Judging from the recent spate of high-profile teacher-student sex cases, you'd think America's teachers - especially females - are hopelessly lusting after their students.
As a mother of boys and witness to the animal kingdom in which they dwell, I confess to being baffled by the attraction, but that's a subject for another day. Meanwhile, what is going on?
And what does it mean in our sexualized culture that the lines seem to be increasingly blurred between what is appropriate and what is not. Forget "normal," not that anyone remembers.
Here's normal: Adults do not have sex with minors.
Well-adjusted grown-ups know this instinctively. Implicit in the job description of "adult" is that you take care of children and protect the innocent. Inarguably, a kid who has been roaming the Earth fewer than 18 years doesn't know diddly about the complicated consequences of romantic involvement with an adult.
We who know better are supposed to know better.
But lately our cultural understanding of what's acceptable is on shaky ground. After all, a consenting teenage boy is getting what he wants from a willing adult woman, right? And certainly a compliant 16-year-old girl can seem womanly enough to her twentysomething-year-old geography teacher. Who's to say they shouldn't enjoy each other's company?
Normal people at this point may notice a small trembling and rapid heartbeat. Do not be alarmed. The feeling that you are completely alone on Planet Earth should subside in a few more paragraphs.
Questions of the sort above keep coming up, especially since 1998, when a study published in the Psychological Bulletin concluded that people sexually abused as children did not always suffer terrible consequences. Defenders of the study said they weren't trying to excuse abuse, but were questioning the traditional way of treating all sexual relations with minors as "abuse."
Most people would agree that there's a difference between an 18-year-old "adult" involved with a 17-year-old "child" and an adult man ravaging an 8-year-old girl. But our nerves understandably get frayed in the context of the recent Catholic Church scandals, and when we realize that some groups, such as the North American Man/Boy Love Association, really do want societal approval of such clearly inappropriate relations.
Emotions also run high when some suggest changing the age of consent to accommodate today's more relaxed social norms, as was mentioned in a story in Sunday's New York Times that reviewed recent teacher-student cases. The story was accompanied by a photograph of teacher, Pamela Rogers Turner, 28, who was sentenced to nine months in jail for having sex with a 13-year-old boy.
Blond, beautiful and fetching in pinstripes (and handcuffs), she's an unfortunate poster girl for the cause against adults romancing minors. Most guys seeing her would say, "And the problem is?"
The problem, to be clear, is one of trust and power - even in consenting relationships. An adult, especially one in a position of authority such as a teacher, counselor or priest, is always in a superior position with a minor player. It doesn't matter that 16-year-old Johnny is built like a locomotive and has enough testosterone to power a Scud missile. He's still a kid emotionally and psychologically.
Thus the sexual act, even if consensual, is still coercive to some degree.
Same with Susie. Girls may look like Madonna en route to a pole-dancing contest, but most don't have a clue what they're doing to Mr. Smith as he's trying to stay focused on those parallelograms.
They may be adult-like physically, but they're minors otherwise - still dependents, still living at home, and still reliant upon adults to be mentors, not sex partners. Children romantically involved with an adult tend to have all sorts of problems: shame, anxiety, lowered self-esteem, depression, vulnerability to drug and alcohol abuse, and an impaired ability to judge the trustworthiness of others, according to David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.
Victims of sex abuse also are at higher risk for suicide, and may become adult sexual abusers themselves as a way of trying to gain psychological control over their own experience. The fact that not all people suffer long-lasting emotional damage as a result of such early sexual experiences surely doesn't justify relaxing our standards.
Instead, adults attracted to minors might do the grownup thing and seek psychological help. Kids will find ways enough to complicate their lives without the help of adults lost in their own narcissism.