Education

‘Bad Teacher’ Porn: The Politics Behind Our Obsession with Stories of Student-Teacher Sex

The media has a clear agenda for delivering so many stories of classroom relationships gone wrong.

Mary Kay Letourneau famously went to prison for her relationship with her 6th grade student.
Photo Credit: People / Screenshot

We Americans may not like to admit it, but we love crime. Look at the recent popularity of the podcast "Serial," or the 10 odd new detective shows that pop up on cable networks every fall. One particularly weird element of our crime lovefest is the obsession with news stories about school teachers having sex with their students or selling them drugs. You don’t hear stories about other local government employees—mail carriers, for example—committing sex crimes. Has television made us hungry for horror stories from classrooms, or is something more sinister at play?

On the surface, it’s clear why these stories are interesting to so many. Teachers are supposed to be role models, even stand-in parents. So when they do wrong, it stokes a certain kind of outrage that we don’t feel when we hear about corrupt politicians or greedy CEOs. But it’s not (technically, anyway) the job of the media to give us what we want to hear. The media is supposed to deliver, in fair proportion, the stories that are most vital. It certainly may be in the interest of local news sites to alert their communities about allegations against teachers in nearby schools. This fits the logic of having public registeries of pedophiles, after all. But why do these stories so often make the pages of national outlets like the New York Times or the Washington Post? On closer look, you can tell a lot about a publication’s biases based on how it approaches such stories, which I call "bad teacher" porn.

A shocking gender bias is clear in the skewed way these stories are reported. All but seven of the 61 “notorious teacher sex scandals” that CBS Interactive compiled into this slideshow are women. That number is particularly interesting considering, according to ABC News, “the vast majority of teachers who harass or abuse their students are men. Men make up just 15 percent of all teachers, yet are responsible for two-thirds of all abuse.” It’s unfair considering almost all the stories readers see these days involve female teachers.

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And many media outlets treat all these stories equally, regardless of the details of the allegations. A quick scan confirmed my suspicion that almost all of the young female teachers in the CBS list targeted high school boys, while the male teachers chose victims of various ages. The crimes of these women, while still crimes, are a far cry from, say, the male substitute teacher who was charged with abusing elementary school kids. “Many of the female teachers are younger, while the men are in their 30s or 40s,” Bryan Kirk, Houston area editor for Patch.com, confirmed. 

Audiences love a good "hot for teacher" story when a female teacher is involved, probably because we’re still getting used to the notion that women can be guilty of sexual abuse as well as men, even though it’s far less common. ABC writes, “Experts say it is a relatively recent phenomenon that women who have sex with their pupils are handled with the same gravity as their male colleagues.”

Let’s first turn to conservative media. Fox News is clearly in this game for the advertising revenue. Its crime section is particularly interested in sex crimes that involve salacious and vile stories. Fox certainly isn’t alone; “bad teacher” stories are moneymakers for publishers. As Business Insider reported, “a columnist had admitted that he had written an article called 'Why Teachers Have Sex With Their Students' because he thought it would get a lot of pageviews.” The headline of that Business Insider piece? “Why Teachers Have Sex With Their Students.” Of course.

These stories are so profitable, they sometimes leave the domain of the crime page. The most infamous case of a teacher-student relationship is an aberration from the normal stories of abuse: Mary Kay Letourneau was convicted of “child rape” for having sex with her 13-year-old student and sentenced to seven years' imprisonment. She gave birth to their baby between prison stints, and after her release, she married the student, who was 18 years old by then. According to Zimbio, their wedding ceremony was “covered exclusively by Entertainment Tonight, who paid a reported $750,000” for the rights. 

When covering these stories, some right-leaning outlets try to pin responsibility on the usual suspects: unions, for example. The New York Post ran a story on the rise of “bad teacher” stories back in 2007 under the headline "'SLIMY TEACHER’ WOE WORSENS." At the end of the article, author David Andreatta writes, “New York State United Teachers, the state union, did not return calls seeking comment,” implying that unions bear some sort of responsibility for the bad eggs among the thousands of teachers they support.

On the local reporting level, media will often cover “bad teacher” porn stories through the conservative view that American culture is irreparably declining into immorality. In Macomb County, Michigan, which voted for Donald Trump in last year’s presidential election, news that teacher misconduct was on the rise was explained this way by the local paper:

...Experts agreed figuring out the reasons behind the abuse is complicated.

Daniel Kruger, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan, recently had to go inside a middle school to vote.

"While I was there I saw pictures on the walls of kids wearing revealing outfits (standing) in suggestive poses," he said. "I don't even think the students knew the context of what they were doing."

Kruger and others point to the increasing sexualization found throughout U.S. culture as one possible factor in teacher-student sexual misconduct cases.

"Marketers know that sex sells and they know it is effective," he said.

"Our social norms have changed, even in the last few decades for what is appropriate."

As awful as it is to see a newspaper victim-blame students for their teachers’ crimes, it’s not uncommon in conservative areas.

