Gender Bias in Sex Crime Reporting

By Michael McKay . . . Minors cannot legally consent to sex, ever. Not with adults, not with each other, and especially not with their teachers, who are entrusted by parents with a special degree of responsibility for their students. Whenever sex occurs between a teacher and his or her student, it is a crime. There is a word for non-consensual sex, a little word with huge ramifications. That word is rape.

What’s fascinating is how our news media tiptoes around that word in certain types of cases, while trumpeting it with pure abandon in others. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our news headlines. Why is this important? It’s important because fifty-nine percent of Americans read only the headline. Their opinions on any given subject are often formed without so much as a clue about what appears in the text below the headline. This practice is widespread despite the fact that the headline is usually crafted by someone other than the author of the article and, even more concerning, sometimes doesn’t even agree with the assertions made in the text below.

It is a given that news media headlines are profit engines designed to do one thing only: attract eyeballs. They typically accomplish that mission by fear-mongering and appealing to our worst impulses and social stereotypes. One of those stereotypes is the widely accepted myth that women cannot be rapists.

Let’s take a look at how media headlines help to drive that false narrative.

We’ll start with Oxygen, a network whose market demographic is primarily women. Above their April 2017 feature article about notorious teacher-student scandals, the headline reads: “Nine Disturbing Affairs Between Teachers and Their Students.” The sub-header proclaims, “These teachers put their moral compass aside to have sex with their students.”  The first sentence of the article is, “Having a romantic or sexual relationship with an underage student is a shocking exploitation of power.”

The article lists the following eleven people charged with teacher-student sex crimes: Debra LaFave, Mary Kay Letourneau, Shelley Dufresne, Rachel Respess, Matthew Weste, Briane Altice, Tad Cummins, Pamela Smart, Heather Phillips, Melody Lippert, and Michele Ghirelli.

Nine of the eleven are women and, of course, Oxygen’s readership is overwhelmingly women. Is that why their headlines characterize these sex crimes as “affairs,” “having sex,” or “romantic or sexual relationships”?

One could be tempted to excuse Oxygen’s spin on this simply as a matter of knowing and pandering to their niche market. But that fails to explain why the same thing happens across the news media spectrum.

In February 2019, a teacher named Brittany Zamora was arrested in Arizona for sexual offenses involving a 13-year old student. The Newsweek headline reads, “Married Teacher Allegedly Had Sex With 13-Year-Old Student.”

Note the way Newsweek uses “married” and “allegedly had sex.” When the perpetrator is a woman, marital status is immensely relevant. It plays beautifully to the “homewrecker” archetype that society demands in its dramas. Note also how she “allegedly had sex” with her student. This not only grants her a presumption of innocence, but it also shields her from being labelled with the “r-word.”

People Magazine recently ran a story about Coral Lytle, who wasn’t a teacher, but was charged with sex crimes involving her daughters’ under-aged boyfriends.  The April 2019 headline reads, “Calif. Woman Allegedly Had Sex with Both Daughters’ Underage Boyfriends.” The body of the article goes on to refer to the crimes as “having sex,” “alleged encounters,” and as an “inappropriate relationship.” This article and several others like it took great pains to portray Lytle as a seductress or harlot, rather than as a rapist.

The major broadcast networks aren’t any less culpable. Take, for example, the CBS News coverage of Sarah Fowlkes’ arrest for sexual offenses involving one of her students. The headline reads, “Sarah Fowlkes arrested for alleged improper relationship with student.”

The body of the article goes on to characterize it as an “inappropriate relationship,” an “alleged relationship,” “sexual contact,” and even an “accidental relationship.” Some of the people quoted in the article referred to it as “improper” and “unprofessional.” No one – literally no one – calls it rape.

And who could forget the scandalous case of Debra Lafave, the teacher who was convicted in 2004 of sexual offenses involving one of her students? A New York Daily News headline in 2014 about her reads: “Florida court allows Debra Lafave to end probation early, a decade after teacher’s affair with 14-year old.” The first sentence of the accompanying article is: “Too hot for jail ex-teacher Debra Lafave won her Florida appeal to terminate probation early, nearly a decade after pleading guilty to having sex with a 14-year-old male student.”

Affair. Having sex. Too hot for jail.

Are you able to discern a pattern yet? There are literally hundreds of other examples of this same media practice I could show you, if you still haven’t figured out how this works. Now, let’s take a look at how the headlines treat male teachers who are accused of sex crimes involving their students.

In February 2019, a male school teacher in Oklahoma teacher was charged with sexual offenses against a student. The headline reads: “Oklahoma Teacher Charged With Sex Crimes, Including Rape Against a Minor.”

Just in case you failed to notice, he didn’t have an affair. He didn’t have an inappropriate relationship. It wasn’t framed as accidental or unprofessional. The “r-word” is right there in the headline.

The New York Post similarly trumpeted the “r-word” in a headline and article about a teacher named Peter Schmidt in September 2018. The headline reads: “Teacher heads to trial for allegedly raping teen girl in his home.”

Even more paradoxically, while headlines about women who are actually convicted of sex crimes against minors religiously avoid using the “r-word,” headlines about males who are found not guilty continue to use it, even while announcing their exonerations. Consider this example from the East Idaho News from August 2018 which reads, “Jury finds Twin Falls teacher who had sex with teen not guilty of rape.”

Another example of this bizarre practice appeared above this 2017 article which appeared in the UK Sun. The headline reads: “There’s Nothing to Protect You – Teacher cleared of raping teen at top London school after being falsely accused warns men to avoid profession.”

These headlines are symptomatic of a greater disease. That disease is rooted in stereotypes that label men as predators and rapists while, at the same time, portraying women as temptresses, seductresses and homewreckers. It is true that men do, in fact, commit rapes in greater numbers than women. But that doesn’t justify pretending that women are incapable of rape or sexual abuse of children as well.

If it were not for the disparately severe terms of incarceration that men typically receive for sexual offenses against minors compared to women, this practice could easily be laughed off as just one of those quirky, crazy things that demonstrates how differently men and women get treated in our society. But the consequences of allowing this practice to continue unchecked can be far-reaching.

As long as men who commit sexual offenses are automatically classified as monsters while women who commit similar offenses are labeled as inappropriate, unprofessional, or hopeless romantics, school kids will continue to be victimized. It is time to call out the media for employing this deviously pernicious gender bias that creates grotesque caricatures of both the men and the women accused of sexual offenses.

Sandy Rozek

Written by 

Sandy, a NARSOL board member, is communications director for NARSOL, editor-in-chief of the Digest, and a writer for the Digest and the NARSOL website. Additionally, she participates in updating and managing the website and assisting with a variety of organizational tasks.