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.
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 concluded that “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—the 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.
Jason 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?”
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 erotic consciousness.
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 car. “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.”
“Sometimes, the woman is not much older psychologically than the boy is in her developmental stage,” says one psychologist. “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.”
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?”