Then there are the those who use bad-teacher porn stories to blame teachers for the many faults in the American education system. Conservative pundits often use these stories to convince the public that teachers shouldn't be given tenure or union protections. The theme was resurrected recently by Campbell Brown, who launched lawsuits in New York state to try to end the practice of tenure in New York public schools. When asked why tenure was her issue of choice to fix schools, rather than addressing systemic issues of poverty, Brown readily provided tabloidy stories to discredit teachers, like that of “a teacher who suggested to a student she could be his ‘little sex slave’ and could give him a ‘striptease’ and still wasn’t fired.” 

On the other end of the spectrum, bad-teacher porn stories are sometimes linked to lack of education funding by the federal government. In one story in the Washington Post, you can see that agenda under the surface a few paragraphs in: “Day was hired to teach science at Yukon High School at the beginning of the school year, according to an October report by Oklahoma City-based News 9. She was among the state’s 1,500 emergency certified teachers hired without education training to help mitigate teacher shortages. It’s one of many ways Oklahoma is dealing with a deepening budget crisis that has forced class sizes to surge, art and foreign-language programs to shrink or disappear and—in many districts—schools to operate just four days a week.”

Other journalists seek to find a way to connect the illegal sexual-goings on in schools with the wave of recent sexual assault allegations in Hollywood. After an Ohio substitute teacher confessed to having sex with two students and exchanging nude selfies via social media, the Post sought an explanation from the school’s superintendent, who said, “Today with the incidents that seem to be occurring regularly in all walks in the professional world, including in the media, including the arts, including our most profoundly successful senators, it’s just…it’s an issue we’ve got to keep working on.” True, but considering public education involves many more people than the film industry, not to mention the fact that minors are concerned when abuse happens in schools, there are clearly more sinister forces at play when it comes to sexual misconduct by teachers.

Alternatively, ABC News quotes an expert who links the public’s appetite for bad-teacher stories to the many reports of child abuse within Catholic Church at the beginning of the millennium. "What accounts for what we're seeing is a side effect of the clergy abuse scandal starting in 2001, when the whole idea that large institutions could be financially libel [sic] if they swept this kind of thing under the rug," he said. "There was a realization that schools needed to educate students better, take this problem more seriously, and bring cases to the authorities," he said.

This motivation on the part of the left-leaning media outlet can be seen in the New York Times, which to its credit, usually limits such stories in its national sections to abuse at schools like the elite Choate Rosemary boarding school, which educated several Kennedys. Twelve teachers at the school were accused over decades, and the Times reported this spring that administrators regularly covered up allegations. Such a story makes sense for the Times, which regularly employs its investigative teams as watchdogs against powerful and wealthy institutions. Coverups are its bread and butter, and readers eat them up.

While we’re on the subject, why does it feel like these incidents are so common? Maybe it’s not the media’s fault for focusing so overtly on bad-teacher porn. Maybe abuse really is occurring at a proportional rate at the frequency with which it’s reported. ABC writes, “The New York State Department of Education released a report in February [2007] that found the number of teachers facing 'moral character' inquiries for having sex with students had nearly doubled over the past five years.” Bryan Kirk, who reports on such stories in Houston, says, “it is an epidemic here. It was problematic enough that the state legislature passed tougher laws this year against this type of offense. Over the last three years there have been multiple instances of this in the Houston area alone.”

On the other hand, it could be that more of these stories are being reported than in previous decades. Jezebel asked MP Douglas Carswell for his thoughts on the rise of student-teacher abuse in England. He “opined that the increase might be due to reporting and not to a rise in misconduct” and said, "I imagine that young people now are more willing to complain than in the past."

Psychologist Nick Luxmoore wrote in Psychology Today that sexual feelings between a student and teacher are more natural than the public is willing to admit. He writes, “What I am challenging is the implication that good, responsible teachers won’t have feelings for their students which will sometimes be sexual. They will. It goes with the territory. Indeed, it can happen from time to time in any profession where the relationship between people is the key to getting the job done.”

His analysis might feel icky, but if you take his implication that these incidents really are that widespread, it gets even harder to assign responsibility. As much as some want to blame schools, the structure of our education system, or the federal government for this phenomenon, the fact of the matter is, there are too many schools with too many individual problems for this question to be definitively answered. Bryan Kirk shot down the Washington Post’s theory that shortages lead to schools hiring more unqualified teachers who commit inappropriate acts with students. “That’s ludicrous. There isn’t a good excuse for this behavior. We don’t have a teacher shortage here in Houston." And as the New York Times coverage of the incidents at Choate Rosemary shows, teachers at poor schools and wealthy schools alike can be guilty of these crimes.

Whether it’s an ugly fact of human nature or whether higher authorities are responsible, what’s indisputable is that more such incidents will occur, presenting the media with more opportunities to assign blame. No matter what kinds of schools these stories come from, audiences will continue to gobble them up. 

Liz Posner is a managing editor at AlterNet. Her work has appeared on Forbes.com, Bust, Bustle, Refinery29, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @elizpos.