During the golden years in these parts, I wrote the above commentary on the uptick in reporting of teachers (especially females) caught sleeping with students. Since then, legal and career and social implications for the teachers accused have been ramped up due to the glaring spotlight. Sex offender registration has become one common consequence if the accused teacher is convicted.
Today’s commentary focuses one of the base issues with this topic: vulnerability/risk factors. It may be the first in a short series on the topic.
Make no mistake, teachers or people in similar authority figures to children and adolescents who have sex with said children and youth are committing an egregious and damaging misuse of power with those acts. The consequences of those actions are more far-reaching in some cases than folks may choose to acknowledge or recognize. Still, it comes back on one level to a favorite pet peeves of mine: how sex is handled culturally in current contemporary society.
As youth go through puberty, the social, biological, psychological and emotional changes are profound and far-reaching. While many of us are aware of the vast literature on these changes, we don’t always choose to connect the dots easily for our own personal reasons. So let’s try to examine things from another perspective.
Say you have a cisgender boy who is going through puberty. He is trying to figure out what it means to start to have this feelings of attraction to other genders. Prepubescence, when he saw a woman in a summer dress walking down the street, it was a merely a woman in a summer dress walking down the street. Now, he can see that on one level, but he can also see more closely how she walks, the swaying (or lack thereof) of the dress, how the dress fits (or doesn’t) to accentuate her figure, how much skin is visible, etc. All these stimuli have the capacity to illicit physiological arsousal. Then he has to decide (whether to, and if so, how) to act on this arsousal. Ideally, social norms would kick in here to govern appropriateness, how to make approaches, etc. Because this sort of processing is happening more frequently, it is a huge adjustment to make during puberty.
Now, what does this have to do with teachers? Well, if we stick with our current example, one of the settings in which the young man has to learn to nagivate those tensions is at school. So through trial and error (whether directly or vicariously), he is learning how to manage the physiological arsousal and developing appropriate coping strategies and outlets (WE HOPE). He may be seeking out different sources of information as he develops coping strategies.
One of the first people his gaze may view differently now is teachers. Remember, teachers have intimate relationships based on mentorship and guidance to students. Let’s say the young man may have a math teacher with a look that he finds taps into those physiological arsousal states. Is he to act on it? Socially it is not acceptable, and for a myriad of good reasons. Still, he may choose to test boundaries and may learn that this isn’t socially desirable or appropriate. Then, what does he do in a situation where the teacher is sending true signals of interest?
Now, with the advent of social media, older children and younger adolescents have been exposed more to the mixed messages that our culture has about sex. For me, this is where one part of the danger lies, as not everyone is able to sift through the cruft easily and to discern the subtleties of how to process what sex means on all its levels easily as a teen. If some adults still struggle to do so, we know teens have difficulty as older children (ages 10-12), younger adolescents (ages 13-16) and older adolescents (ages 17-20) are in very different places developmentally.
I’m not absolving teachers who sleep with students at all. I’m merely saying that there is often a lot happening on both sides and it’s important to address the issue by not just punishing the teachers. Our overall cultural (and some specific subculture) views on sex doesn’t always allow for the necessary safe space to access support in effectively decipher messages around sex.