Hot For Teacher: Gender Bias in Sentencing of Teachers that have Sex with Their Students

A female teacher from Texas was sentenced to five years in prison after being convicted of having sex with five male students in her home.  One encounter involved group sex that was recorded on a cell phone.  She was found guilty of sixteen counts of having an inappropriate relationship between a student and teacher.  Each count was punishable by two to twenty years imprisonment. Sex between teachers and their students has always been a highly-publicized ordeal throughout the country, and it is hard to watch the news and not hear about another teacher-student sex scandal.  But does the public pay attention to the consequences these perpetrators face?

  • A female teacher from Fort Thomas, Kentucky, who had sex with a male student multiple times, inside and outside of her classroom was sentenced to 90 days in jail. She could have faced up to five years in prison.
  • A female teacher from Johnson County, Kansas, was sentenced to 36 months probation and must register as a sex offender for having sex with her students. She pleaded guilty to three counts of unlawful sex with a minor, which typically carries a 31-month to 13-year prison sentence.  If she does not violate her probation for three years, her record will be completely cleared.
  • A female teacher from Long Island, New York, was sentenced to six years probation for having sex with a male student.  She was also required to register as a sex offender.
  • A male teacher from Winston Salem, North Carolina, was sentenced to 26 to 33 years in prison for having sex with two female students.
  • A male teacher was sentenced to 20 years in prison for having sex with two male students who say they were not coerced.

Each of these convictions occurred in the last five months and plenty more can be found on watchdog monitoring sites.

North Carolina is not immune to the student-teacher sex scandal.  In 2007, Janet Klatt was charged with the felony offense of sexual activity between a school personnel member and a student after she was found having sex with a 16-year-old student on an overnight field trip in Raleigh.  Klatt entered an Alford plea and was given 30 months of probation.  She was also ordered to have no contact with the male student and pay a $500 fine.  It is important to note that an Alford plea is one in which a defendant does not admit guilt, but admits that sufficient evidence exists with which the prosecution could likely convince a judge or jury to find the defendant guilty.

Female teachers seem to merely get a slap on the wrist compared to the hefty jail time male teachers must serve.  One defense attorney has even gone as far to state that his female client was “too pretty” to go to jail. 8  On the surface, the actions of the male teachers appear to be as equally criminal as those of female teachers.  Moreover, in some instances it is safe to say the female teachers were responsible for more wrongdoing.  What makes male teachers having sex with students more deplorable than female teachers doing the same?  There is a clear gender bias in the sentencing of adults who have consensual sexual relationships with teens.  What underlines this discrepancy?  A few theories help to dissect and explain why female teachers experience leniency in comparison to male teachers.

Females have traditionally been perceived as more defenseless to emotional, physical, and social harm resulting from sex.  Historically, statutory rape laws were written with gendered terms to protect females from male predators.  The best example of the gendered statutory rape law is the California statute that was challenged and upheld by the United States Supreme Court in Michael M. v. Superior Court of Sonoma County.  This statute states, “unlawful sexual intercourse is an act of sexual intercourse accomplished with a female who is not the wife of the perpetrator where the female is under the age of 18 years.”  This statute illustrates the conception that statutory rape was customarily understood as a crime that could happen only to females.  The need to protect women can be traced back to the idea that the differences in male and female reproductive systems create a greater risk of physical harm (including the risk of pregnancy) to a young female than to a young male.  In the last 30 years, all states have eliminated language that solely protected women.  These states have replaced this language with gender-neutral phrasing in statutes that allows women to be prosecuted for statutory rape.  However, simply injecting gender-neutral language into statutes cannot eradicate the mores and beliefs held by the general public that young males cannot fall victim to female sexual predators.

The way sexual relationships between older women and younger males have been glamorized by the media has affected how these scenarios are played out in society.  Frankly, it has become socially acceptable and is sometimes considered an aspect of growing up.  These relationships have been depicted in many movies such as The Graduate the American Pie movies.  The media perpetuates the idea that a teenage boy deserves a pat on the back and bragging rights when he engages in a sexual relationship with an older woman.  In a 2005 report by, Hofstra University professor Charol Shakeshaft said, “Boys just live in a world, because of our society, that doesn’t really code sexual exploitation of them by a female as very serious.” Detective William Lilly, a child abuse detective, also stated in a 2006 article, “A lot of times, it’s their parents that come forward, and, a lot of times, the males are very upset about that … to 15-, 16-year-old males, that female is a trophy.”  The contrary is true for teenage girls—when an older man has a sexual relationship with a teenage girl it is considered grotesque and predatory.

Furthermore, the idea of females as sexual predators challenges their traditional cultural roles within society. 9 Moreover, “the public and the justice system seem to dismiss these encounters as too rare or controversial to merit sustained attention in the real world.” 10  A female’s traditional role as caretaker creates the assumption that a woman is “less blameworthy than a man.” 11  As Kay Levin, Assistant Professor of Law at  Emory Law School, authored, “Females are thought of as mothers, nurturers, those who provide care for others; not as people who harm or abuse them. Since, historically, females have been viewed as non-initiators, limit- setters, and anatomically the receivers of sexuality, it is difficult for some to imagine a female sexually abusing others.” 12  Thus, women should not be held to the same standards as men in the criminal justice system as they are not “fully responsible for their actions.” 13  This idea is characteristic of the chivalry theory, which claims that women are weaker and their actions and should be treated more sympathetically. 14  Chivalry within the criminal justice system translates to police being less likely to charge women, and courts tending to give women a lighter sentence, even when these women have committed the same offences as their male counterparts. One clear solution could be less media attention.  Additionally, there should be more consequences for these crimes.  Just as the language in the statutory rape laws needed to be changed in order to capture females as a class that could be prosecuted for the crime, sentencing laws need to be revised.  Rigid sentencing guidelines with mandatory prison time as opposed to the “suggested” time written into most laws would be a starting point in eliminating the gender bias in this area of the criminal justice system.  Additionally, if the judge were unaware of the gender of the perpetrator as well as the victim, it would be nearly impossible for the stereotypes surrounding women to affect the system.

The fact of the matter is that many female teachers are engaging in sexual relationships with their male students.  Young males are less likely to report sexual abuse by a female teacher because of the stereotypes and hype that surround the glamorized notion of landing the hot teacher.  With that mentality, it is hard to consider these young men as victims.  Many males do not realize the experience to be abusive at the time and endure the effects later on in their lives. Richard Gartner, a New York-based psychologist who works with male sexual abuse survivors said, “In my experience, men do not come to treatment as adolescents for these things . . . they are more likely to come to treatment on their own in their 20s — or more likely their 30s, 40s or 50s.”

Female teachers pose just as great a risk as male teachers.  While pop culture glamorizes sexual relationships between teenage males and their teachers and admonishes the same between young females and male teachers, both types of relationships are equally harmful and criminal. The leniency women teachers are experiencing in sentencing, in conjunction with having sexual relationships with their students, is due to a long history of antiquated stereotypes that have no place in the justice system.  If male teachers are serving jail time for engaging in sexual conduct, their female counterparts should be serving the same time for the same crimes.


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About Amanda Cairns, Senior Staff Writer (11 Articles)
Amanda Cairns is a May 2014 graduate of Campbell Law School and served as a Senior Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. She is originally from Pleasantville, New York. Amanda is a 2011 graduate of Elon University, where she majored in Political Science with minors in Business Administration and International Studies. Following graduation, Amanda came directly to Campbell in the fall of 2011. Amanda spent the summer of 2012 as a law clerk at Clawson & Staubes, LLC and the summer of 2013 as a legal intern at Duke Energy Progress, Inc.
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