Dirty Old Women
Teenage boys have always lusted after attractive teachers, but what
|What if you had sex in the classroom?|
|What if she fell in love with you?|
|What if she wanted to marry you?|
| If it stopped being a fantasy and started being your actual sex life, your|
actual life, would it be thrilling or upsetting?
|Would you be scarred for life or psyched for months?|
These are questions we've had plenty of opportunities to contemplate
lately. A few months ago, 37-year-old Lisa Lynette Clark pleaded guilty
to statutory rape of her son's 15-year-old close friend, whom Clark
married and whose child she recently gave birth to. In January, a
26-year-old math teacher from Kentucky named Angela Comer was arrested
in Mexico with one of her eighth-grade male students (who had allegedly
stolen $800 from his grandmother for trip money). They had been trying
to get married.
Dirty old(er) women do not reside exclusively in states with alligator
problems; we have our fair share in the New York area. In August, Sandra
Beth Geisel, a former Catholic-school teacher and the wife of a
prominent banker in Albany, was sentenced to six months in jail for
having sex with a 16-year-old, and she has admitted to sleeping with two
of her 17-year-old pupils.
(The presiding judge in the case infuriated the youngest boy's parents when he told Geisel her actions were illegal but that her youngest sexual partner "was certainly not victimized by you in any other sense of the word.")
In October, Lina Sinha, an administrator and a former teacher at Manhattan Montessori on East 55th Street, was charged with second- and third-degree sodomy and third-degree rape for allegedly having sex with a former student -- who is now a cop -- for four years starting when he was 13 and she was 29 (she denies the charges).
And last May, Christina Gallagher, a 25-year-old
Spanish teacher from Jersey City, pleaded guilty to second-degree sexual
assault of a 17-year-old male student.
The story that probably set the most imaginations in motion is Lafave's.
Debra Lafave, a 24-year-old middle-school teacher who looks like a Miss
America contestant, is currently serving three years under house arrest
for having sex repeatedly with one of her 14-year-old male students.
After a hearing, Lafave's lawyer, John Fitzgibbons, notoriously said
that his client, a former model, was too pretty for jail:
"[T]o place an attractive young woman in that kind of hellhole is like putting a piece of raw meat in with the lions."
As in several of the other cases, Lafave's beauty and youth blurred the lines of her narrative. What were
these stories about? We couldn't tell if they were instances of abuse by
adults in positions of power who were badly harming children or if they were American Pie/Maxim magazine-style farces about lucky little dudes.
When I was growing up, my father used to say as a joke (sort of),
"Teenage boys: the lowest form of life on earth." He was probably
imagining some combination of his adolescent self and Philip Roth's
Alexander Portnoy, a character who revolved around a tight coil of urge
and surge and shame, whose repertoire of obsessions ranged from onanism
to defilement and whose actions seemed almost piteously in thrall to his
loins rather than his head (which was too busy processing anxiety and
guilt to offer much guidance). Portnoy's Complaint was a best seller in
1967, but to this day its protagonist is for many people besides my
father the epitome of adolescent-male sexuality: desperate, reckless,
insatiable. The horny little devil.
If you conceive of teenage boys as walking heaps of lust, you probably
conceive of attractive adult teachers who hit on them as public servants
in more ways than one.
Media representations of grown women who pursue teenage boys have hardly
been scary in recent years. Phoebe's brother on Friends married his
home-ec teacher and proceeded to live happily ever after. Jennifer
Aniston's affair with little love-struck Jake Gyllenhaal in The Good
Girl would be difficult to describe as abuse. He pined for her, he
worshipped her, and if he ended up destroyed, we couldn't blame her . .
. a lost little girl who happened to be in her thirties.
