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Dirty Old Women

Teenage boys have always lusted after attractive teachers, but what happens when the teachers lust after the boys?

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From left: Lisa Lynette Clark, Age: 37, Age of Boy: 15; Mary Kay Letourneau, Age: 34, Age of Boy: 12.  

The older woman. Knowledgeable, seasoned, experienced. Hot! The fantasy creature who embodies full-blown female sexuality in all its mysterious glory. Of course, she’s out of reach; it will never happen. She inhabits her own complicated realm of emotions and responsibilities and lingerie, and you are just . . . a kid. But imagine the initiation! The possibilities! (Sexually, sure, but also for bragging.) It would be awesome.

Or would it? What if the impossible happened and she started paying unmistakably romantic attention to you. What if “she told me that she had feeling for me. She told me that she was thinking about me a lot and had feeling for me [and] she didn’t know what to do with them,” as 24-year-old Debra Lafave told one of her 14-year-old pupils, according to his statement to the police. 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? Or both? 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.


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