Time puts a new spin on teachers behaving badly

Helen Razer takes another look at “cougars” on trial – The Age August 5, decease 2006

‘THE lucky bastard.”

“She broke you in, mate.”

Approbation rang loud and clear through the corridors of my suburban state high school20 years ago.

I was in my mid-teens and it was broadly agreed that a boy of about my age had “done the deed” with a glamorous, older vixen.

Following the recent imprisonment of Natalina D’Addario, 36, who had performed sex acts with a teenage student in her car, an old friend and I spoke on the phone to reconsider those events. We calculated the age of the staff member from our school. She must, we agreed, have attained something around the advanced age of 30. The suitor, or victim, was about 15.

This boy, we recalled, would offer any stationary teen a litany of lopsided details about the woman’s lingerie, her pillow talk and appetite for ravishing him to a soundtrack of songs by REO Speedwagon.

Although some kids insisted they’d seen the pair pashing behind the science block, the allegations were never proved. Nor, to the best of my memory, were they ever investigated. Back then, this was considered little more than a great piece of luck. He was not a victim, he was Hot for Teacher. He wasn’t, we assumed, wounded for life.

It’s impossible to transpose the events of our own adolescence into the contemporary sphere. Who knows what our younger selves would have made of Melbourne teacher Mark Andrew Hayes, who this week pleaded guilty to sexually penetrating a 15-year-old female student. Nonetheless, I have tried to imagine what might have happened if the pretty, tweedy teacher of our school days and the great hulking slab of young Australian manhood had found their way into this decade. Would anyone have looked meticulously into this case? Would they have understood, as we did, that he did, in this case, consent?

Victim advocacy groups last week called D’Addario’s sentence lenient and attacked the judge’s assessment that the teen victim had treated the event as “a bit of fun and games”. Psychologists have argued that boys — even those who appear willing — may suffer long-term emotional damage from such relationships. People Against Lenient Sentencing president Steve Medcraft said that female sex offenders were treated more leniently than men.

But Dr Steven Angelides, of Monash University’s Centre for Women’s Studies and Gender, argues that the reality is more complex. “It is impossible to answer the question of leniency and female perpetrators without looking at the facts of the cases and the relationships of the parties involved.” Angelides argues that the current focus on the perceived power imbalance in such cases grew out of a “tendency in the law to blame the victim of abuse for being seductive, coquettish, and so on”. While power is important, he argues, it is not the whole story.

D’Addario is the latest to join what seems like a long line-up of convicted Australian female ephebophiles — a term that describes an individual exclusively or primarily attracted to post-pubescent teenagers. Tasmanian teacher Sarah Jayne Vercoe pleaded guilty last year to having sexual intercourse with a person under 17 — she was in her mid-20s at the time — and was sentenced to four years in prison. Cindy Leanne Howell, a teacher’s aide on the Mornington Peninsula, was sentenced to five years in prison for having a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old boy.

The non-custodial sentence given to Bridget Mary Nolan, 24, in Adelaide early this year after she was convicted of having sex with a 15-year-old boy, sparked fury. The victim’s family insisted that a male offender would not have been treated with such leniency.

Melbourne physical education teacher Karen Louise Ellis had her suspended sentence overturned on appeal and last year served six months in jail. She also received national and international coverage, with a US online publication recently naming her a “rapist” in a global “sexpidemic”.

The Ellis case is salient for its rejection of a “double standard”. For me and my former high school confidante, the story resounds for a different reason. Ellis’ victim, identified in court as “Benjamin”, seemed as compliant and enthusiastic as our peer. Benjamin had pursued the teacher. In his victim’s statement, he said that this was not his first sexual relationship and it had not affected his life.

Not all crimes, it appears, are created equal. “The problem,” Angelides says, “is that people have too often assumed that because Gavin Hopper, for example, got two years and three months and Ellis only got six months that there is a gender bias in the law. However, when you look at both cases it is clear that the girl involved in the relationship with Hopper now says she has suffered considerable damage. With Karen Ellis, the boy involved said no such thing.”

Angelides’ argument is that there should be room under the law to consider adolescents as distinct from children, and to more closely scrutinise each case. He says he believes Ellis’ original suspended sentence was just and appropriate.

“While some people have experienced these as negative, equally, others have experienced such sexual relations as positive,” says Angelides, who is writing a book on the topic. He feels that broad culture is in a mess when it comes to understanding sexuality.

The lives of Ellis and Benjamin, it seems safe to say, are only messier due to the intervention by law and scrutiny by media.

“The young man — I refuse to say child as so many others insisted on labelling him — involved with Karen Ellis has, in my view, not experienced harm from having sex with her, but from the social, familial, and legal response to the fact that he did,” Angelides says. At the time of Ellis’ crime, he was four months shy of the age of consent. Of course, I have known people subject to sexual experiences in their adolescence who grew to endure an adult life mired in therapy and confusion. But the last we heard, our peer was not one of them.

The tweedy teacher was not a predator. She was just, my friend and I assented, emotionally dishevelled and a bit of a dill. We’re just plain relieved that no one was hurt.

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