The most famous older woman is, of course, Mrs. Robinson: sinister as
well as smoldering, coolly and mercilessly manipulating Benjamin to get
what she wants and keep what he wants out of reach. But the fictional
figure who is really more representative of our stereotypes is Blanche
DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Tennessee Williams made her a
skittering, simpering hysteric. Where Mrs. Robinson unfurls her silk
stocking with utter confidence in her own allure and smoky erotic power,
Blanche rushes to cover the lightbulb with a paper lantern so nobody
will see the years creeping over her face. (For the record, her advanced
age was 30.) She is desperate for attention and dependent upon the
"kindness of strangers," and, it is suggested, she hit on her
17-year-old male student because her own maturity was stunted and only a
young boy would make an appropriate companion for the young girl still
living within her withering skin. By the end of that play, she is raped
by Stanley Kowalski, then carted off to the loony bin: a victim.
It's jarring, however, to think of a teenage boy--say, a
16-year-old--who's been seduced by a female teacher as a victim. It
clashes with our assumptions. A teenage boy who gets to live his
fantasy? What can be the harm?
As it happens, that is a very dangerous question. In 1998, Bruce Rind,
Philip Tromovitch, and Robert Bauserman (professors at Temple
University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of
Michigan, respectively) published a study that has resounded through the
psychological Establishment ever since. The article, published in the
American Psychological Association's Psychological Bulletin, was what's
known as a meta-analysis, an overview of the existing science, in this
case on the long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse. The authors
"negative effects were neither pervasive nor typically intense"
and that men who'd been abused
"reacted much less negatively than women."
Though Rind and his colleagues bent over backward to emphasize the
difference between something's being wrong and something's being harmful
(it's wrong, for instance, to shoot a gun at someone, even if you miss),
the study was spectacularly demonized. Dr. Laura Schlessinger had three
psychologists on her show who declared it "junk science." One of them
compared its authors to Nazi doctors. The Alaska State Legislature
passed a resolution condemning the study's conclusions and
methodologies. In May 1999, the Family Research Council along with Tom
DeLay held a press conference in Washington demanding the APA retract
the Rind study. (Schlessinger was teleconferenced in.)
About a year after the study's publication, Congress passed a formal
resolution condemning Rind in an uncontested vote. The president of the
APA initially defended the paper and pointed out that it had been
peer-reviewed and determined to be scientifically sound, but as the
resolution was being debated, he sent a clarification to DeLay saying
that child sexual abuse was always harmful and -- though the study has
never been scientifically discredited --t he organization has been trying
to distance itself from Rind ever since.
Although it is tempting to assume that the finding that childhood sexual
abuse is not as damaging for boys as for girls confirms various widely
held beliefs about gender -- that boys are tougher and hornier than girls,
that males enjoy sex in any form -- the issue is more complicated. For one
thing, when men seek out sex with underage girls, they are more likely
than their female counterparts to have more than one victim and to
utilize methods like coercion and threats to secure complicity and
secrecy. Women who seek sex with underage boys are more likely to focus
on one person and to proffer love and loyalty and a sense of a
particular and profound bond. In many of these cases, the woman has
floated the idea of marriage.
We (still) like to keep our understanding of masculinity connected to
our understanding of maturity. We'd never had a female anchorwoman
deliver our news until recently, we don't often let female columnists
explain the news, and we've never had a female president to make the
news. For many Americans, being a real grown-up requires a penis. And if
you've got that, even if you're only 15, you must have the maturity and
the manliness to know what you want to do with it -- even if that involves
intercourse with a 42-year-old. Who among us would say the same thing
about a 15-year-old girl?
"For guys, the different issue than for young women is that it's
supposed to be the best thing anybody could want in terms of what
society is saying or their friends," says Lonnie Barbach, a clinical
psychologist and the author of The Erotic Edge. "But they don't
necessarily feel okay about it, so then they're acting against their
feelings. I see a lot of guys with sexual problems who've had that
experience. Problems with erections are pretty common, as is anxiety around sex in general."
But then, she points out, she only sees the ones who have problems.
It's extremely common for boys who have been molested to be drawn
exclusively to much older women from then on.
