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.

Help us reach more people by Sharing or Liking this post.

Michael McKay

Michael McKay is NARSOL's Director of Marketing and a frequent contributor of articles to the NARSOL website. He is the published author of several non-fiction books, contributing editor & board member at LifeTimes Magazine, the executive editor of The Registry Report, and founding host of Registry Report Radio on BlogTalkRadio.

Viewing 8 reply threads
  • Author
    • #54981 Reply

      I respectfully disagree with the premise of this article. While you provide many examples of headlines, I can counter every example with a counter news article that shows women charged with rape, sodomy and other charges that aren’t romantized whatsoever. Many of the headlines– both male and female– use terms such an inappropriate relationship to denote that these were not instances of forcible sex but instead a statutory offense. If anything, I would counter to say that women in such cases are often described as having mental defect while when are conversationally pardoned because, “have you seen teen girls today?”

      • #55099 Reply

        You have got to be kidding. If you can’t see what he is talking about I guess it proves the authors point.

      • #55176 Reply

        Hi Amy,
        Look at the sentences for the offenders and you will see all the evidence that you need of sexual bias. I have seen many cases of completely identical situations were the man gets 20+ years and the woman get probation or a few years and probation this is very common. See for your self I would post links but we cannot do that on here.

      • #56525 Reply

        I agree completely regarding the treatment of female sex aggressors. Mental deficiencies or defects are most overtly embedded differently and more severely in females. That truth resides in women’s perceptions of other women sexual nature. A sexually overt ( behaviorally) women suffers much more from society from convictions! I’ve NO (0), doubt there!
        However ironic it may seem, the additional trauma is coming from your own gender and associated ” norms. ” Believe or not, women have always been the modus of social mobility (upward or downward) among the people. The wives of leaders play a huge role in setting those expectations!

        I wish I’d have gotten to post this sooner.

    • #55011 Reply
      So Tired Of It

      Society puts a different spin on sexual activity with under age children when the woman is the perpetrator. Just look at the recent article in USA Today about the teacher who admitted to having sex with 3 boys. She did not even have to register. How the is that equal??

    • #55025 Reply

      Hi Michael, this pattern is very obvious to those who care to see it. Those who don’t may be unaware of the social conditioning that allows such bias in the first case. For those if us who have encountered the trend, it’s not so subtle. In part it is likely due to the way in which rape has been “understood” by certain socio-politcal groups or interests. You see, for a very long time, rape has been defined as an absolute focus on power, violence, aggression…which of course are all components of most rape. But, statutory rape is something else altogether. It’s an act of ego, poorly developed, under-differentiated, or otherwise deficient, a need for attendance, and other psychodynamically relevant options. It’s a boundary issue that allows emmeshment with others. But I’m digressing. Since, for decades rape has been defined as violence, and men are pigeonholed as the violent gender, an illogical but natural assumption seems to be that men rape for violence…always, being natural predators, and women seduce for romantic or connectivity reasons. Of course, this is more of a belief system than a true scientific parsing. Your bottom line conclusion is most correct, rape vs seduction, etc is universally held to be a male / female difference, and is bunk. Violence may look different when committed by a typical male than by a typical female, but it’s still violence. The same is true for selfish seduction of a teen or child. Gender is only relevant when it’s not male, because it denies the underlying bias in our society that denies women can be so violent, unemotional, or self-centered. After all, if we challenge the tenets of motherhood, maternal instincts and all that is women in our society, no one is universally safe. For the naysayers, it is a message that will be rejected based on belief. For those who are dealing with aftermaths of rape, regardless of what you might call it, the common threads are not so cut and dry. Besides, there is something voyeuristically exciting about reading about boys who have a “Mrs Robinson” experiences, and equally exciting about the “horrors” of male sexual violence. Headlines do sell the product after all.

    • #55026 Reply
      Ed C

      To determine whether or not this article is accurate would require a lot of research. However, I think everyone would agree that gender stereotypes and biases exist in our society. Boys are studs. Girls are sluts. Female virgins are valued. Male virginity is not an issue. Men who prefer much younger women are predators or “dirty old men.” Women are “cougars,” and not “dirty old women.” Women are weak, men are strong, etc., etc, ad nauseam. It should surprise no one if those attitudes were to appear in news reporting or court proceedings.

      Some of the “double standard” may have biological and evolutionary origins. If the object of the evolutionary exercise is to pass on one’s genetic material, female virgin biases make sense. When a woman gets pregnant, she is 100% certain that 1/2 of the child’s DNA is hers. Men don’t have that level of certainty, and must depend upon trust. It is not surprising that societies have, almost universally, developed social mechanisms and biases to increase that trust. Some may point out that we now have DNA testing that is quite accurate. While true, that knowledge can’t replace evolutionary imperatives through reasoning. Also, I suspect women would be put off if husbands started demanding routine DNA tests.

      The article is interesting but, as demonstrated by the first two posts, it is also polarizing and a diversion from the real fight. That is to reform sex offense laws. Although prosecution and sentencing gender bias might present some constitutional equal protection issues, arguing that is a legal long shot. Let’s not divide ourselves along gender lines.

    • #55052 Reply

      There most certainly is gender bias. Those differences are cultural. Men and women define “attack” differently. Men are less likely culturally to admit vulnerabilities to attack. Thus men act differently and define successful attacks less often. Women on the other hand feel attacks in a more vulnerable way and complain about much technically less aggressive advances in behavioral terms. A pinched\slapped breast or butt equates differently depending on context AND gender roles ( as culturally defined)

      Too suggest women’s role in leadership hasn’t played a huge role in the rise of the nanny state ignores a plain political reality. Men outnumber women on the SORs, and civilly committed, yet social access to youngsters is vastly in favor on women, per traditional gender roles.

