As I was packing away my laptop yesterday afternoon, a student from a separate campus program entered my classroom. “Are you a teacher?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied, as this question is a common one for many young professors who teach on college campuses. He went on to ask, full of youthful boldness, if I date students. “I do not, not at all.” I said sternly. “Not even seniors?” he rebutted. “Not any students, ever, and it’s time for you to go.” I don’t play those games.
My relationships with my students are professional, not personal. As much as being an educator also demands that one act as auntie, counselor and shoulder, I remind my students regularly that we are not peers. I’ve seen many bright, young professionals lose their positions and access to tenure and overall success early, because they allowed the line to be blurred between teacher, friend and lover.
I understand, even while teaching adults, that I’d be taking advantage of any student I attempted to have a personal relationship with outside of the classroom. They’re still, even as twentysomethings, impressionable and open to manipulation. Knowing this is why I’m constantly outraged and sickened when allegations surface about the Kathryn Murrays and Stacy Schulers of the world—educators who sexually abuse the children they’re charged with guiding towards full potential and greatness.
One such moment of outrage occurred as I recently tuned in to a local radio show where the hosts and listeners cracked jokes about Felicia Smith, a 42-year-old middle school teacher caught on video giving a male student a birthday “lapdance”—which included her lowering her head between his legs and wrapping up the four-minute dance with a kiss and an “I love you baby” birthday message—all in front of a classroom full of the assaulted student’s classmates.
The jokes aren’t stopping, with many grown men championing the teacher’s predatory behavior as something advantageous. It’s a “coming of age” story according to many, a young man gaining experiences towards manhood. Except, the story reads like the sexual assault of a minor. Except, if this was a female student who was brought in front of a class to have her teacher lower his head into her lap, we’d be ready to burn the school down.
When bell hooks writes that “feminism is for everybody,” I’d argue she means (at least partly) that the eradication of patriarchal ideals, behaviors and systems benefit men, women and all those in between. When we witness how bold Felicia Smith was in gyrating her body up and down her male student’s, we should shiver. Consider what she may have been doing outside of the classroom, when her assault wasn’t being captured by surveillance cameras and presented like a Vegas show to children who probably shouldn’t be witnessing such overtly sexual behavior from anyone, let alone their teacher.
As we are policing the interactions of our daughters to ensure they’re safe, and that no one charged with their care and development is taking advantage of them? Who is protecting our sons? How many men do we hear narrate stories of being “broken in” by older girls or women when they weren’t yet of age to consent? When will we begin viewing these stories as obvious rape, and possibly draw parallels between those instances of abuse and the awful ways some of these men grow up to treat women?
While speaking with Erin Gloria Ryan for Jezebel, Jennifer Marsh, the VP of victim services at RAINN (the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) confessed that “every day her organization works with men who were victimized as children.” Many of them “didn’t recognize what had happened to them as abuse until much later in life, when they were dealing with lingering aftereffects of childhood sexual abuse.” Marsh went on to say, “We [as a society] tell men that they’re supposed to want every sexual experience, and that if they don’t want sex, they’re not normal.”
It’s apparent that even if Smith’s victim felt violated, he more than likely would not feel comfortable admitting as much, because doing so would be unmanly—even if he’s just a child. He, according to many commenters, was living out every young man’s fantasy. But if this is true, then why would we never allow the situation in reverse? Why? Because innocence, because children, because vulturine behavior, because sexual assault.
Let’s ensure that our sons receive the same protection that our daughters do, and the same amount of outrage when that protection is purposefully withdrawn—especially since “sexually abused boys often become men who have difficulty distinguishing among sex, love, nurturance, affection, and abuse.”
If we want to create healthier relationships with men, we have to ensure they’re safeguarded as boys. The end.
Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and soldier of love. Follow her musings on Twitter @jonubian.