"There is something about early experience with sexuality that tends to stay with you," Barbach says. "A lot of it is by chance. If you are a child who stumbled upon a magazine with women who have very large breasts, you may eroticize women who look like that in adulthood. It's funny, I don't know why it is, but as a child you are just more susceptible."
Anything sexual that happens in childhood has a better chance of making a kind of imprint on your
Even if we take as a given that it's always wrong for a grown woman to
have sex with her teenage students, or her son's friend, or whatever
other 15-year-old she gets her hands on, a question still remains: Why
would she want to in the first place?
Teenage boys are not, as a rule, the world's most expert lovers. They
are not known for their emotional sophistication or sensitivity. And
they do not excel at the tests of masculine status women are supposed to
be fixated upon.
"If Debra had had an affair with a man who was richer than me, or more successful, that I could have understood," as Debra Lafave's estranged husband, Owen, put it. "But this was a boy. What could he offer her that I couldn't?"
Power, for one thing. Compared with a teenage boy, a woman will almost
always make more money. She will always know more about sex. She will
generally be more competent and experienced and more able to assert her
will on him than vice versa.
If you spend a little time going over stories of grown women who pursue
boys, they start to blur together. Often, the woman was a victim of
sexual abuse in her own childhood. So in some cases adults' having sex
with children is familiar, reiterative. Psychologists say one reason
women engage in this is to create a new narrative: If they as adults can
have sex with a child in the context of a loving romance (imaginary or
real) rather than as an obvious enactment of exploitation, they can then
more easily conceive of their own abuse as a love story. To them, the
experience of being a gentle perpetrator can be redemptive.
"Sometimes, the woman is not much older psychologically than the boy is in her developmental stage," says clinical psychologist Judy Kuriansky.
"She has arrested development. So she's having sex with a 14-year-old, and in her head, she's 14, too. She's getting the attention she never got."
She's Blanche DuBois. And, Kuriansky says, "there's nothing more
erotic that being adored, for women."
Consider the poster couple for pedophilia or true love, depending on
your point of view: Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau. A review:
Letourneau was Fualaau's second-grade teacher, then she taught him
again--and had sex with him--when he was a 12-year-old in her
sixth-grade class. She gave birth to their first child shortly before
she went to jail. She became pregnant with their second child when she
was out on parole. She went back to jail for seven years. After her
release, they got back together. Letourneau and Fualaau were married in
a televised ceremony last May and registered for china at Macy's. They
have been together ten years.
You could clearly hear Letourneau imbuing her student with power; trying
to convince the public as she'd convinced herself that Fualaau--her
lover, her hero--was on more than equal footing with her:
"He dominated me in the most masculine way that any man, any leader, could do."
He was 12. She was 34.
When Diane Demartini-Scully first started going for walks with her
daughter's 15-year-old boyfriend on the North Fork of Long Island, it
made him feel special.
"She would just talk to me about life situations and shit," he says now, a year and a half later. "It was pretty cool."
This is something DeMartini-Scully, a 45-year-old blonde who vaguely
resembles Erica Jong, would have been good at. She was, until recently,
a school psychologist at East Hampton Middle School. She knew how to
draw a kid out.
And the boy, let's call him Jason, had some things on his mind.
"I was making a lot of money in New York," he says, and when I ask him how, he gives a nervous laugh. "I was doing a lot of things."
I ask if the things he was doing and the company he was keeping (mostly in Jamaica,
Queens, he says) were part of the reason his family left Mattituck, Long
Island, where they lived just down the road from DeMartini-Scully, for
Jacksonville, North Carolina, where they currently reside. He says yes,
but the reason his mother has given the press for the move was to escape
the escalating cost of living on the North Fork. Detective Steven L.
Harned of the local Southold Police Department says,
"We were already aware of [Jason]. He has had some court cases here on other matters."
When Jason's family was ready to relocate to Jacksonville, he still had
a few months of school remaining. It was decided that Jason would finish
off the year living at DeMartini-Scully's house on Donna Drive.
