Double Standard When It Comes to Underage Sex?

Popular culture often glorifies sex between an older woman and a teenage boy.


March 13, 2008— -- Should boys and girls be treated differently when it comes to underage sex?

In 1997, 35-year-old Mary Kay LeTourneau was arrested for having sex with her then 13-year-old student. At her trial, she was pregnant with their child.

It was the first of many highly publicized cases of teachers who had sex with their much-younger male students.

Sandra Beth Giesel, 42, had sex with her 16-year-old student. And 24-year-old Debra LaFave had sex with a 14-year-old.

Pamela Rogers, 29, who was on probation for having sex with her 13-year-old student, went to jail for then sending him a cell phone video of herself dancing erotically.

Although each of these female teachers was criminally prosecuted, many people view the women's sex crimes very differently than they view similar crimes committed by men.

Both Rogers and LaFave have fan Web sites. Their admirers write things like, "I want to go back to high school!" and "That boy is a hero … got to be the luckiest kid on earth."

One LaFave site includes a tribute video set to the Van Halen song, "Hot for Teacher."

Movies and television often portray having sex with an older woman as an exciting conquest. The Comedy Central show "South Park" shows police officers impressed that an elementary school student slept with an attractive teacher. One cop jokes to the another, "The crime is she isn't doing it with me!"

When one of ABC's "Desperate Housewives" slept with a high school student, all season the student was shown as a lucky guy, never as someone who Eva Longoria's character Gabrielle was sexually exploiting.

There are differences between men and women, but is there something about that difference that makes it less serious when a woman sleeps with a younger boy? Studies do show that most teenage boys who had sex with older women say that the sex was voluntary and the experience positive.

Certainly parents treat their boys and girls differently. According to one survey, 61 percent say there is a double standard when it comes to sex. Bob and Tara Hoffman, who live in San Diego, give their son much more freedom than their daughter.

Matthew, who is 15, gets to go out around the city with his friends and stay out late, with hardly any questions asked, while Kelsey, even though she is two years older, is grilled.

"Unfortunately, girls are more vulnerable," said Bob Hoffman. "And so we're very protective of Kelsey when she goes out there into the world."

Kelsey doesn't think it's fair. "My friends are questioned and grilled when you know, I'm not even sure if my parents even know all the people my brother hangs out with."

Tara Hoffman admits her daughter doesn't feel like this is fair. "And guess what? It's not fair," she said. "It is different standards, but she's my daughter."

"There's definitely a double standard," said child psychologist Lisa Boesky. "Parents tend to see their girls as fragile, vulnerable, more in need of protection … When it comes to their boys, there's kind of this message of, 'Be careful out there.' They may even purchase some condoms for them, or basically tell them to be safe and don't get anybody pregnant."

But this double standard is a mistake, say many researchers, because boys are vulnerable too.

Although most boys who had sex with older women said the experience was positive, those same boys are also more likely to have emotional and sexual problems later.

"They may drink a lot, they may get into drugs, they may start seeing prostitutes, they may gamble … they may be sexually dysfunctional," said New York psychologist Dr. Richard Garner, who treats victims of sex abuse. "A whole string of things like that, none of which seem in their own mind to be related to the idea that they were sexual victims, which is very hard for a boy to say he was."

And that, he says, is why many boys say the experience was positive.

"To say I was sexually victimized is to say, 'I'm not male' and boys aren't likely to do that."

Gartner says sex with an adult may be just as bad for boys as it is for girls.

Regardless of what science or popular opinion say, the law makes no distinctions. When adult woman are caught having sex with younger boys, they are usually punished just as severely, sometimes more severely than men.

While LaFave got house arrest and probation, Geisel went to prison and Rogers is in prison now. And most likely all of these women will be on the sex offender registry for the rest of their lives.

And the most famous female teacher who had sex with a student, Mary Kay Letourneau, served seven years in jail.

Yet in a perfect illustration of how our laws and our culture are out of sync, when Letourneau married the boy after she got out of prison, the media treated it like a Hollywood wedding, gushing over the groom's Armani tux and the bride's white Christina Couture gown.

Not the ending you expect for what the court called an "egregious" and "profoundly disturbing" case of second-degree statutory rape.