It was the star-crossed scandal that launched a thousand segments of “Entertainment Tonight.”
In 1996 a 34-year-old married mother of four and Seattle elementary school teacher, Mary Kay Letourneau, was caught romping with one of her 12-year-old male students. She spent a few months behind bars, was caught with him in her car again. And for violating her parole she got seven years in the slammer and had to register as a sex offender.
It was pure catnip for reporters and irresistible to millions around the world.
The media’s obsession with the unlikely couple reached even greater intensity when the pair got married. The nuptial was held in Washington state at the tony Columbia Winery, and the happy couple had all the expenses paid for. “Entertainment Tonight,” which got exclusive access to the event, got a massive ratings bump.
The pair co-hosted episodes of “Hot for Teacher Night” at a Seattle club. In 2000 Letourneau’s story was made into a film, “All-American Girl: The Mary Kay Letourneau Story.”
Letourneau gave birth to one child while out on bail the first time; their second child was born while Letourneau was incarcerated. Both girls grew up under the glare of the public’s eye. There was a Lifetime movie and a resurgence of attention following a Barbara Walters interview in 2015. Then, late last month, her husband filed for separation after 12 years of marriage, citing business rather than personal reasons – juicy details again snatched up by both the entertainment and mainstream media who fed the public’s obsession with older women who seduce teenage boys.
It was that same obsession that made the 2004 case of Florida newlywed and middle school teacher Debra LaFave, 23, a media blockbuster. One year after her marriage, she was arrested for “lewd alliances” with a 14-year-old pupil. Ditto for the former Cincinnati Bengals – Ben-Gals -- cheerleader and high school teacher Sarah Jones. In 2012 she pled guilty to bedding a 17-year-old student – igniting yet another firestorm of infamy – and further fueled when she got out of prison the following year and the pair got engaged.
The reason for the heightened awareness has as much to do with the apparently increasing frequency of female teachers having sex with their young male students as it does with the drama that incidents like those of Letourneau spark.
The stories are relentlessly covered by tabloid media – inevitably with a mugshot of the teacher paired with “sexy” photos from her Facebook or Instagram accounts – and the stories are often predictably similar. Perhaps the teacher is found out when the boys boast about it to their friends, or when a parent finds out – and she can’t evade guilt because of sexts or flesh-flashing photos she sent. Details are drawn out like a soap opera: Sex in the teacher’s car; indiscrete emails and text messages, with photos; and then the discovery as the boy tells a buddy or a nosy mom finds evidence of the malfeasance. It’s a virtual syndrome.
Part of the syndrome is the social acceptance. Barstool sports even “grades” each accused female teacher based on “looks,” “moral compass” and “intangibles,” and the likes of Saturday Night Live feature skits about hot female teachers bedding the boys from school.
Examples seem to be proliferating like rabbits. Consider the following examples, the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Married Kentucky teacher Lindsey Jarvis, 27, ignited a media maelstrom this month after being charged with rape, sodomy and unlawful transaction with a student. Also this month, 31-year-old Connecticut teacher, Laura Ramos, was removed from her job at Central High School over allegations of sexually assaulting a special education student. Loryn Barclay, 24, was arrested Sunday and faces charges as a result of an alleged relationship with a boy while she worked as a substitute teacher.
The apparent increase in these incidents has piqued more than just popular curiosity. Scholars have begun to research and analyze the scope and nature of the syndrome.
Myriam S. Denov, an associate professor in the School of Social Work at Montreal’s McGill University, says cultural stereotypes about women have obscured the awareness of the frequency of female sexual offending.
“While the prevalence rates of female sex offending are small when compared to rates of male sex offending, there is evidence to suggest that sexual abuse by females may be under-recognized,” she says in one of her books, “Perspectives on Female Sex Offending: A Culture of Denial.”
There is a great deal of data that points to “a widespread denial of women as potential sexual aggressors that could work to obscure the true dimensions of the problem,” she writes in the book.
According to the Center for Sex Offender Management, a project operated by the U.S. Department of Justice, females account for around 10 percent of all sex crimes reported to authorities. However, a much higher percentage – over 30 percent – of all teacher-student sexual offenses are estimated to have been perpetrated by females. In the latest available statistics, in 2014, just under 800 school employees were prosecuted for student sex crimes – around one-third female.
Other experts are beginning to focus on why some women initiate sex with boys. Dr. Domenick Sportelli, a board-certified psychiatrist, told Fox News that the while the psychology behind sexual activity between female adult teachers and student minors is an incredibly complex one, it has its foundations in exploiting the vulnerability of the student and is "predatory" behavior by every definition.
“Its roots are based on the ‘power’ that the female teacher has, a position of dominance and control,” Sportelli explained. “Perhaps the teacher is experiencing personal loneliness, dissatisfaction with her current relationship, feels the need for revenge, is experiencing lust or perhaps believes it is ‘true love.’ In many cases, there is a history of sexual and or psychological abuse toward the perpetrator. Many psychiatric pathologies can lead to this type of behavior including mood disorders, personality disorders and prior sexual trauma.”
Legal experts, meanwhile, are beginning to speak out about a double standard regarding how courts treat male versus female statutory rapists.
“Men fall into the usual stereotype of somehow believing a teenage male student probably enjoyed a sexual relationship with his adult teacher. Male teachers are always labeled as predators by the public,” Steve Albrecht, a Colorado-based threat assessment and school violence expert, told Fox News. “Female teachers are often mischaracterized as immature, confused or even vulnerable – even though they are just as predatory in their selection and grooming behavior to seduce that child.”
The road to equality between the sexes when it comes to criminal justice remains a long one.
“Unfortunately, it is still socially acceptable for the male student to become victimized,” said California-based criminal defense attorney, Leo Terrell. “Therefore the sex crime was welcomed by the male victim because he had the physically strength to prevent said crime. Such a pre-historic perspective misses the mark.”
While there are no national statistics specific to teachers available, an investigation by the New Jersey Star-Ledger newspaper, which studied cases between 2003 and 2013, concluded that male teachers receive more stringent legal punishments than females.
Male defendants in the Garden State were sent to prison in 54 percent of cases compared to 44 percent of cases involving female defendants, men averaged 2.4 years behind bars while women averaged 1.6 years in lock-up for the same offense. Furthermore, out of the 97 cases followed over the decade, the longest sentence given to a female was seven years while the longest handed to a male was ten, although both cases entailed multiple relationships.
In 2011 the Denver Post found that females convicted for sexually abusing a minor in their care in the state of Colorado are also far less likely to be jailed for their crimes. Of the 2,128 men convicted of sexual assault on a child in their responsibility from 2006 to 2010, more than half were sent to prison. By comparison, 79 women were convicted of the same crime during that time, but only 38 percent imprisoned.
But whether or not the victim is male or female, the long-term consequences can be equally as detrimental.
“These victimizing relationships create huge trust issues later on when these students become adults,” Albrecht added. “When their sexual boundaries are violated by adults, the consequences are long-lasting.”
Hollie McKay has been a FoxNews.com staff reporter since 2007. She has reported extensively from the Middle East on the rise and fall of terrorist groups such as ISIS in Iraq. Follow her on twitter at @holliesmckay