December 16, 2012

Student/Teacher Romances: Does gender matter?

Over the last several years as well as decades, many student/teacher romances hit the news in a big way. One of the liaisons I recall most vividly is the one between an adult female teacher and her 12-year old elementary school student. Ring a bell? Mary Kay LeTourneau, the former schoolteacher released after a 7 1/2-year prison term for having sex with one of her grade school students, while marrying the male student upon her release. This one of the first major cases of a female teacher engaging in a sexual relationship with a male grade school student to hit the national/international headlines. The coverage of that case was quite interesting and distinct from similar (and perhaps less offensive to some, as far as age is concerned) cases involving male teachers and female students. Let’s use a case study method to analyze my hypothesis, which is that female teacher/male student romances are more acceptable to our society than male teacher/female student romances. The fist case study has been presented, the LeTourneau case. While that case did shock the country when the news broke, we learned that the couple was ‘in love’, that the boy ‘consented’ and that LeTourneau herself was impregnated by this sixth grade student.

The media took great interest, as it often does. Eventually when LeTourneau was released from prison and married her former grade school student, big names in the media circuit clamored for interviews. I use ABC news as a case in point of its reporting of the LeTourneau case vs. a similar and very recent (but perhaps less disturbing) male teacher/female student case. ABC news ran several pieces on the LeTourneau case and one in particular stands out as ‘high profile’ because it was an interview of LeTourneau aired on Good Morning America and conducted by Chris Cuomo (and also interviewed by Barbara Walters in a different piece). In the majority of ABC news pieces I’ve read on the case, including the Good Morning America interview, my attention was captured by the following sound bites: LeTourneau never doubted her romantic feelings for her then-12-year-old student Villi Fualauu, her marriage was falling apart, she was feeling emotionally overwhelmed, she had an ‘emotional attraction’, Villi persuaded her and she no longer resisted.

Fast forward to early 2012 and read through ABC’s coverage of the Hooker/Powers controversy. James Hooker, 41 and Jordan Powers, 18, met when she was a freshman and he was her business class teacher at James Enochs High School in Modesto, California. The couple, who went public with their relationship in March 2012, saying that it evolved over time and only became physical after she turned 18 in September. Hmmm…this case seems exponentially more healthy and legitimate than the LeTourneau/Fualauu case. For one, these folks actually came out in public about their relationship and were not ‘caught’ doing the dirty on school premises, for example. Second, the two both allege that there was no physical interaction until Powers turned 18. Finally, even if something were going on early (prior to her 18th birthday) it was likely only emotional AND if it had been physical, which no one has alleged it was, the student was a young woman as opposed to a grade school student. In my book, that distinction is absolutely critical because age does matter. However, ABC news’ coverage of this story contrasted greatly with the LeTourneau coverage…listen to some of the ABC sound bites on this story: Hooker is a sex predator; the couple are suffering from shared paranoia; Hooker is pathologically immature; This is what you see with pedophilia, with offending patterns, with teachers who have sex with students; Hooker does what sex offenders often do; Hooker has now left his family and children; They’re both dropouts at this point. She’s a dropout from school and he’s a dropout from society.

Does gender really matter in these cases? If you ask me, and if you just peruse over some articles on media outlets (I chose ABC for the sake of comparing the coverage by one news network on two high profile student/teacher romances…i.e. comparing apples and apples and NOT apples and oranges) gender does matter and gender is a key factor in the type of judgment that will be made on the teacher/student relationship of the day.

What do you think? Does this make sense to you or has your media consumption experience been different? I would love to hear what others think!

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