Commentary Violence

When Teachers Sleep With Students, the Student Is Always the Victim

Martha Kempner

It seems like every week, there's another story in the news about a teacher having sexual contact with a student. Though the circumstances of each case are different, one thing should be clear to us: The young people involved are never at fault.

It seems like every week, there’s another story in the news about a teacher having sexual contact with a student (or students). In the last few months alone, a teacher in Blount County, Alabama, was arrested for having sexual contact and sexting with three students; a substitute in a Washington, D.C., charter school was fired on her very first day for a sexual encounter with a student; a gym teacher at a Catholic high school in New York City was charged with 30 counts of statutory rape; a Texas teacher pleaded guilty to having an inappropriate relationship when she gave a student a lap dance for his 15th birthday; and residents of my own hometown of Maplewood, New Jersey, were shocked when an English teacher who’d been at the high school for more than nine years was arrested for having sexual contact with three 15-year-old students.

Though the circumstances of each case are different, one thing should be clear to us: The young people involved are never at fault. The teachers aren’t just adults; they’re people in positions of power, who are abusing their duty to take care of the students in their classes. Yet this is often not the message we hear when these cases hit the courts or the media. Sometimes media outlets and other members of the public blame the victim. Sometimes—especially when the teacher is female and the students are male—we suggest that there is no victim at all.

This week, a lawyer in a Californian civil suit from 2013 suggested in a radio interview that in his case, in which a middle school math teacher had a relationship with his student, the student herself—who was 13 in 2010, when their relationship began—was at least partially responsible. Though this seems outrageous, I see it as another example of our distorted thinking about student-teacher sex.

The teacher, Elkis Hermida, was ultimately arrested, tried, and convicted of lewd and lascivious acts with a minor in June 2011. He was sentenced to three years in jail and had to register as a sex offender. Once the criminal case had concluded, the young woman’s guardian filed a civil suit against the Los Angeles Unified School District. Her attorney suggested that administrators did not adequately supervise Hermida, and that, based on his behavior toward other students in the school, they should have known that he was acting inappropriately. The suit ultimately argued that the district’s negligence had led to the sexual abuse.

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The lawyer for the district, Keith Wyatt, revealed in his radio interview this week that he had defended his client by suggesting that the girl was partly at fault. He noted that the student communicated with the then 28-year-old teacher through MySpace and sexual text messages, and that she purposefully visited him during the day to “engage in kissing” and sometimes oral sex or intercourse. He also argued that the student had been complicit in keeping the relationship a secret, including lying to her guardians to meet him in motel rooms. Based on these facts, the school district’s counsel argued that the teen was comparatively negligent for being abused by her teacher because she was not forced to have sexual relations with him—in other words, that she had supposedly consented to what had, in reality, been abuse. In addition, the trial court allowed the district’s lawyer to present evidence regarding the sexual history of the teenage student.

Ultimately, the jury ruled that the school district had not been negligent. It is impossible to know just how much of their decision was based on the court’s victim-blaming, but it is disheartening to know that this kind of reasoning was allowed in court at all.

In his interview on Southern California local public radio station KPCC, Wyatt said, “She lied to her mother so she could have sex with her teacher. … She went to a motel in which she engaged in voluntary consensual sex with her teacher. Why shouldn’t she be responsible for that?”

Wyatt has since apologized, saying his comments were “ill-thought out and poorly articulated,” and as of Friday, the district severed relations with him. It continues to work with his law firm.

Still, I’d like to answer the question he posed to KPCC, because I don’t think we say it enough: She is not responsible because she is a kid. She is not responsible because Hermida is an adult. She is not responsible because Hermida was in position of power and authority. She is not responsible not matter what she did or what she said. And, just as her prior sexual behavior would have no place in any other rape case, it has no place here.  

Adults in positions of authority are also in a position to manipulate young people—whether it is by offering them advantages in exchange for sexual activity, or simply by paying extra attention to them and making them feel special. The young woman in this case may have agreed to meet her teacher in a hotel room or give him oral sex in classroom, but this shouldn’t be mistaken for true consent. It is not possible for a relationship in which one person has power over the other to be truly consensual. Their interaction was, by its very nature, imbalanced and exploitative.

This goes for all relationships between teachers and young students, including those in which the teacher is female and the student male. Such cases seem to get wider news coverage than when gender roles are reversed—especially if the teacher in question is young and attractive. And more often than not, there’s an underlying assumption in the news that the boys involved weren’t victims, and in fact that they got lucky.

Take the story that broke in Kenner, Louisiana, in October. Two female teachers, one 24 and the other 32, were arrested for having threesomes with a 17-year-old male student. The student bragged about his encounters, some of which were videotaped, and told the police the relationship was consensual. Commentators on the internet apparently believed him. The headline of a piece on Daily Banter may say it all: “Oh for God’s Sake, Do NOT Call the Kid Who Had a Threesome with Two Female Teachers a ‘Victim.’”

It’s true that he may not feel like a victim in the traditional sense; the 14-year-old girl mentioned earlier might not either. He may even feel like a champion. But that doesn’t mean that the relationship was healthy or that he was not exploited. And it doesn’t mean that the relationship didn’t do damage.

Richard Gartner, a New York psychologist and author of Beyond Betrayal: Taking Charge of Your Life After Boyhood Sexual Abuse, spoke to the Associated Press for a 2007 article on teacher-student sex. “A boy is likely, with a female teacher, to claim that it wasn’t a problem, it wasn’t molestation, it wasn’t abuse, he wasn’t hurt by it,” he said, adding, “To say that you are a victim and particularly a sexual victim, for many boys and men, is to say that you’re not entirely a man.”

This does not, however, mean that these boys emerge unscathed. Gartner reports that they may not recognize the damage caused by the abuse until much later in life, but that male victims often report addictive behavior and compulsive disorders. Moreover, victims of both genders often end up with relationships framed in terms of power and control, not affection.

I cannot and will never understand why a teacher would want to have a sexual relationship with a young student. I don’t know if it’s a deliberate attempt to abuse power, a false sense that their students are their peers, an ego boost, or just some catastrophically bad judgment.

Let us just remember that it is never appropriate for a teacher to sleep with a young student, and that when this does happen the teacher—an adult in a position of power—is always at fault. The student, regardless of gender, is always the victim.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to clarify the hometown of the teachers in one of the cases.

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