On the day I wrote this story, the headline of the number one story on the Washington Post website was this: “Texas teacher who had sex almost daily with 13-year-old student gets 10 years in prison.” Despite the fact that the offense was technically rape, which is why the teacher, Alexandria Vera, is now spending a decade in prison for the crime, why did the Post choose to word its headline in this way? Why not say “Texas teacher who raped 13-year-old student daily gets 10 years in prison?” It’s likely thanks to some reverse sexism: when a male adult teacher has a sexual relationship with a student it’s rape; when a female teacher does the same, it’s considered sex.
Over at the Daily Caller, a more conservative news outlet, the phrase “teacher sex” is a dedicated and popular tag. The same story about this Texan teacher has been covered several times on the site, and always in the same manner. Eric Owens, the education editor, wrote of the case (emphasis mine), “Prosecutors say Vera and the unidentified, 13-year-old student began their courtship with some flirting, a bit of texting and the requisite exchange of digits last year during summer school in 2015.” Just in case readers walked away unclear about how Owens and/or the editors of the Daily Caller feel about such a case, the URL tag on the story is a dead giveaway: “twentysomething-teacher-pleads-guilty-for-traumatizing-teen-with-a-whole-bunch-of-sex/” Other stories on the site, also authored by Owens, cast the same scenario in a joking light. Of one case involving a male student suing his abuser, Owens writes, “Sex romps between [teacher Michelle] Yeh and the student occurred at school, in the teen’s home while his mother was gone and at ‘other locations in the community.” These romps, according to the case, occurred after “the teacher plied him with alcohol, marijuana and Xanax.”
What if the offending teacher is male, and the victim is as well? It appears language like “romp” and “courtship” used to describe the crimes no longer seems appropriate. Of incidents involving Former Speaker Dennis Hastert, the title “child molester” suddenly gains a great deal more use.
In an article on Psychology Today, former police officer Steve Albrecht writes,
“When it comes to sexual behavior with a male student, do female teachers use the same techniques of gradualism, grooming, flirting, and targeting as their male counterparts? Of course. Do female teachers who want sex seek out their targets specifically, looking for vulnerabilities, poor or missing family relationships, early sexual interest, and early physical development via male puberty? Certainly.
Gender is not the issue and same-sex sexual orientation is not the issue; bad boundaries, harmful behavior, unethical conduct, and illegal sex acts with minors are the issues. The double standard as to how we perceive and prosecute these cases needs to stop.”
The case of Alexandria Vera, the Texas teacher subject to the ten-year sentence, made the news in part because of the peculiarities of her case (she became pregnant by the student and called herself his girlfriend). Rarely do teachers, especially female teachers, receive a sentence as harsh as Vera’s. During sentencing the judge explained his reasoning for assigning a decade in prison, instead of the probation Vera was hoping for. As CBS reported, “State District Judge Michael McSpadden said his sentence was intended to send a message and make an example of her because he’s aware of too many similar cases.”
A harsh sentence is one way to send a message to female teachers that preying on male students is a crime, not an affair. We have laws about statutory rape because we understand the science behind developing brains: a thirteen-year old is unable to consent to sex, especially with an adult authority figure, because he or she doesn’t yet have the maturity to do so, regardless of the gender of the victim or the perpetrator.
But the media could also do its job and stop promoting a double standard when it comes to reporting such rape cases. Doing so would make it clear to students, teachers, and parents that sex between teachers and young teens aren’t “romps” but are acts of sexual abuse. While the Washington Post and the Daily Caller sit on opposite sides of an ideological spectrum, they both owe it to their readers, not to mention the victims of these crimes, to treat them with the seriousness they deserve.