by Randall S. Frederick
Following my last article, I chose to wait for a few weeks to let a few thoughts ruminate. Though I was aware of readers wanting part III, I was convinced it would be only a matter of days until yet another story broke about a female teacher having sex with her student. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present Kelly Burgess, 26, from Newport, South Wales, the latest in a long list of teachers accused of having sex with one of her students. In Burgess’ case, the supposed liaison took place while the boy was between the ages of 13 and 17.
Do the math we me on that – she allegedly began having sex with a 13yo boy when she was 22yo.
One of the questions I kept getting pressed with in this series is “Well, what about the men? It’s not just women having sex with their students! And you’re so insensitive to privilege heterosexual couplings!”
Can we take a second with that?
Some of the readers were offended that they weren’t adequately being represented in a criminal activity. They were offended that I didn’t group their sexual orientation in with sexual abuse. One of the readers wanted to be aligned with sexual abuse – even though she denied being a survivor of abuse. Even now, weeks later, I’m still dumbstruck by this. On some deep level, it seems people want to feel like they are a part of molestation, criminal activity, accusing me of being “unfair” for not representing their sexual desires.
But I digress.
My intention was always to circle back to the recent story surrounding Jamie Carrillo and female-on-female abuse, but the reality is that most of the incidents we are aware of are female-teacher with male-student. Before I move there, I want to focus on Carrillo’s story.
I believe that part of the reason why Carrillo used the court of public opinion to get justice for her abuse was the narratives that surround same-sex sex. Male privilege thinks same-sex sex between women is “Niiiiice” in the same way that young heterosexual males being inaugurated into sexual practice by an older woman is “Niiiiice” and do not hear these instances of abuse as abuse. Carrillo had to take matters into her own hands (presumably) because justice would not hear her. I’m not sure whether I agree with what she did, but it certainly achieved her objectives. She got the justice she desperately wanted.
In the weeks that followed the breaking of the Carrillo story, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking through it, discussing it with friends and survivors, wanting to know more about what people think about female sexuality.
It’s a handy expression to refer to sexuality as “fluid.” This term means all kinds of things, from acceptance of women showing more affection to one another than Western men do, to women “trying lesbianism” in college, to feeling no sexual desire at all. Just yesterday, a very close friend of mine sat in my apartment and told me, at 27, that she had never masturbated. “Never. Not once. I just don’t have the desire to do something like that.” This too is an expression of the “fluidity” of female sexual desire.
But I think it’s also a cop out.
I think we still don’t know what to do with the sexual desires, drive, and expression of women. Straight, gay, anywhere in between, it’s all confusing. And because we, as a culture, exploit this “fluidity” for entertainment – be in the coy porn star who’s being introduced to sex with “teacher” to Lena Dunham’s nudity on Girls – we are surprised when it crosses the line of fictional entertainment into reality. Put another way, “women’s sexuality is not the rational, civilized and balancing force it’s so often made out to be — that it is base, animalistic and ravenous, everything we’ve told ourselves about male sexuality.”
I once had a gay college professor proposition me, but I’ve never had a female instructor come on to me. I’m not even sure, looking back, that I would have recognized it if it happened. Like many people, I was raised to believe that women didn’t experience desire in the same way men did, or do. In fact, when I was 13 and my mother told me that she enjoyed having sex with my stepfather, I was genuinely confused. Which is to say that while I have never been the recipient of an older woman’s advances within a particular power dynamic, and while nothing surprises me any more when it comes to sex and sexuality, I must admit that stories like these – of women crossing the socially constructed “line” of teacher-student relations – still give me pause. I want to know what happened for professional purposes. I want to dissect it, to take note of the age gaps, the particular factors that may have contributed to their congress, to see what and why and where and who created the (im)proper environment for such an event to occur.
This is, I feel it is important to point out, a different but parallel response to the one we see splashed across headlines. The knee-jerk reaction is to “slut shame” women who “exploit” their students. Male or female, it doesn’t matter, when a woman acts on her desires we feel we must police her and all other teachers, all other women, for having – and expressing – those desires. We must shame her for leaving her appropriate station. And we do this under the banner of justice, believing that – were one or two details changed, say it was a male teacher – we would be reacting the same way. What if it was my child? we say.
We say this even if it is a mask for our own confusion, a socially-accepted way to express Hey, I would never do something like that because I’m a good person with a good head on their shoulders. I pay my taxes, just like everybody else.
Instead of shaming these women, maybe we should ask bigger questions of our culture. I know, I know. That’s smacks of bleeding-heart liberalism. But I think if we step back and ask why a 22yo woman would have sex with a 13yo boy, we might find more interesting conclusions than “she’s a slut” or “she’s a pervert.” We might find that repressing sexual desires, stuffing them down and denying they exist – because women don’t want sex, at least not good women – creates all kinds of opportunities for expression.
What is more, we box these women in. Because there is no “appropriate” way for a woman to express her desires, we are even reluctant to label those desires as pedophilia – something we would be very quick to label a man in a similar situation. A male teacher who has sex with his student? Pedophile. A woman who has sex with his student? A slut.
Even more, we have yet to discuss the nature of power dynamics. Because women are not “allowed” to have sexual desire, they are denied the “power” that comes with sexual desire, or any desire for that matter. We are sexually, socially, and professionally dismissing women by denying them power in a teacher-student relationship, and this creates a great deal of confusion. We switch into default thoughts like, “She must not be getting any at home” (because, if we allow her desire at all, it is her husband’s fault for not making it go away), or try to find photos of the boy to see if he’s “manly” or “well-built” because, if he is, then it’s probably his “raging hormones.”
In all of this, I’m pointing towards a rather unsettling conclusion that would appear to be sympathetic to the female teachers. As I sit here debating on how to say this and how it will be read by you, I cannot go so far as that. I cannot sit here, in good conscience and say that the abuse of power is a “good” thing. Only that we would do well to allow more understanding on our end of the television monitor or computer screen. We would do well to examine why it was that we celebrated when a teacher was exposed, terminated from employment, presented with criminal charges, and sentenced to prison. Something about how we discuss sex and sexuality of “off” when we celebrate the destruction of a life – even if that life is, by our estimation, worth less because it violated social norms.