"We would go to Blockbuster and rent movies, and when we watched them, she would put her hand on my lap," Jason says. "I didn't think much of it at the time."
One night, when DeMartini-Scully's daughter, with whom Jason was still
involved, was at a friend's house, and after DeMartini-Scully's son had
gone to sleep, she asked Jason if he wanted to watch television with her
in her bed. "Then she kissed me."
That night, Jason and DeMartini-Scully "basically did everything." He
remembers the experience as
"okay . . . I wouldn't say it was upsetting. I wouldn't say I didn't want to, but . . . I figured she was letting me stay at her house, I'd just do what she wanted."
This was not an isolated incident. For the next three and a half months,
Jason estimates, the two continued having sex at the house and in her
"Nobody suspected anything," he says. "And I didn't want nobody to know because I was messing around with her daughter. I found it funny that Diane was letting me stay at her house when she knew about that, but I never asked her why: I figured she was doing it because she wanted something."
I ask Jason what he wanted: whether he was having sex with
DeMartini-Scully because he enjoyed it or because he felt obliged to.
"When I wasn't drunk, I felt pressured to, but when I was drunk, I
wanted to . . . you know what I mean?"
He claimed he got alcohol, and sometimes pot, from DeMartini-Scully.
When summer came, DeMartini-Scully took her son and daughter and Jason
down to Florida, where they met up with Jason's family for a vacation en
route to Jacksonville. What was supposed to be a quick stop to see
Jason's family's new house became an extended stay when DeMartini-Scully
was injured in an accident.
"She hurt her leg pretty bad when I was teaching her how to ride the dirt bike," Jason says. "You could see her bone and shit."
She stayed in North Carolina for a month.
When she finally left, Jason's mother was glad to be rid of
DeMartini-Scully. She had become suspicious when she found out that
Jason and DeMartini-Scully had been in a room with the door locked. But
on Columbus Day weekend, unbeknownst to Jason's mother, DeMartini-Scully
returned to a hotel in Jacksonville to visit Jason.
"So I want to know, what's so special about me?" Jason says. I ask him what he thinks. He laughs. "I'm not gonna say."
He spent three days at the hotel. His mother found out about the visit,
and "that's when all the drama started." She contacted the police, who
charged DeMartini-Scully with kidnapping and providing marijuana to a
minor but not with sexual assault, because Jason had, at this point,
already turned 16 and passed the legal age of consent in North Carolina.
She was subsequently charged with third-degree rape and performing a
criminal sexual act in Suffolk County, where the age of consent is 17.
Jason stayed in school for just three weeks in Jacksonville before he
dropped out. He says he will join the Marines after he gets his GED,
"but just for the money." He doesn't miss DeMartini-Scully, he says, who
by the end was suggesting she wanted to marry him. But he also says he
doesn't feel raped.
"I just, I don't know, I feel weird. She was 30 years older than me, so I feel a little bit taken advantage of. If I was a girl, I probably wouldn't talk to you about it, but a female can't really rape a guy, you know?"
Jason says he would not have given a statement to the Long Island police
incriminating DeMartini-Scully if he hadn't been under pressure. "They
said if I didn't they were gonna press charges on me because I was with
Diane's daughter," who is only 14, and now Jason is 17, thus making him
guilty of "sexual misconduct" himself. As of his last birthday, Jason's
relationships switched status in the eyes of the law: Sex with the
then-44-year-old school psychologist who had been after him since he was
16 became okay; sex with her teenage daughter became a crime.
("It is a strange law," says Harned. "I didn't write them, I just
enforce them." Harned says that it is still likely that the Southold
Police Department will press charges against Jason for his relationship with the daughter and that Jason was not pushed into giving a statement about the mother.)
"I just think about how Diane's daughter must feel now," Jason says. "I was pretty close to her; I still am. I'm talking to her on the computer right now."
I ask Jason if this is an experience he will try to avoid in the future,
getting involved with much older women. He thinks about it for a minute.
"Depends how old," he concludes. "How old are you?"