“She stepped over a line — a line drawn in concrete.”
— Justice Julie-Ann Parfett, quoted in The Ottawa Citizen on Oct. 28, 2008, in sentencing a female teacher in Cornwall, Ont., who sexually assaulted her 13-year-old male student
There’s a disturbing double standard at play when it comes to the crimes of men and women.
Of course, horrible atrocities like those committed by sex-slaying accomplice Karla Homolka are universally condemned, but what about lesser crimes than murder — crimes like sexual assault?
When a woman in this province was convicted of sexually assaulting a 13-year-old boy in her care this week, the reaction was unsettlingly mixed.
While some people said the 2 1/2-year sentence was justified or wasn’t harsh enough given the depravity of the crime, others didn’t see what all the fuss was about.
There was some troubling snickering out there — quips about the story sounding like a schoolboy’s fantasy, and suggestions that the woman must have been really attractive and that the sex was consensual.
But that’s not unique to this case. Some observers of the justice system would tell you that women who commit sex offences are routinely treated more lightly than men who do the same — by the public, that is, not necessarily the justice system.
We don’t even use the same language to talk about it.
Female sex offenders “flirt” and “seduce” and have “relationships” with their victims.
Men are the aggressors. They “lure,” “molest” and “rape.”
In this excerpt from a June 2006 CBS News story by Susan Koeppen, a psychologist surmises as much about cases involving female abusers.
“We just don’t take it seriously,” asserts psychologist Dr. Richard Gartner, who adds such cases are often the subject of jokes.
But Gartner stresses this is no laughing matter, noting that victims of female sex offenders can suffer severe emotional scars, including depression, anxiety, addiction to drugs and alcohol, and sexual dysfunction.
Says Gartner: “This can interfere with trust; this can interfere with self-esteem. It can go beyond love relationships; there can be all kinds of authority problems, because this is an authority that abused him.”
Who’s the most vulnerable?
According to the Canadian Children’s Rights Council, which sees sexual abuse by women as an underreported problem:
“Research on teen and adult female sexual abuse perpetrators has found that many suffer from low self-esteem, antisocial behaviour, poor social and anger management skills, fear of rejection, passivity, promiscuity, mental health problems, post-traumatic stress disorder and mood disorders.”
In the case that unfolded locally this week, the sex offender said she hadn’t been thinking rationally because she felt trapped in her marriage.
In 2008, when a 42-year-old teacher from Cornwall, Ont., was convicted of having sexually assaulted a 13-year-old student, a forensic psychiatrist testified that she was “‘emotionally vulnerable’ due to her failing marriage,” as reported in the Ottawa Citizen.
Somehow, I don’t think that you’d be pacified by that excuse if you found out that a 44-year-old man was trying to lure your 13-year-old daughter over the Internet, let alone if he’d had sex with her — multiple times.
The age of consent for sexuality in Canada is 16, but is raised to 18 when the sex occurs within a relationship of authority, as it did in the local case. The federal Department of Justice says the age of consent is also known as the “age of protection,” and notes that all sexual activity without consent, regardless of age, is a criminal offence.
So, whether the 13-year-old boy who was assaulted by the local woman was a willing participant or not, the fact remains that legally, he was not considered mature and responsible enough to give his consent.
The woman was the adult and in a position of responsibility — a position she abused for her own sexual gratification. And then she told him he was partly to blame in a text message.
I don’t find anything remotely funny or titillating about this case. Any adult who has sexual fantasies involving children has bigger problems than a troubled marriage — they need to consult a psychiatrist.
Frankly, a few of the salacious responses I’ve heard to media coverage of this story have been repugnant.
The reason why sexual abuse by women is sometimes viewed as being less serious has to do with our views of women themselves.
We are seen as nurturers, weaker, gentler.
You see a slim, sobbing woman dressed demurely for court and you think, how much of a monster could she be?
But monsters come in both genders and in all shapes and sizes, and anyone who sexually exploits a child in their care should feel like one.
Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s story editor. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.