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The Siren Song of Sex with Boys

By Kate Zernike, New York Times, December 11, 2005

When Sandra Beth Geisel, a former Catholic schoolteacher, was sentenced to six months in jail last month for having sex with a 16-year-old student, she received sympathy from a surprising source.

The judge, Stephen Herrick of Albany County Court in New York, told her that she had “crossed the line” into “Totally unacceptable behavior.” But, he added, the teenager was a victim in only the strictest legal sense. “He certainly was not victimized by you in any other sense of the word,” the judge said. The prosecutor and a lawyer for the boy’s family called the judge’s comments outrageous. But is it possible that the 16-year-old wasn’t really harmed?

The last few months have produced a spate of cases where women are prosecuted for having sex with boys: Debra LeFave of Florida, another teacher, faces trial for sleeping with a 14-year-old student, Lisa Lynette Clark of Georgia was impregnated by her son’s 15-year-old friend, whom she married before she was arrested, Silvia Johnson of Colorado was sentenced to 30 years for having sex with teenagers and providing drugs and alcohol.

Certainly no one doubts that a teacher who has sex with her students should lose her job. Or that a 37-year-old mother should not find herself pregnant by her son's 15-year-old friend. Or that a 41-year-old mother who provides sex, drugs and alcohol to teenagers so she can be cool among her daughter's friends is troubled.

But when the women face prison, questions are raised about where to set the age of consent. And because many of those named as victims refused to testify against the women in what they said were consensual relationships, not everyone agrees that the cases involve child abuse.

"We need to untangle the moral issues from the psychological issues from the legal issues," said Carol Tavris, the author of "The Mismeasure of Women" and a social psychologist. "That's the knot."
She added:
''You may not like something, but does that mean it should be illegal? If we have laws that are based on moral notions and developmental notions that are outdated, do we need to change the laws?"

Though it might seem that way from the headlines, women having sex with teenage boys is not new. A federal Department of Education study called "Educator Sexual Misconduct," released last year, found that 40 percent of the educators who had been reported for sexual misconduct with students were women.

Charol Shakeshaft, the author of the study and a professor of education at Hofstra University, said that even when the woman is not a teacher, the relationships are not healthy.

"A l6-year-old is just not fully developed," she said. "Male brains tend to develop the part that can make decisions about whether It is a wise thing to do later."

Prosecutions of women have been rising slightly in the last several years, said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

Mr. Finkelhor says he believes that the scandal involving sexual abuse by priests called more attention to cases with teachers and other authority figures. But the cases also reflect a decline in the double standard applied to men and women, brought on, he said, by increasing numbers of female prosecutors and police officers who may not buy into the traditional notion that a boy who has sex with an older woman just got lucky.

But several studies have raised questions about whether the recent cases should be filed under child sex abuse.

The most controversial study was published in 1998 in Psychological Bulletin. The article, a statistical re-analysis of 59 studies of college students who said they were sexually abused in childhood, concluded that the effects of such abuse

"were neither pervasive nor typically intense, and that men reacted much less negatively than women."

The researchers questioned the, practice, common in many studies, of lumping all sexual abuse together. They contended that treating all types equally presented problems that, they wrote,

"are perhaps most apparent when contrasting cases such as the repeated rape of a 5-year-old girl by her father and the willing sexual involvement of a mature 15-year-old adolescent boy with an unrelated adult."

In the first case, serious harm may result, the article said, but the second case

"may represent only a violation of social norms with no implication for personal harm."

They suggested substituting the term "adult adolescent sex" for 'child abuse' in some cases where the sex was consensual.

"Abuse implies harm in a scientific usage, and the term should not be in use if there is consent and no evidence of harm," said Bruce Rind, an author of the study and a psychology professor at Temple University.

This view could prove a hard sell, politically and legally. The article in Psychological Bulletin was roundly criticized by prominent conservatives and denounced in Congress, as was the judge in Ms. Geisel's case.

In 2003, Bruce Gaeta, a New Jersey judge, was reprimanded by the state's highest court for characterizing an encounter between a 43-year-old female teacher and a 13-year-old boy who had been a student as

"just something between two people that clicked beyond the teacher-student relationship."

Pamela Rogers Turner, a Tennessee teacher, was sentenced in August to nine months in jail for sex with a 13-year-old boy.

Thirteen? Professor Rind and others agree that that is too low to set the age of consent, making 12 truly out of bounds - the age of ViIi Fualaau when he began having sex with the most infamous of the teachers in sex scandals, Mary Kay Letourneau.

(The fact that a decade later the two are married and even registered for china at Macy's has not changed anyone's mind.)

But Professor Rind and others point out that Canada and about half of Europe have set the age of consent at 14 after recommendations by national commissions. To set it much higher, as most states do, they say, ignores the research, and the hormones.

Even those who argue for more protection of children agree that the laws in this country can be arbitrary. In Ms. Geisel's case, she was caught first with a 17-year-old student, but because he was of legal age, she was charged only after his-l6-year-old friend came forward and said they had taken turns having sex. Can a few months make such a difference?

"I'm torn, I don't know," Professor Shakeshaft said. "Teachers are always wrong. And it would be my belief that people aren't formed by 16. On the other hand, my mother married my father at 16 and they were married 65 years.'"

Professor Finkelhor agrees that there is variability among cases and teenagers but says it's better to err on the side of safety.

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