Friday March 24, 2006
... or so says the lawyer for Debra Lafave, the US teacher who this week escaped punishment for sleeping with her 14-year-old pupil. Suzanne Goldenberg reports
She is, for the moment, America's most famous sex offender: young, blond, and in the words of her lawyer, too pretty for prison. When the prosecution in Florida this week dropped charges against Debra Lafave, a former teacher who admitted having sex with a boy who was then 14 years old, they reignited a debate about whether society is willing to tolerate sexual misconduct if the aggressor is female and, as in Lafave's case, attractive.
Lafave is the most recent in a series of high-octane cases of sexual abuse involving female teachers and their pupils, and the leniency of her treatment in America's legal system has provoked accusations of a double standard - not least from her ex-husband, Owen Lafave, who is producing a documentary film on such relationships.
A similar debate on the dangers of predatory females is underway in Britain where a film adaptation of Zoë Heller's novel, Notes on a Scandal, starring Cate Blanchett as a pottery teacher who has an affair with a pupil, is due to open later this year.
In Lafave's case, charges were dismissed because the victim's mother did not want to put her son through a trial that, given America's current fascination with sexual abuse, was bound to become a staple of tabloid television.
"I'm his mom and I couldn't protect him when it came time to what she did to him. I can protect him now," she told a Tampa television station. She said she was relieved her son would be spared from testifying. "Every word that came out of his mouth, every detail that was presented, would have been terrible for him."
Lafave, a former reading teacher, had already been sentenced by another Florida court to three years' house arrest followed by seven years' probation after she admitted having sex with the boy in a school classroom, her home, and the back of a car - with the boy's teenage cousin in the driving seat. But this week's decision means she will be spared jail - an outrage for some, who say the courts fail to acknowledge the gravity of child abuse when a woman is to blame.
"Any adult who sexually abuses a child deserves a punishment that fits the crime. It should make no difference whether the offender is a scraggly, bearded bogeyman or a leggy blonde in flawless makeup," said a leader in the local paper, the Orlando Sentinel.
But in Lafave's case, it inevitably did make a difference. Soon after her arrest in 2004, pictures emerged from her modelling days showing her straddling a motorcyle in a blue bikini, an iconic image of seduction. "To place Debbie into a Florida state women's penitentiary, to place an attractive young woman in that kind of hellhole, is like putting a piece of raw meat in with the lions," her lawyer, John Fitzgibbons, told a Florida court last year.
Many Americans evidently agreed. Her victim was turned into a running joke on late-night television. Didn't every teenage boy fantasise about having sex with his hot blond teacher? It left his mother determined to avoid a trial - even if that meant a lesser punishment for Lafave.
The past five years has seen an intense focus in America on the sexual abuse of children, from the Catholic church, which has been trying to atone for the damage inflicted by paedophile priests, to local governments, which face increasing pressure to keep track of known paedophiles.
In particular, America seems transfixed by the notion of sex between teachers and their pupils. A day after charges were dropped against Lafave, a former elementary school teacher in West Virginia was sentenced to 20 years in prison for sexually assaulting students. "I was the monster these families think I am," said Toni Lyn Woods, 37, who shared neither Lafave's good looks nor youth.
Other high-profile cases include Sandra Beth Geisel, 42, a former Catholic school teacher, who was sentenced late last year to six months prison in New York for her affair with a 16-year-old student. Then, in one of America's most notorious cases, Mary Kay Letourneau was sentenced to seven years in prison for her affair with pupil Vili Fualaau, which began when he was 12 and she was 34. The couple married last year after Letourneau served a truncated sentence. The union produced two children. "She's not a paedophile; she's a 'Vili-phile'," a family friend told a Seattle newspaper.
But such attitudes infuriate those who say that society is failing to protect its male children from predators. "Society just doesn't view a boy having sex with an adult female as rape although legally it is. Our society just doesn't see it as a child being harmed," says Robert Shoop, a law professor at Kansas State University and author of Sexual Exploitation in Schools. "The idea that society has historically said that women are to be protected from sex, but boys are supposed to enjoy it and look for the opportunity, I think is wrongheaded and is a vestige of our past inequalities."
His research shows that male teachers convicted of abusing female children receive far harsher punishment - an average of 11 years jail - than female teachers who are more likely to get probation. However, Shoop acknowledges that abuses are far more likely to be male than female, and that there are differences of pattern of abuse. Women tend to select a victim, and cultivate the relationship over time.
"There are almost no females predators who say: 'I went into teaching or coaching because that is where I am going to find the victims.' There are only a couple of cases I know about of female teachers who had more than one victim."
In Lafave's case, it appears that she tried to persuade her victim that she was as much a teenager as he was. Tape-recordings of conversations released by police reveal Lafave asking her victim to make a "pinky promise". When he raises concerns that he might have made her pregnant, she chides him for being "weird". Lafave's lawyer says that she was suffering from bipolar disorder. In court proceedings, he said that he hoped that the story of the platinum-blond teacher and her student would gradually fade away.
Lafave - like her former husband, who with his documentary film has become a newly minted expert on sexual abuse - apparently has other ideas. Calm and composed in an elegant black outfit, she read a statement on the difficulties of life with mood disorders. She talked about the pains of having her private life dragged through the press. Then she told reporters that though her real "passion" - teaching - was closed to her now, she had found a new outlet. She plans to become a television journalist.