    • #55063 Reply
      Michael McKay
      Michael McKay

      I would just like to say that my intent in writing this article was most certainly NOT to divide anyone along gender lines, nor was it a call to make sentencing for either gender harsher or more lenient. My intent was to shine a light on how the news media shapes public opinion be using pejorative language in one case, and exculpatory language in the other, despite them being the SAME EXACT CRIME.

      Yes, our mission is to reform sexual offense laws. In order to do that, we need to educate and persuade the public. That job becomes an order of magnitude harder if the news media continues hyping, skewing, and misrepresenting the facts about sexual offenses. One way we can hold them accountable for these practices is by calling them on it when they do it.

      Again, it isn’t whataboutism or dividing people along gender lines. It’s about holding the news media accountable for reporting the facts about sexual offenses without injecting their biases (political, economic, gender, race, religious, whatever) into the headlines. I would hope we can all agree that that is a worthy goal.

      • #55072 Reply
        Ed C

        Michael, I certainly didn’t mean to imply any intent. I was just observing the result, and hoping our energy doesn’t get diverted from the real issues. I admit that I tend to agree with the article’s premise, although I have no hard data to support that impression. I merely have an opinion, perhaps bolstered by confirmation bias.

        I agree totally that we need to counter ignorance in the media, entertainment industry, etc. However, it is very important to have hard data when doing so. The implied burden of proof falls on those who dispute existing widespread false impressions. Personally, I intend to focus on areas where supporting data are overwhelming, such as recidivism and public danger.

        I’m still not certain how to respond to an outrageous early scene in the movie “Shot Caller.” When a probation officer (PO) arrived, he was told by a policeman that a “sex offender” was holding a 14-year-old girl in his house. When the PO knocked and called out the man’s name, three shots came through the door, hitting him in the vest. The PO heroically kicked down the door and shot the offender, while a girl was screeching off-screen. Given the facts we all know, that is virtually a zero probability scenario. It would be great to bombard the director with feedback.

        • #55476 Reply
          wrongfully registered person

          Yes this is a big problem for RSOs’ it makes my blood boil when I see this crap in movies and TV. It is as if they are defaming the character of 95% of the sex offender registrants and possibly the biggest creator of fear in the public. Help RSO boycott this director!

      • #56529 Reply

        You ( we) must persuade the women! The men will certainly follow! Ever been to “ladies night?” IMHO, the founders did not relieve ” the female population” of voting rights because they thought women unworthy OR unable or incapable of leading. They chose so for far more chivalrous and intimate understandings. Those reasons involved WAR, which used to be fought MAN TO MAN, and not with push button toys! The potential limit on WAR MONGERING BY UNCONSCIOUS LEADERS, was the loss of loved ones ( casulties) if overused via war would result in leadership’s collapse of popularity!

        Ask any coalition of women with children on the registry. I know quite a few who’s child barely escaped the fate( SOR) BY PLEA!.

    • #55076 Reply

      Do not let the powers that be keep changing the definitions of words or you will all wake up one day no longer free. The big gun here is Rape = forced sex or sex without consent. Consent that is not accepted by the government as actual government approved consent does not = Rape in reality. I cannot stress the importance of these thing enough. It diminishes the pain of the people who have been actually raped and increases the stigma of those who had permission from the person. I do not want to call men, or woman who had sex with under aged people rapists because they are not! This used to be sex, then it became statutory rape, now they want to call it rape I say NO! I have lived long enough to watch the words change, and I know that there is a motivation that makes these changes and it does not care about the kids. Look at the “victims” of these two very different crimes and tell anyone with a straight face that this word covers both instances. There are cases of the “victim” of underage consensual sex marrying the “criminal” when they get out of prison. As for bias I agree 100% that here is a horrible bias in regards to sexuality between men and women. 15 min of research and you can find 25 cases of it in head lines.

    • #55374 Reply

      Very well written and of course many correct examples of media bias. Most of these articles in the news are simply click bait. Shock is the intent, not reform or betterment of society.

    • #56170 Reply

      Yet, I am a woman and Inised to be a high school teacher and I had sex with a student and I didn’t benefit from this bias. I didn’t get off easy easy. No one held back from calling me a rapist and a 1000 other worse things. I’m a just as “registered” as the next guy. I too must slog my way through the daily humiliation and ostracism of life after a felony sex offense. Because I’m a “sex offender,” my husband and child experience the same collateral consequences as the families of the men labeled “sex offenders” do. There are female ex-teachers, like myself, who support the work of NARSOL. I for one consider myself on equal ground with anyone who has been forced to register. Please don’t imply that my life is any less ruined than any one else who is on the registry because I’m a female and used to be a teacher so you assume I received the kid glove treatment. Let’s not divide ourselves because of labels that media may or may not have slapped on any one of us. Isn’t this all about fighting against the very concept of being labeled?

Viewing 8 reply threads
Reply To: Gender Bias in Sex Crime Reporting
We welcome a lively discussion with all view points provided that they stay on topic - keeping in mind...

  • *You must be 18 or older to comment.
  • *You must check the "I am not a robot" box and follow the recaptcha instructions.
  • *Your submission must be approved by a NARSOL moderator.
  • *Moderating decisions may be subjective.
  • *Comments arguing about political or religious preferences will be deleted.
  • *Excessively long replies will be rejected, without explanation.
  • *Be polite and courteous. This is a public forum.
  • *Do not post in ALL CAPS.
  • *Stay on topic.
  • *Do not post contact information for yourself or another person.
  • *Please enter a name that does not contain links to other websites.

Your information:

<a href="" title="" rel="" target=""> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <pre class=""> <em> <strong> <del datetime="" cite=""> <ins datetime="" cite=""> <ul> <ol start=""> <li> <img src="" border="" alt="" height="" width="">