Monday, March 21, 2005

Headlines in Florida, Oklahoma, Tennessee and California are once again telling the tales of adult women arrested for having sexual relations with teenage boys.

Public reaction to such cases is changing, authorities say, and there is an increasing recognition of women as sexual abusers.

Plenty of people still say “this boy has got it made,” but now more people are saying “this is really a problem,” said Judy Berman, senior manager of the Department of Justice’s Center for Sex Offender Management, which will soon issue a report on female sex offenders.

Cases now making headlines are reminiscent of Seattle teacher Mary Kay Letourneau, who was 34 and the married mother of four when she started having sex with a 12-year-old male student. Letourneau served seven years in prison and has announced plans to marry Vili Fualaau, now 22, with whom she has had two children.

More recent headlines include Florida teacher Debra LaFave, 23; Oklahoma basketball coach Elisa Nielson, 29; Tennessee physical-education teacher Pamela Turner, 27; and California teacher trainee Margaret De Barraicua, 30. Each of the four was charged with sexual assault of a male student aged between 12 and 16. Police say Mrs. De Barraicua was arrested in the act, in her car, while her toddler son sat inside in his car seat.

On March 2, police in Braxton County, W.Va., arrested Toni Lynn Woods, a 37-year-old middle-school teacher, and charged her with having sexual relations with five students younger than 16.

The number of female inmates doing time for sex offenses has doubled in recent years: In 1991, there were 647 women in prison for rape and other sexual offenses; in 2002, there were 1,300 female sex offenders, according to prisoner reports collected by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. However, sex offenders remain a small percentage of female inmates.

“We don’t really think there are more sex offenders. We think the reporting has gotten better,” said Allison Taylor, executive director of Texas’ Council on Sex Offender Treatment.

What kind of woman seeks sex with teenage boys? In the past, researchers have relied on four concepts: “Boundary crossers” who seek affirmation, affection or something else from a vulnerable partner; women who are emotionally disturbed or mentally ill; women who are predatory pedophiles; and women who are committing sexual offenses at the behest of someone else, usually an adult male.

Much more research is needed, “as many women won’t fit into those categories,” Ms. Berman said.

Author and sex counselor Douglas Weiss sees adult women who seek sex from teenage boys as pedophiles.

As with males, female pedophiles feel ill-equipped for intimate relationships with other adults, “so they begin to sexualize younger people” — especially students or children in their care who are unlikely to reject them or control them, said Mr. Weiss, who is executive director of Heart to Heart Counseling Centers in Colorado Springs.

These women have a “grooming” process for their young victims — they pick vulnerable boys and “befriend them, stroke their hair, touch their body, affirm them,” said Mr. Weiss, who has written a book, “She Has a Secret: Understanding Female Sexual Addiction.”

Boys are harmed by such crimes because “what they’ve learned is that sex is not about love, it’s not about relationships, it’s not about spiritual or emotional connections; it’s about two bodies being crammed together as objects,” he said.

Such acts don’t make a boy feel “lucky,” said Mr. Weiss, who said he had been sexually victimized as a minor. “You usually feel guilt and shame and awkwardness afterwards. And you feel more alone than before because you didn’t connect to the person. It was just an act.”

American culture, laws, policies and public opinion seldom consider women as sexual predators or teenage boys as victims.

“The words ‘sexual assault’ and ‘sexual aggression’ tend to conjure up an image of a male perpetrator and a female victim,” Myriam S. Denov wrote in the Journal of Sex Research in 2003.

Many state laws still assume that sex perpetrators are men, which makes it hard to prosecute women for rape or other sexual crimes. Lawmakers have now begun to recast sex-crimes laws in neutral terms.

But public opinion about sex between older women and teenage boys still reflects the views of 1940s sex researcher Alfred C. Kinsey, who believed, in the words of one former assistant, “that some child-adult contacts were not harmful and possibly even beneficial.”

“Unfortunately, in our society there has long been the myth that boys enjoy sex and they would be crazy not to accept it from anywhere they can get it,” said Maria Molett, executive director of the Counseling Institute of Texas.

Female sexual deviancy is just as real and damaging as male sexual deviancy, said Ms. Molett, recalling how one of her clients — an ex-teacher — had convinced herself that the teenage boy she assaulted loved her.

“It took me quite a few years to get her to recognize that this child was not in love with her, did not want to marry her and, in fact, was extremely traumatized by her and even tried to kill himself,” she said.

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