Let’s get one thing sorted out right at the start here: sexy school teachers are very much a real thing. Strangely enough, cooping up a couple of hundred teenagers who are dealing with the full brunt of puberty without the slightest clue of how to do so, tends to create a somewhat tense atmosphere. Drop in a teacher of even middling sexual appeal and fantasies will be had, to put it very politely indeed. Hell, sometimes they don’t even have to be attractive by any conventional standard at all – dump enough hormones into the system of a naïve teen and even the overweight, balding science teacher with the suspicious beard (of either gender) is going to start looking good to someone. There is, after all, a certain allure to authority in-and-of-itself.
Which is the only possible explanation I can think of for this
So it’s hardly all that surprising then that students might occasionally try it on with their teachers. Frankly, it would be more surprising if they didn’t try it on with anything that moved and/or didn’t move under certain circumstances. But in the rare cases where the teacher reciprocates this attention, or worse, initiatives a relationship with a student in the first place, something really weird happens.
Sure, the official line is always the same; ‘abuse of authority’, ‘taking advantage’, ‘betrayal of trust’, ‘breach of school policy’ and occasionally ‘statutory rape’ are all phrases that come to mind when a teacher is caught doing the horizontal fandango with a student. But the off-the-books conversations that take place in social circles vary hugely, depending on who is involved.
We’ve all seen it: male teacher hooks up with a female student and the reaction is invariably one of utter disgust and demands for retribution. He’s a pedophile! String him up, along with the entire school administration and police force for not noticing it was happening sooner! The girl is ruined for life now, ruined I tell you! Sure she was obviously a stupid little slut to get herself into that situation in the first place (her parents are obviously total failures BTW), but also at the same time we must always remember to portray her as a complete victim, who was helpless in the hands of this evil man.
So far, so standard, right? But what’s the reaction in the even rarer case when it’s a female teacher hooking up with a male student?
High five, son! What a champion! That boy is living every young man’s dream right there. And what an awesome teacher! Wish I had teachers like they, eh? I mean, she should obviously be told off for breaking the law and whatever, but I don’t see why she should be fired or anything. Geez, it’s just a hook up with a randy teenage boy – hardly going to traumatise him, is it?
Now obviously a lot of this is just good old fashioned gender bias, specifically the idea that men should always be in control of sex, and women should be passive. The male teacher takes advantage of the helpless female student (boo, evil, etc), while the female teacher is just giving the randy male student what he wants and enjoying herself in the process (high fives all round). This sort of stereotyping sexism (which is bullcrap for obvious reasons) goes a long way to explaining the vastly different reactions to the two scenarios, but there is a bit more to it than that.
First of all, who the ‘victim’ is in both situations is a pretty fluid question here. Whether or not you agree with the common line that hooking up with a teacher is ‘every boy’s fantasy’, the psychology of the situation is slightly more complex than Van Halen would have you think – to put is rather bluntly, being pursued for sex by an authority figure (or any older partner with vastly different aims in a relationship) can really screw up a teenager, most of who (despite what they may claim) are about as well aware of their own sexuality as they are about Marxist economics.
This is not helped by the fact that a lot of the authority figures doing the approaching are not terribly stable in the first place. Quite apart from the fact that it’s an obvious breach of professional etiquette, why the hell would you consider hooking up with someone substantially young, significantly less mature, and vastly less experienced than you are? A lack of dating options in your own age group? An attraction to vulnerability and/or naivety? Severely misguided parental instincts? Or is it just the thrill of power going to your head? Whatever the motive, these are not good reasons for starting a relationship with a teenager.
Sure there’s always the argument that the teacher and student have truly fallen in love with each other, and given several of these pairs have in fact stayed in relationships after the initial scandal, this is a legitimate argument. Of course, it’s also quickly sunk by the simple statement that, if the relationship is indeed so serious and real, then why couldn’t you just wait until it was neither illegal nor liable to cause trauma (or serious regret) to either party?
