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Slate's Human Nature: Teachers and Male Students

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

But first, the news media have a way of finding trends where they may not exist. Will Saletan, columnist for the online magazine Slate thinks he's discovered the most recent non-trend trend: the theory that female teachers who sexually abuse their male students are getting off easy. And Will Saletan joins us now. Hi, Will.

Mr. WILL SALETAN (Columnist, Slate): Hi, Madeleine.

BRAND: So, why are some commentators describing this as a trend?

Mr. SALETAN: Well, there have been a couple of cases in the news, recently, of female teachers who apparently molested students, male students, and in the judgment of the commentariat, these women got off with sentences of less than they should have, and that, the reasoning goes, if they had been men, my goodness, they would have been thrown in jail forever, but because they're young and attractive, we let them off, and we're just going too easy on women.

BRAND: So, there's some kind of reverse sexism, some double standard that they're talking about.

Mr. SALETAN: Yeah. And it's not just that these women are young and attractive, and so they're getting off easy, it's that the boys that they molest, we somehow got this notion, this myth in our heads that boys enjoy having sex with the adult teacher, whereas girls don't, and so since the boys enjoyed it, you know, the old myth that the woman should relax and enjoy it, people are saying, well, we've got this notion that the boys should relax and enjoy it. That's sexist against men, so we should throw these women in jail.

BRAND: So, you decided to go and investigate this claim, and what did you find?

Mr. SALETAN: Well, the first thing I went to check out was - the argument is that women are not getting sentences as severe as men would. So, I just compared the sentences of men and women. There aren't a lot of studies that do this. I had to go back about a decade to find the last one that did it straightforwardly, and it turned out that women had charges pressed against them just as often as men did, that is, women and men who were declared sex offenders had charges pressed, and they went to jail in roughly equal percentages.

BRAND: And you also found some studies that show female teachers involved in sexual relationships with their students tend to act differently than male teachers.

Mr. SALETAN: Yeah, you know, this is what bothers me. The complaint that's going around is there's a double standard. Women are being subjected to a lighter standard then men. But to have a double standard, you have to be comparing apples to apples, but what we're doing now, when we compare male to female sexual offenses is apples to oranges, because the female offenses are different in highly relevant ways. What the studies show, consistently, is that the female sex offenders, compared to male sex offenders, are less likely to coerce other accomplices into participating with them, less likely to threaten the kids, more willing to take responsibility.

These women have more legal problems. It's more likely that it's their first time offense. They're more likely to have been victimized themselves as children. They're younger. And so, there's a whole range of reasons why a judge, looking at these two people, would be more likely to give the man a heavier sentence, because of the nature of his crime, not because he's a man.

BRAND: And is there a difference in the ages of the victims?

MR. SALETAN: Yes. Most of the men in the sample we looked at molested victims younger than 15. Very few of the women did that. About half the men had multiple victims. Only three of the women in our sample had multiple victims. And when you compared assailants who had single victims 16 or older, in fact, the men in that category got lighter sentences than the women did.

BRAND: So it's one thing for news pundits to decry this so-called reverse sexism in sentencing, but has it actually trickled down to the judges who are imposing the sentences?

Mr. SALETAN: Yeah. I mean, this wrap on the women has now gotten over cable TV, and it's reached such a level of permeation of public consciousness, it's now being used in court. It was just used earlier this month in California in a case in the sentencing hearing. The deputy DA is telling the judge, you know, you really got to throw the book at this woman, because we don't want to look like we're letting these women off. And absolutely, the woman should not get a lighter sentence just because she's a woman. But she also shouldn't get a tougher sentence just because we're trying to look tough on women.

BRAND: Opinion and analysis from Will Saletan. He writes on the nexus between science and politics for the online magazine Slate. Thanks, Will.

Mr. SALETAN: Thank you, Madeleine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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