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!
Marriage can be a tightrope act: when everything is in balance, it is bliss and you feel safe, but once things get shaky, you are unsure about next steps. Add outside forces into the equation like kids, work, finances or a personal crisis and now there's a strong chance that you'll need extra support to keep you from falling.
My husband and I are no strangers to misunderstandings, which are expected in any relationship, but after 7 years of marriage, we were really being tested on how strong our bond was and it had nothing to do with the "7-year itch"--it was when I was diagnosed with PTSD. As a survivor of child sexual abuse who is a perfectionist, I felt guilty about not being the "perfect partner" in our relationship; frustrated that I might be triggered while being intimate; and worried about being seen as broken or weak because of panic attacks. My defense mechanism is to not need anyone, yet my biggest fear is often abandonment.
I am not a trained therapist or relationship expert, but since 2016, I have learned a lot about managing survivorship and PTSD triggers while being in a heterosexual marriage, so I am now sharing some of my practical relationship advice to the partners of survivors to support my fellow female survivors who may be struggling to have a stronger voice in their relationship. Partners of survivors have needs too during this process, but before those needs can be met, they need to understand how to support their survivor partner, and it isn't always an easy path to navigate.
To my fellow survivor sisters in romantic relationships, I write these tips from the perspective of giving advice to your partner, so schedule some quality time to talk with your boo and read these tips together.
I challenge you both to discuss if my advice resonates with you or not! Ultimately, it will help both of you develop an open line of communication about needs, boundaries, triggers and loving one another long-term.
1. To Be or Not to Be Sexy: Your survivor partner probably wants to feel sexy, but is ambivalent about sex. She was a sexual object to someone else and that can wreak havoc on her self-esteem and intimate relationships. She may want you to find her sexy and yet not want to actually be intimate with you. Talk to her about her needs in the bedroom, what will make her feel safe, what will make her feel sexy but not objectified, and remind her that you are attracted to her for a multitude or reasons--not just because of her physical appearance.
2. Safe Words = Safer Sex: Believe it or not, your partner's mind is probably wondering while you are intimate (yep, she isn't just thinking about how amazing you are, ha!). Negative thoughts can flash through her mind depending on her body position, things you say, how she feels, etc. Have a word that you agree on that she can say if she needs a break. It could be as simple as "pause," but it needs to be respected and not questioned so that she knows when it is used, you won't assume that you can sweet talk her into continuing. This doesn't have to be a bedroom only rule. Daytime physical touch or actions could warrant the safe word, as well.
3. Let Her Reconnect: Both partners need attention in a relationship, but sometimes a survivor is distracted. Maybe she was triggered that day, feels sad or her defense mechanisms are up because you did something to upset her and you didn't even know it (and she doesn't know how to explain what happened). If she is distant, ask her if she needs some time alone. Maybe she does, maybe she doesn't, but acknowledging that you can sense some internal conflict will go a long way. Sometimes giving her the space to reconnect with herself before expecting her to be able to focus on you/your needs is just what she needs to be reminded that she is safe and loved in this relationship.
4. Take the 5 Love Languages(r) Test: If you haven't read this book yet or taken the test, please at the very least take the free quiz to learn your individual love language. My top love language was Touch and Words of Affirmation before remembering my abuse and thereafter it became Acts of Service and Words of Affirmation. Knowing how your survivor partner prefers to be shown love goes a long way and it will in turn help your needs be met, as they might be different.
5. Be Patient: I know it might be frustrating at times and you can't possibly totally understand what your survivor partner is going through, but patience goes a long way. If your survivor partner is going through the early stages of PTSD, she feels like a lot of her emotional well-being is out of her control. Panic attacks are scary and there are triggers everywhere in society. For example, studies have shown that sexual references are made anywhere from 8 to 10 times during one hour of prime time television (source: Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media). My husband is now on high alert when we watch TV and film. He quickly paused a Game of Thrones episode when we started season 2 because he realized a potentially violent sexual scene was coming up, and ultimately we turned it off and never watched the series again. He didn't make a big deal about it and I was relieved.
6. Courage to Heal, Together: The Courage to Heal book has been around for many years and it supported me well during the onset of my first flashbacks of my abuse. At the back of the book is a partners section for couples to read together. I highly recommend it so that you can try to understand from a psychological, physical and emotional stand point what your survivor partner is grappling with and how the two of you can support one another on the path of healing and enjoying life together.