In the past couple of weeks, Gawker featured five stories of women charged with sexual assault for relationships with teenage boys. One of these stories centered on Baltimore’s own Molly Shattuck, 47, who was arrested by Delaware PD last week for alleged sexual activity with a 15-year-old boy, reportedly a classmate of her son’s.
The conversations around these scandals can tell us a lot about societal attitudes toward sexuality.
“Why did she throw it all away? She’s a pedophile,” Peter commented on a Baltimore Fishbowl post about the scandal. He was hardly the only one throwing that word around:
I bet this pedophile doesn’t end up getting any jail time. http://t.co/bTvAVjlCi9
— BillyTheKid (@BillyTheKidNY) November 6, 2014
But according to the DSM V, the diagnostic bible used by mental health practitioners, pedophilia involves sexual preoccupation with prepubescent children–which is very different from the charges brought against Shattuck. That’s not to say that what she’s done wasn’t potentially harmful and/or criminal–just that calling her a pedophile isn’t accurate in this case. I asked Dr. Frederick Berlin, director of the Sexual Behavior Consultation Unit at Johns Hopkins, if an older person’s seduction of a teenager was indicative of a sexual disorder. Perhaps, he said–but not necessarily. “You have to evaluate each person on an individual basis,” he said. “Just as not everyone who gets arrested for drunk driving is an alcoholic, not everyone who commits a sexual offense against a minor has something fundamental in their sexuality that means they’re attracted to minors.”
Putting pedophilia aside, armchair diagnosticians have a whole bunch of other disorders they’ve been happy to throw at Shattuck: call it narcissism (as many have), call it attention-seeking, call it an attempt at control or a way to recapture one’s fleeting youth. Or, who knows, maybe it was just a stupid sexual urge on her part–it’s certainly true that when men have sex with teenage girls, they’re faced with much less psychological scrutiny than Shattuck has faced in recent days. Perhaps it’s easier to assume that for men it’s about “just” sex, while for women sex is seen as a means to another end, be it attention or ego-gratification or approval.
In any case, Berlin believes that while it’s much more common for men to get involved with underage partners, he also thinks that cases like Shattuck’s may be more common than is commonly expected: “I think it’s underreported for a variety of reasons,” he says.
But let’s put Shattuck speculation aside for a second, and consider her victim. In the comments of the articles about Shattuck and other women accused of similar offenses, plenty of people expressed sympathy for the victims and disgust at the perpetrators. But there was also another category of comment that reliably appeared on the Gawker posts, on the Baltimore Fishbowl’s own coverage, and pretty much anywhere you saw a story about an older woman having sex with a teenage boy: the lucky him, I’d-hit-that, what-a-cougar variety.”It’s interesting how the older female/younger male situations are handled differently in the media,” notes Andrew Extein, executive director of the Center for Sexual Justice. “Whereas situations involving adult men are more often portrayed as predatory and manipulative, [situations with women are told with] a more tantalizing narrative of seduction.”
Case in point: “When I was 15, the notion of receiving sexual attention from a hot blonde woman was far beyond my fantasy capability,” Baltimore Fishbowl poster chemjim wrote. “I can only imagine how this guy was blown away by the experience.”
Stop for a minute and imagine someone saying that about a high school girl “receiving sexual attention” from a friend’s dad, someone more than twice her age. It’s inconceivable, right?
Jenny Kutner’s 8th grade history teacher, Mr. Lehrer, was just a few years out of college when he started teaching at her school. “He had the comportment of a farmhand, always equally proud and sheepish as he stood, stiff and silent, waiting to be told what to do,” she writes in a bracing Texas Monthly story about their relationship and its aftermath. She was fourteen; he was married and in his mid-20s. He still called her every night. They talked for hours. They slept together, too, and the attention and authority figure approval got all swirled up together into one big tornado of confusing feelings. “I thought that Trace Lehrer and I could be significant together,” she writes, channeling the naive intensity of an infatuated high schooler.
As she relates in her essay, Kutner spent years wrestling with her own guilt about her relationship with Mr. Lehrer. Hadn’t she fantasized about him for months? Hadn’t she snuck him into her room? Yes—and even so, she was without a doubt a victim. She was manipulated by someone older, someone with more experience, someone she’d been taught to trust and obey. Was she “blown away” by the experience? Yes, in a manner of speaking—she was also deeply damaged by it.
I’ve been thinking about Kutner’s story ever since I first heard about the allegations against Shattuck. She (allegedly) bought him beer, gave him oral sex, offered to sleep with him. He said no to that last part, according to the charging documents. I can only imagine how confusing the whole experience must have been, and how many years it will take him to sort out in his head. Giving him virtual high-fives for getting with an NFL cheerleader is not likely to help the process.
When we depict girls as sexless, desire-free automatons and boys as omnivorous lust creatures, happy to sleep with whatever’s in their path, we do everyone an injustice. Girls are made to feel shame for wanting sex, and boys are made to feel shame for not wanting it. Both positions are reductive. Here’s what I remember about high school and sex: desire and fear and excitement and shame, the feeling of wanting something and not wanting it at the very same time. I may have fantasized about Ewan McGregor, but if Ewan McGregor had shown up in my room one night, would I have gone for it? Maybe; maybe not. Would it have been easy and uncomplicated, the way it was in my daydreams? Certainly not.
“There’s a big difference between fantasy and reality,” Berlin told me. “Some boys might fantasize about teachers, some women fantasize about rape–but that doesn’t mean they want that in real life.” Age-of-consent laws exist in part because people under the age of 18 are very interested in sex; they’re also children with developing brains, addled by hormones, plagued with insecurity, and often without enough life experience to make decisions in their own best interest. Adults are supposed to act like adults. Adults are supposed to know better, to act better, to find a way to control their more harmful impulses. “It’s wrong for an adult to be sexual with a child,” Berlin says. “We shouldn’t make it more acceptable by justifying it with fantasies that some people have had.”
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