November 11, 2006

Sexual Justice: Teacher/Student Sex and the Cultural “Necessity” of a Double Standard

It’s everybody’s favorite double standard story: the young female teacher who gets convicted of having sex with one of her underage male students—then gets slapped on the wrist. Everyone knows, apparently, that men in similar situations do real time. And for proof all we need do is turn to the Naughty Teachers Poster girl, Debra Lafave, who was famously sentenced to house arrest—then fawned over by Matt Lauer in a softball interview.

More anecdotal evidence of the double standard came last month from a case in Toledo, Ohio. Dawn Fisher, a 33 year-old woman, was sentenced to (what else?) house arrest for seducing a fourteen year-old boy. (She subsequently gave birth to the boy’s child.) But what was truly remarkable was that, at sentencing, the judge remarked on the double standard:

“I don't understand the distinction. But there is a distinction, apparently. … I don't know how something like this could happen."

For comparison, The Toledo Blade story offers up this interesting tid-bit:

Former Scott High School teacher John "Mitch" Balonek was convicted of sexual battery for a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old female student and sentenced in May to three years in prison.

Sentencing variations such as this undoubtedly occur—though some high profile cases like that of Mary Kate Laterneau suggest it’s not that simple. But, is there a “double standard”? Or, more precisely, does the phrase “double standard” provide the best metaphoric description of whatever it is we’re witnessing here?

I don’t think so.

In fact, there’s something downright crude about the “measurement” metaphor—the notion that sentencing disparities can be summed up in terms of units on a measuring stick or numbers on a dial. In that paradigm, solutions are easy: just add some numbers here, turn the dial there, and presto-chango, everything is back in balance.

Balancing the numbers certainly makes legal sense, but doing so doesn’t address the underlying cultural issues at play. More to the point, it doesn’t confront the way the justice system does its cultural work. Yes, the courts resolve disputes, punish the guilty and exonerate the innocent. But they also do much more. They are one of our most important venues for reinterpreting values and renegotiating social relationships.

The heart of the double standard is not that we expect men and women to exercise different degrees of control over their sexual behavior (in the sense that, relative to adults, we hold children to lower standards of all manner of conduct). The real issue is that we use the justice system to enforce different meanings of male and female sexuality. In a sense, we reject the notion that individuals own their own sexuality. Another person’s sexuality is important because of what it tells us about ourselves—and we have some fairly well articulated fictions about ourselves that we expect others to confirm. And when they don’t, we’ve got the law.

The recent film, “Sleeping Dogs Lie,” is a usefully bizarre illustration of how public ownership of personal sexuality operates outside the justice system. The film follows the romantic troubles of Amy, an exceedingly “normal” middle-class young woman with a very un-normal secret: in a moment of whimsy, during her college years, she once performed oral sex on her dog. What’s so instructive for us about this act is that, in the confines of the film, it has no meaning whatsoever; it is drained of all emotional or psychological content—at least for Amy. But for everyone else in her life, it comes to mean everything.

It’s important to recognize just how existentially meaningless the film makes the act. It is the film’s opening scene, hence it is presented without explanation or precedent. There is nothing shown or suggested to indicate the act (which happens off screen) imamates from any psychological condition. Afterwards, we see her retching over the bathroom sink, telling us that she herself thinks the act repulsive. She has no desire to repeat it, and never does. It does not define her sexual profile. And, as she says throughout the film, “it’s just a thing that happened.”

It becomes quite meaningful, however, after her unctuous fiancé goads her into confessing something naughty so that they can get, you know, really really close. But instead of getting what he truly wants—some safe, kinky-lite anecdote to juice up his fantasy life and confirm that he’s trapped himself a genuine, frisky little sex kitten—what he gets instead is something just plain weird. So he recoils. “Tell me you didn’t tell me what I think you just told me,” he says with all the indignant adolescent horror he can muster up.

Amy’s problem is not that she’s crossed some line or gone too far. It’s not that her boyfriend would have been more tolerant if she had only French-kissed her dog, then stopped before she got carried away. And it’s not that there’s a double standard at play, as if somehow the pleasures of bestiality are reserved just for guys. The problem is that her twerpy boyfriend cannot avoid interpreting her confession (and the sexual interests he erroneously believes it betrays) as a commentary on himself. Though he never says it, what he finds so repulsive about her secret is that it seems to tell him “I’d rather fuck dogs, but if I can’t marry one, you’ll have to do.”

And the meanings mushroom from there. As the story gets out (which it does rather quickly) everybody begins calculating just what this new information themselves and the cartoon world they’ve built for themselves. It’s especially rough for Amy’s stick-up-the-ass father. For some thirty years he’s cocooned himself in a little storybook home life—a Plexiglas perfect existence he “settled for” as compensation for giving up his dream of being a writer. Amy was the fruition of that life, and her (caricatured) innocence his best evidence that it wasn’t really a bunch of nonsense. For Daddy, Amy’s little sin is nothing less than proof that his whole life has been a lie.

Amy’s exquisitely poised mother, a mini-mouse wannabe with secrets of her own, is even more devastated. For the first time, she tells her, she is “ashamed to be her mother.” It’s an ironic admission: Amy was her mother’s alter ego, the paragon of virtue she pretends to be, but fears she’s not. Amy’s indiscretion destroys that alter ego—and in the process, her mother’s ability to believe in her own fictional decency. She’s ashamed of herself, and the self-loathing is deadly. By the film’s third act, she’s dead.

But cheer up, it’s not all doom and gloom. For Amy’s older brother, her confession is downright liberating, life affirming. Twenty-six years earlier, he was the apple of his parent’s eye. But upon his sister’s birth his life began a long, downward slide. Now he is a slimy, mean-spirited, self-indulgent, racist, jittery meth- freak looking for any evidence that he’s at least better than somebody, anybody. And when he overhears Amy spilling the beans to her fiancé, he’s finally found it—and he’s eager to spread the news. Amy’s degradation is his salvation

Sexuality is public property.

Just as Amy’s little whimsy “belonged” to everybody else except her because it played the wrecking ball against the fictive brick and mortar of their constructed lives, so too does the meaning of Debra Lafave’s crime belongs to us. Only here, crime isn’t the right word. Crimes are committed by people who take things that don’t belong to them to gratify otherwise normal appetites. To call the LaFaves of the world criminals is to say that it is normal for women to be sexually drawn to younger boys, which is to say something quite disturbing about the social meanings of maleness—that it’s perfectly reasonable to evaluate men strictly in terms of their sexual prowess.

Male sexual power has, of course, always been central to the male mystique. But this is largely true because it is both existentially and metaphorically meaningful. That is, sexual power also represents social power, spiritual power, intellectual power, financial power and the like. And perversely, as it were, our cultural narratives tell us that these other modes of power are suitable alternatives—indeed, allegorically identical—to sexual potency (though in real life they may not be at all). In mythological terms, anyway, rich guys, smart guys, wise guys don’t need to perform in bed. But it doesn’t go the other way. Men who can be identified in exclusively sexual terms, who have closed off all the metaphoric implications of their physicality, are not “real” men. And women who go for them are just not normal.

What a “normal” Debra LaFave would tell us is that the definition of valid masculinity that middle age guys like me cling to is a charade. That a normal woman might just want a little sex toy in the form of a rambunctious, hormone-drunk fourteen-year old buck. By this reckoning, not only does the emperor have no clothes, but he’s got a potbelly as well.

Can’t have that. Double standard? No way! That bimbo is just plain crazy—bipolar.

Posted by stevemack at 09:16 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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