We need to get over the myth that men are invulnerable to sexual victimization at the hands of women says Hugo Schwyzer.
On Thursday, an Ohio judge sentenced Stacy Schuler, a popular high school gym teacher, to four years in prison for having had sex with at least five male students, including at least two members of the football team. During her trial, Schuler’s defense lawyers suggested that her judgment had been compromised by her vegan diet, irritable bowel syndrome, and anti-depressant medication.
Schuler’s case raises a familiar debate, one that’s been going on at least since Mary Kay Letourneau became a household name fifteen years ago. (For those who’ve forgotten, Letourneau was a 34 year-old middle school teacher when she began a sexual relationship with a 13 year-old student named Vili Fualaau. Sentenced to prison for second-degree child rape, she bore two of Fualaau’s children – and ended up marrying him after he turned 21.) The debate hinges on fundamental questions about the differences between the sexes – and about what it really means to be abused. What it boils down to is this: are sexual relationships between grown women and underage boys as harmful as those between adult men and underage girls?
Because women are much less likely to sexually abuse teens than are men, those rare cases that do feature female defendants tend to attract lots of media attention – particularly when the woman involved is relatively young and conventionally attractive. Invariably, someone will suggest that the boys involved were lucky, and that rather than being abused, they had lived out every straight teen guy’s fantasy of nailing the hot teacher. When, as in this Ohio case, the boys involved are described as distraught at what had happened to them, there’s often a sense of disbelief. How could normal red-blooded American boys be upset about the fact that they got laid?
The myth that men are invulnerable to sexual victimization at the hands of women is a powerful one. It sits alongside several other myths. For one, we have a hard time believing that grown women could be attracted to adolescent boys (while we accept as normal the idea that grown men are sexually fixated on teen girls.) Second, we have a hard time acknowledging that guys are every bit as emotionally vulnerable as their sisters, just as easily traumatized by a predatory adult. Young men may indeed be horny (as are more young women than we sometimes admit), but a strong libido doesn’t functional as psychological armor.
But perhaps the most enduring myth brought up by cases like this is the idea that pleasure is incompatible with victimization. Real victims only feel pain, never arousal – or so far too many people still believe. An erection, or better still, ejaculation, functions as proof that a boy wasn’t really harmed. Most predators who molest children and underage teens know this; many sexual abusers go to great lengths to try to arouse their victims. The child’s pleasure functions as a kind of absolution in the mind of the abuser; “I can’t be that bad if I made them feel good!”
But of course, an orgasm isn’t evidence of consent. As decades of research have shown us, a surprising number of male and female victims of sexual abuse do report having experienced some physical pleasure while they were being molested. That memory of arousal can lead to greater feelings of guilt, as it seems proof in a child’s mind that he (or she) was somehow complicit in what happened. “Part of me enjoyed it, so I must have wanted it,” the thinking goes. Some therapists who work with survivors of abuse say that these cases are often the most difficult to treat.
By not taking the sexual abuse of boys seriously, we perpetuate toxic myths about men and women alike. Muscles and high testosterone levels offer little protection against emotional violation; even football players can be profoundly injured by a sexually irresponsible adult. We need to acknowledge that young women don’t have a monopoly on psychological vulnerability, just as young men don’t have a monopoly on intense lust. And we need to remember that when it comes to relationships between adults and teens of either sex, desire and pleasure are never evidence of consent.
photo: Joseph Gray / flickr