth when starting any career or role. What struck me however, was how the recognition and opportunities seemed to differ between genders. Women usually had to prove themselves before they were accepted and promoted ("do the work first and earn it"), whereas men often were more easily accepted and promoted on future potential. It seemed like their credibility was automatically and immediately assumed. Regardless of the challenges and adversity I faced, my focus was on proving my worth within the industry, and I know many other women were doing the same.
Thankfully, the industry has advanced in the last few years since those first uncomfortable meetings. The rooms I walk into are no longer filled with just men, and perceptions are starting to change significantly. There are more women than ever before making, educating, selling, marketing and conceptualizing whiskies and spirits of all kinds. Times are changing for the better and it's benefitting the industry overall, which is exciting to see.
For me, starting a career in the spirits business was a happy accident. Before spirits, I had worked in the hospitality industry and on the creative agency side. That background just happened to be what a spirits company was looking for at the time and thus began my journey in the industry. I was lucky that my gender did not play a deciding role in the hiring process, as I know that might not have been the case for everyone at that time.
Now, ten plus years later, I am fortunate to work for and lead one of the most renowned and prestigious Whisky brands in the world.. What was once an accident now feels like my destiny. The talent and skill that goes into the whisky-making process is what inspired me to come back and live and breathe those brands as if they were my own. It gave me a deep understanding and appreciation of an industry that although quite large, still has an incredible amount of handmade qualities and a specific and meticulous craft I have not seen in any other industry before. Of course, my journey has not been without challenges, but those obstacles have only continued to light my passion for the industry.
The good news is, we're on the right track. When you look at how many females hold roles in the spirits industry today compared to what it looked like 15 years ago, there has been a significant increase in both the number of women working and the types of roles women are hired for. From whisky makers and distillers to brand ambassadors and brand marketers, we're seeing more women in positions of influence and more spirits companies willing to stand up and provide a platform for women to make an impact. Many would likely be surprised to learn that one of our team's Whisky Makers is a woman. They might even be more surprised to learn that women, with a heightened sense of smell compared to our male counterparts, might actually be a better fit for the role! We're nowhere near equality, but the numbers are certainly improving.
It was recently reported by the Distilled Spirits Council that women today represent a large percentage of whisky drinkers and that has helped drive U.S. sales of distilled spirits to a record high in 2017. Today, women represent about 37% of the whisky drinkers in the United States, which is a large increase compared to the 1990s when a mere 15% of whisky drinkers were women. As for what's causing this change? I believe it's a mix of the acceptance of women to hold roles within the spirits industry partnered with thoughtful programs and initiatives to engage with female consumers.
While whisky was previously known for being a man's drink, reserved for after-dinner cigars behind closed doors, it is now out in the open and accessible for women to learn about and enjoy too.
What was once subculture is now becoming the norm and women are really breaking through and grabbing coveted roles in the spirits business. That said, it's up to the industry as a whole to continue to push it forward. When you work for a company that values diversity, you're afforded the opportunity to be who you are and let that benefit your business. Working under the model that the best brand initiatives come from passionate groups of people with diverse backgrounds, we are able to offer different points of view and challenge our full team to bring their best work forward, which in turn creates better experiences for our audience. We must continue to diversify the industry and break against the status quo if we really want to continue evolving.
While we've made great strides as an industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. To make a change and finally achieve gender equality in the workplace, both men and women need to stand behind the cause as we are better collectively as a balanced industry. We have proved that we have the ability to not only meet the bar, but to also raise it - now we just need everyone else to catch up.