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Roles reverse in teacher-student sex scandals

By Jessie Fillingim, Columnist

She's gorgeous, the mother of three, and a sex offender. Meet Amy Beck: the most recent teacher to admit to the statutory rape of a high school student.

Commenting on this high-profile case, CNN's Web site ran an article titled "Teacher-student sex never the kid's fault." Was anyone ever actually blaming the 14-year-old student? I think what CNN really wants to say is that Amy Beck is a pedophile, even if she is hot. The article suggests that the teacher-student relationship creates such an imbalance of power that even a male student can never truly consent to sex.

When I was in high school, a good friend of mine had sex with his female teacher. He finally revealed the relationship to his parents, who called the police. As the scandal unfolded in my community, he was treated like a sexual conqueror, not a victim. Ultimately, all charges against the teacher were dropped because my friend was 16, which is the age of consent in Alabama. The teacher got a job at another school, had sex with a 15-year-old, and is now a registered sex offender.

When underage boys are praised for having sex with teachers, they are assigned some of the responsibility for initiating a teacher-student relationship. My friend, like other student-victims regardless of sex, already felt self-blame as a disadvantaged participant in an unbalanced sexual relationship. He could not absolve himself of guilt by identifying as the victim, because the community refused to regard him as such. He blamed himself for the trauma.

In the face of such an imbalance of power, the perceived "victim" is rarely male but very often female, regardless of which party is to blame. That's why stories of female teachers having sex with students attract so much media attention. On one hand, there's the view that a beautiful woman could not possibly be to blame. On the other hand, in our society a child sex offender is the worst kind of scum and must be severely punished. But Amy Beck doesn't look like the archetypical sex offender, who is unattractive, amoral, and most importantly, male. General disgust with sex crimes clashes with the impulse to treat Amy Beck as a sympathetic victim.

Sometimes, though, the victim label can be damaging. Especially for women, the victim role is reoccurring and difficult to shed, even when childhood has long passed. Sure, the victim may be liberated from guilt, but she is also relieved of responsibility. Without responsibility, she is not respected. Like a child, she does not know what is best for her.

It's not always easy to determine if a person, especially a teenager, has the capacity to make informed choices about sex. Legally, we have to draw a line somewhere to deter adults from having sex with children, even if age-based distinctions create some unfair consequences. But our personal view of teacher-student relationships doesn't have to be so rigid. Not all disempowered individuals should be called "victims," just as those in positions of power are more than merely "aggressors."

Before you high five your buddy or call a woman a slut, just ask yourself if you actually know if both parties were truly capable of giving full consent. Chances are, you don't know. An ignorant remark cuts even deeper than the trauma of sexual exploitation.

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