Excuse my cynicism, but I do not believe this person has a solid handle on life
But hang on a second, why are so focussed on teenagers here? Sure they may lack the maturity, experience and power necessary to enter into a good quality sexual relationship, but you know who else isn’t terribly well qualified for that? A hell of a lot of adults.
Take any of the qualities that we believe should exclude a teenager from having a relationship with their teacher, and I guarantee you will be able to find an adult who is equally naïve, inexperienced, uninformed, powerless and just generally dopey. And yet we are totally fine with these people starting (frequently terrible and harmful) sexual relationships…why?
Excuse my cynicism, but I do not believe this person has a solid handle on life
Well generally because we believe that, as adults, they should be able to make rational decisions and deal with the consequences if they don’t. But as I’ve pointed out before, age is a pretty arbitrary way of choosing who is rational and who is not. It’s not exactly hard to find a child who is smarter, more mature and better informed than some adults out there.
So what then? Teacher/student relationships are all good, so long as both parties know what they’re doing? Well, once again, it’s a tad more complicated than that.
It seems the more of these articles I write, the more one particular theme starts to stand out: Power. And when we’re talking about teacher/student relationships, the question of power – who has control over the situation and how open to abuse that control is – is right at the core of what is wrong with these relationships.
As we’ve discussed, it is indeed totally possible for a teacher and student to have a positive, mutually-beneficial relationships regardless of who is involved. But the significant authority your average teacher holds over a student (including control over their academic future, ability to limit their physical movements, right to ascribe punishment, legal autonomy and far better understanding of the legal/school system) is pretty overwhelming to say the least, and as we’ve seen before, .
Now the obvious counter to this is that the student actually has a lot more power over the teacher than the other way around; all it takes is one hint in the right place and that teacher’s career is over. And this is certainly true, except for a couple of points:
- People who feel disempowered tend not to believe they have any power available to them, even if they do – you only need to look at your average abusive relationship to see how feeling powerless can create an actual state of powerlessness.
- Any student who tried to report a teacher in such a fashion would also destroy their own life in the process – the ensuing media circus is liable to force your family to move, and attention like that tends to stick later in life.
Even if the student was successful in threatening their teacher with exposure without actually doing so and ruining their own life, this just demonstrates the danger of power imbalance in the other direction. Teenagers on power-trips tend to end badly.
This is also one place where the comparison to idiot adults doesn’t stand up. Sure, plenty of adults get themselves into relationships where there is a serious power imbalance; hooking up with their boss for example, or someone who’s fine using physical violence to get what they want. But the difference between these situation and a student hooking up with a student is that, no matter how stupid an adult relationship may be, it’s still legal and therefore asking for help doesn’t land you in all sorts of shit in the process. Your boss is exploiting his power at work over you in your relationship? One confidential call to HR and the problem is on the way to solved. Abusive or violent partner? Seeking assistance from a shelter, counsellor or friend might not be easy, but at least it’s legal and non-judgemental.
But want to get some relationship help when your relationship is both illegal and socially taboo? Good luck with that.
Interestingly, this power imbalance is also the reason that a lot of taboo, but potentially ethical relationships are illegal. Incest in particular is a taboo relationship that, thanks to the availability of contraception and genetic screening which nullify the risk of inbreeding, no longer makes a lot of sense today. But the power relationship between a child and their parent (even as adults) is even more imbalanced than between a student and teacher; a parent after all practically controls their child’s life for 18 years, and even after that exerts considerably influence on their choices and behaviours. So while it’s thoroughly possible for relatives to have positive, fulfilling incestuous relationships (and there’s plenty of examples out there) the risk of one party’s power over the other being abused is so catastrophically serious that it’s better to avoid the entire thing all together.
This is all rather painful to reconcile with the post two weeks ago that argued that a person’s sexual preference is subjective, and therefore no one else’s business. But just as with fashion, food, lifestyle of any other personal taste, the second a preference starts to cause objectively harmful results (ie. anything that breaches willing consent, or prevents that consent from being given rationally and well informed) it is most definitely an ethical issue, and intervention is both justified and necessary.
As tempting as it may be, sometimes you just need to keep your pants on.