Here’s the situation: Teachers in Washington state can now legally have sex with students who are 18 years old.
Since 18-year-olds are no longer minors, teachers can become sexually/romantically involved with them, the state Court of Appeals ruled last week.
So, are sexual relations between a teacher and a student ever OK? The short answer: No.
But what are the repercussions of this decision? Are people overreacting, or are we right to have plenty to worry about?
After all, while MTV paints quite a different story, 18-year-olds are rather mature in many respects. We tend to underestimate them by and large. Conveniently, babying them helps us to maintain control over them, including their sexual maturation.
Truth be told, teens in late adolescence are blossoming into a more defined adult role. Nearly done with the physical maturation process, they are better at decision-making, practically autonomous, and more able to think abstractly.
These older teens understand limitations. They can think about hypothetical situations, consequences and the future. They’re better at understanding other’s points of view, and they have greater intimacy skills. They can deal with the complexities of ethics and values. They are identifying career goals and preparing to realize them.
That said, this newfound maturity doesn’t leave them immune to the inappropriate seductions of a teacher.
It's easy for a teacher to seduce a student. Here's why:
The Mrs. Robinson Fantasy
From Mary Kay Letourneau to Debra Lafave, the female teachers who make the headlines for luring boys are attractive femme fatales. While outraged and disgusted, many people “joke” that they can’t blame the victim. After all, it’s argued, what male can refuse the temptations of a scorching hot seductress?
In the U.S., one of the socially mandated goals we have of manhood is for males to have lots of sex. Even if a man has no desire for such, he’ll have trouble escaping such expectations. Getting sex, if even just seemingly, is regarded by society as a defining point in his social maturation. So when opportunity knocks, it can be hard not to answer.
For both males and females, having an older lover is often seen as a status symbol. We’ve seen this in plenty of TV shows and Hollywood movies, like the flick Stepmom. Having an adult partner suddenly makes you more mature, competent, and desirable – all of which are coveted qualities for teens.
Not for High School, but College
When it comes to 18-year-olds and first-year college students, people are a bit more lenient with their sexual liaisons. Even though the professor-student relationship is highly frowned upon, it doesn’t evoke nearly the same emotional reaction the high school teacher-student scenario does. Yet in being 18, being in high school versus college is not so apples and oranges to a student.
When there’s a disconnect in the home, young people seek connection elsewhere. If parents aren’t giving their youth the time, guidance, and energy they need and deserve, teens can be easily influenced by powerful others. This includes teachers, for better or (as in this case) for worse.
Girls, for example, with daddy issues – like a father absent in the home – may be all too eager to receive love and support from a strong male figure. Youth who suffer from poor self-esteem or whose emotional needs are not being met are easier targets for unethical sexual relationships.
At the end of the day, the path that led to teacher-student sexual trysts ends with consequences.
And regardless of the Washington court’s decision, a student-teacher sexual relationship is disturbing. Due to the power dynamics involved, a student’s fate can lie in a teacher’s hands.
Youth are vulnerable and can be forced to do things that are framed in their best interest, but that are most definitely not.
Here are some examples of teacher-student relationship consequences:
— Facilitation of sexual behaviors. Given an own adult’s experiences, the youth can be introduced to sexual behaviors they’re not ready for emotionally.
— Being sexually active earlier. Research in the journal Family Planning Perspectives found that female adolescents with partners that are five or more years older engaged in first intercourse earlier than those whose first partner was their own age. They were also less likely to report condom use at first and last intercourse, and more consistently over their lifetimes.
— Reproductive health issues. While anybody who is sexually active faces some degree of health risk, the same Family Planning Perspectives study found that 38 percent of teens with an older first partner (five years or more) had ever been pregnant (compared to 12 percent of those with a same-age partner).
— Trauma. It practically goes without saying that those in relationships with severe power dynamics, especially where sexual maturation is accelerated, will suffer from austere mental or emotional stress.
Finally, as I’m sure many of you would agree making something legal doesn’t make it ethical.
Dr. Yvonne K. Fulbright is a sex educator, relationship expert, columnist and founder of Sexuality Source Inc. She is the author of several books including, "Touch Me There! A Hands-On Guide to Your Orgasmic Hot Spots."