Do media narratives shape our views on teacher-student abuse? Unveil the influence of gender bias on perceptions.
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Addressing gender bias in the narrative of teacher-student sexual crimes 

Do media narratives shape our views on teacher-student abuse? Unveil the influence of gender bias on perceptions.

Public outrage and media attention in response to child sexual abuse crimes are widespread and certainly justified. Yet, when it comes to teacher-student sexual relationships, public responses are less well understood. Gender biases and stereotypes that assign offender roles to men can subconsciously influence the way in which these sex crimes are viewed. Does this expectation of male offending neglect the credibility, risk, and impact of female offending in these child abuse crimes? 

A recent study delves into how the gender of the perpetrator affects public and media attitudes toward teacher-student sexual relationships. It uncovers the extent to which gender can influence our general attitudes and retributive responses towards these offenders; something that is currently misunderstood. These findings are relevant for understanding the potential decline and controversy of female leniency in criminal contexts.

How are gender biases infiltrated within prosecutorial decisions of teachers who abuse? Female teachers found guilty of abuse may escape detection or receive lenient sentences, a privilege not typically afforded to their male counterparts. Research indicates that male abusers are more likely to be charged, convicted, and receive longer sentences compared to female abusers.

Charlotte Houghton

The taboo of female predation

Many are unwilling to accept the reality of female-perpetrated sexual abuse; for most, the concept is unthinkable. Common myths suggesting that all women are naturally nurturing divert attention from the harsh truth that female teachers constitute the majority of perpetrators in institutional settings. Unbelievably, skepticism around reports of these crimes even exists among professionals within emergency services, leading to significant underestimations of true reporting rates.

The public perception of relationships between male teachers and female students tends to be more negative and viewed as exploitative compared to those involving female teachers and male students. In some cases, there is even a disturbing notion that boys who experience such relationships with older women should be considered “lucky.” Media coverage often portrays abusive female teachers as participants in “love affairs” or “romances” rather than categorising them as sexual predators, as male teachers are typically labelled.

These disturbing stereotypes have resulted in differential treatment of male and female teachers in the courtroom. Female teachers found guilty of abuse may escape detection or receive lenient sentences, a privilege not typically afforded to their male counterparts. Research indicates that male abusers are more likely to be charged, convicted, and receive longer sentences compared to female abusers.

That being said, recent newspaper articles have framed female teachers who abuse children as more dangerous. Instead, this is consistent with the traditional sexual double standard that men are granted more sexual freedom. This research aimed to reconcile conflicting studies by directly comparing males and females in identical scenarios.

Key findings

The study revealed that the public holds more negative attitudes towards male than female teacher sexual offenders. This suggests that perpetrator gender does influence opinions towards these inappropriate relationships. Another significant finding was regarding the preferred punishment for male and female abusers. Regardless of gender, most people suggested that they should face similar sentences. Despite more negative attitudes towards males, 6–10 years was the most commonly recommended sentence length for both sexes. This places a large question mark over the assumption that punishment outcomes favour women. 

Furthermore, the study investigated how gender biases influence the real-life media narratives of teachers who engage in sexual relations with their students. Some reports attribute the actions of female teachers to poor mental health or personal stressors at the time of offense, thus dismissing the seriousness of these crimes. Although the behaviour of male teachers was characterised as predatory, newspapers echoed this in descriptions of females as ‘paedophilic’.

Gender was irrelevant in discussions of grooming, harm caused, and dangerousness, all of which magnified the power differentials between the teacher and student. The use of grooming behaviours to build relationships especially confirms that females can be just as calculated as men. Although male offenders were generally depicted as more accountable for their actions, negative portrayals of female offenders are increasingly evident, rejecting the notion that women are incapable of committing such crimes.

Impact on victims

Behind headline-grabbing storylines, we can often lose sight of reality. The effect on all victims is damaging, but the underestimation of female sexual offenses is particularly harmful to male victims. A combination of ‘love affair’ narratives, disbelief in reports, and sexualisations of women create an invalidation of victims’ experiences. They are often reluctant to report or fail to recognise their abuse. Dealing with sexual victimisation has been associated with feelings of shame, low self-esteem, and isolation.

Figure 1. Effect of female victimisation. 
Credit. Independent. 
Figure 2. Effect of male victimisation.
Credit. Freepik Company 

Implications

The study underscores the importance of training that addresses sensitive topics without avoidance, emphasising the need for clear boundaries between teacher and student interactions and the repercussions of sexual misconduct. It highlights the necessity of prioritising improvements in victim reporting rates, as many individuals continue to suffer in silence. Increasing awareness and providing informative reporting on female abuse against boys may aid in recognising such experiences as harmful rather than dismissing them. Schools should also be vigilant in identifying signs of concern and responding to them promptly.

Public attitudes largely inform decision-making about legislation and related policymaking. Given that members of the general public constitute the jury, governments should aim to withdraw current policy that depicts scenarios of “stranger danger” and predatory males that hinder awareness of female sexual offending and general attitudes towards perpetrators. Public health campaigns and youth organisations should challenge glorified representations of female educators who abuse their positions of trust to increase social understanding of the reality of institutional abuse.

Female offending is also such a taboo that official statistics fail to report on this type of abuse; governments should make these available to researchers and professionals to further increase awareness of these crimes. These solutions may help to contribute to the equitable treatment of male and female offenders and challenge social norms that minimise women’s propensity to commit sexual crimes. 

Rethinking gendered constructions of sexual offending behaviour

Could these findings represent a sign of societal progress? Gender as a powerful indicator of attitudes but not sentencing decisions means we could expect a decline in gender biases over time. However, a combination of negative public attitudes towards male offenders and sympathetic media narratives of female teachers reveals that gender continues to play a role in perceptions of teacher-student sexual relationships. Nonetheless, viewing women as deserving of punishment and harmful to victims may represent a positive shift towards more equal treatment of male and female offenders. Breaking down misbeliefs by exposing these crimes for what they truly are may help to repair distorted perceptions of abusers.

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Journal reference

Houghton, C., Tzani, C., Ioannou, M., Williams, T. J. V., & Kissaun, G. D. (2023). Investigating the influence of perpetrator gender on public perceptions and media portrayals of teacher-student sexual relationships. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology38(3), 754-765. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11896-023-09606-1

Charlotte is a Psychology graduate with an MSc in Investigative Psychology. For her master’s thesis, she focused on the topic of teacher-student sexual relationships and is interested in continuing this research further. Her research interests also include criminal psychology, childhood experiences, and psychological disorders.