Compared to much of the sexual exploitation meted out to children and minors in our society, the horrific daily revelations of current and historic rape, molestation and violence, it would be safe to consider drama teacher Lindsay Black as a minor offender.
The 28-year-old from Newport conducted sexually suggestive exercises with her class of teenagers and, more seriously, made sexual overtures to a 17 year old pupil over Facebook, text and email. Her invitations were declined and there was no physical or sexual contact. The General Teaching Council struck her off but police took no further action. Both of those decisions look broadly reasonable under the circumstances.
The incident may look insignificant, but not to editors at the Sun, who opted to splash the story on their front page under the banner headline MISS MUCKY and the teaser line: “Teacher asked lad for romp and urged pupils to mime sex.”
The slavering, salacious tone is not unique to this story, of course. An unscientific but revealing search on Google News archives produces hundreds of returns for the phrase “Sex romp teacher” and of the first dozen different stories, eleven referred to a female teacher with a male pupil, only once were the genders reversed. As a broad rule of thumb for tabloid terminology, a male teacher has “seedy, sordid sex” with a girl, but “abuses” a boy. A female teacher has “an illicit lesbian affair” with a girl, and “sex romps” with a boy. It goes without saying that the extent of verbal salivation in stories featuring a female offender directly correlates with her youth and conventional prettiness.
It would be tempting to dismiss this as just another manifestation of our exploitative, sexist, tabloid culture, but it speaks to a deeper and more worrying tendency for our culture to trivialise the sexual exploitation of boys by women. Relationships between teachers and young adults happen within the hazy boundaries of consent and coercion. They may not always be experienced as exploitative or traumatising for the juvenile, but they are rightly forbidden by both teachers’ ethics and the law - such relationships are always an abuse of position, an abuse of trust and have enormous potential to be psychologically harmful. That is true irrespective of the genders involved. And yet with a female perpetrator and male victim, they are described with the playful, jokey word “romp” – a journalistic cliché normally reserved for gossipy intrusions into the lives of adulterous footballers and strippers.
Similar attitudes are revealed even when the boys involved are not strapping, physically mature 17-year-olds, but small children. Last month the Guardian ran an interview with R&B star and convicted domestic abuser Chris Brown, in which he described “losing his virginity” to a 15-year-old girl at the age of eight. By then he had already been exposed to so much pornography that he considered himself ready to be sexually active. By any rational reading, he was prematurely sexualised, then raped. Very typically of male sexual abuse victims, Brown rationalised the incident into a tale of his own macho prowess and laughed it off. Interviewer Decca Aitkenhead let the revelation pass without mention, and in the following days Gawker, and even nominally feminist magazine Jezebel ran appalling comment pieces effectively vilifying Brown as having been a sexual predator from the age of eight.
It took African-American bloggers to point out not only that was Brown a victim of sexual abuse, but that coverage of his revelation fits perfectly with common racist narratives of hypersexualised black men, and that Brown was just the latest in a succession of black male music stars and celebrities to have admitted that their first sexual experiences were as children, instigated by much older or adult women.
Agencies and professionals who work with male victims of sexual abuse by women report that the biggest obstacles to change are attitudes that say either that such abuse doesn’t happen at all, or that if it does, it doesn’t really count as abuse. The prevailing myth is that boys, even from a prepubescent age, are insatiably sexually voracious or curious, that any heterosexual activity will be welcomed and enjoyed. Those myths are of course internalised by boys themselves, who can then find it extremely difficult to reconcile those beliefs with the feelings of anger, betrayal, loss and violation that are often the consequences of child sexual abuse.
Reinventing our cultural responses to the sexual abuse of boys will take time and persistence. Many of the problems are tied up in broader conceptions of male sexuality and patriarchal gender roles, such as the pressures on boys to be a prolific stud as a badge of masculine honour. Healing the wounds will take time, but demanding a bit more responsibility from newspaper editors would be a very good place to start.