Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 1, 2012

Gender a factor in CSC reactions


TRAVERSE CITY — A girl has sexual contact with an adult male, and the man is vilified, scorned by society for preying on such a young victim.

A woman has sexual contact with a boy, and somehow it's not so bad. In some circles, the boy even is encouraged to treat the incident like a "badge of honor."

Charles Koop is plenty familiar with those scenarios.

"Society treats young males who are involved with older women differently than they do when the victim is the female," said Koop, Antrim County's prosecutor. "There's this myth that it's a rite of passage, or that it does no harm to the boy."

The Grand Traverse community remains abuzz about Lisa Placek, a former Traverse City West Senior High School teacher and coach who faces a felony criminal charge after police said she had oral sex with a 15-year-old West sophomore boy in December.

Koop, who is not involved in the Placek case, believes it's just as harmful — or perhaps even more so — when the victim is a young male. Boys are more likely to taunt or joke with other boys about such behavior, he said, so the public humiliation often can be more intense.

Internet chatter suggests some people believe the West boy shouldn't be considered a victim if the act was consensual, and much discussion has centered on gender.

Local authorities believe society often views sex cases in a different light based on the victim's sex, for a variety of reasons. But the law is the law, and authorities said emotional damage usually occurs, regardless.

Male vs. female

Kelly Hall is president of the Traverse City Area Public Schools board of education. She knows the public sometimes reacts to sex cases differently based on gender, but strongly believes that shouldn't be the case.

"As a parent of a teenage boy and a teenage girl, I see no difference, and the law definitely does not categorize an alleged victim as male or female," she said.

Hall has heard and seen comments that suggest the West sophomore isn't a victim because he's a male or because he might have welcomed the act. She's "appalled" by that type of discussion and believes it might be attributed to social standards that champion male sexual accomplishments.

"Unfortunately, our society still has a lot of elements of sexism in it," she said.

Koop recalls cases in which judges denied bond for men who had illegal sexual contact with women but granted bond for women accused of similar acts. Judges and prosecutors are "reflections of society," he said, and he believes the public is conditioned to be more upset if the alleged victim is female.

"Females, historically, have been protected by males, or at least society thought that they needed protection," he said. "These are the vestiges of historical views of women."

Couple that with the notion that men should, for some reason, be rewarded for having sex with an older woman, especially a teacher, and views become even more skewed, Koop said. When a girl is the alleged victim, it's often dealt with in hushed tones and an appropriate sense of disgust.

When a young male is the victim, the incident often becomes the butt of jokes.

"How many times have you heard, 'Where were teachers like that when I was in high school?'" Koop said.

Erika Solomonson, a clinical therapist at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services in Traverse City, regularly counsels adolescents. A tremendous "gender bias" exists, she said, particularly when it comes to sexual promiscuity.

"For boys and men, it's a cool thing, it's OK, it's what's accepted," she said.

Boys have pressure to comply with those social norms, Solomonson said, and that can lead to troublesome situations. And despite assertions to the contrary, boys certainly can be victimized by females, she said, especially if their sexual partner is in a position of power.

"When you've got an adult, regardless of what the kid thinks they want or don't want, they're not in a position to make that decision," she said.

Boys also have a harder time reporting abuse, Solomonson said, in part because of those same gender biases. It's perfectly acceptable for a girl to report abuse, but a boy might get a sense of weakness or humiliation by doing so.

"They don't feel, or ... maybe have the social support, to report it as easy as a female might," she said.

No consent

A person under the age of 16 in Michigan can't legally consent to sexual activity, and another law makes it illegal for teachers to have sexual contact with students.

But some local social media commentators and others appear to suggest Placek's alleged actions shouldn't be criminal if the boy welcomed the contact.

Grand Traverse County Undersheriff Nate Alger said age of consent laws regarding sex are similar to laws that prohibit people from driving, drinking alcohol or doing other things until they've reached a certain age.

Teens might think they're plenty capable of making solid choices, but lawmakers know young people aren't emotionally equipped to make certain decisions for themselves, Alger said.

"Those types of standards are ... designed to protect them until they've had the life experience to make wise decisions, informed decisions," he said.

Koop said prosecutors who charge teens with crimes often come face-to-face with defense attorneys who contend their clients' actions were based on dumb, youthful decision-making. But teens in sex cases sometimes are characterized as being perfectly capable of making their own choices.

"The defense is that their minds aren't developed enough to make those decisions," Koop said. "It's funny how when it comes to sex, they're able to make those decisions."

Koop believes young people aren't capable of understanding the consequences of certain acts.

"Kids don't understand the ramifications that come along with the pleasures of sex," he said.

Hall agrees that young people — male or female — aren't always capable of sound decisions.

"These students are children, they are not adults ... and they warrant extra protection," she said.

Solomonson said studies show that young people's brains generally aren't developed enough for quality decision-making. Some teens are more equipped than others, but "the difference between 15 and 25 is huge."

"You're thinking moment-to-moment, day-to-day," she said. "You're not thinking how something is going to affect you in a week, in a month, in a year."