Two recent stories about sexual relationships between teachers and students have renewed the heated discussion about sexual maturity, teacher responsibility and the sexual abuse of children. Why the hype and hunger for details? What are we really interested in? In our condemnation of sexual misconduct are we really displaying sexual maturity?
When I was in high school in the early 80s, teacher student relationships were rife.
My art teacher (who one day heartbreakingly and carelessly told me my legs were like those of a soccer player) was living with a former Year 12 student. Our history teacher regularly declared his love for my best friend much to her disgust and derision, and I nursed a terrible longing for my English teacher. I recently met him again at a writer’s festival. He told me that he remembered both my ill-concealed crush and my vulnerability. He said that he was grateful that he was able to see that vulnerability; because he can’t imagine the regret he would feel now if he had acted like his colleagues.
At the heart of his decision to ignore my 15-year-old adoration, lies the meaning of what it is to be an adult. That we see something or someone we desire and that we are able to make a choice to forgo that desire for the safety and wellbeing of another. We are able to hold the vulnerability of others in a dutiful and responsible way. We can postpone not only desire, but also power. This is what separates us from animals and from children. It is the essence of real humanity.
Our fascinated responses to adult child relationships point to our confusion about what it means to be an adult, to our own struggles with sexuality, abuse and power, and to our sense that these relationships are often more complex than those of predatory sexual abuse and assault.
Many years ago, one of my friends was stood down from her 30-year teaching career for a relationship she had with a former student 20 years earlier. The relationship had been a long and loving one, and after years of subsequent friendship, the former student filed a complaint against my friend. She is now no longer teaching, is listed on the register of sex offenders, cannot work with young people ever again and is still fighting to regain her confidence.
At the time, neither she nor her fellow teachers were conscious of the exploitative nature of the relationship. Like my experience of high school, the concept of a duty of care to students was almost unheard of then, and teacher student relationships were regular occurrences. Over time, with a developing maturity and the changing consciousness of the times, my friend became aware and responsible for the fact of this former student’s vulnerability, and of the possibility that this relationship was a destructive one.
Psychosexual immaturity is the current explanation for a Victorian teacher’s decision to engage in a sexual relationship with a teenage student, and my friend believes it accurately describes her struggle with sexual maturity at the time of her relationship with a student. What it really means is that there is a lack of emotional maturity that leads us to feel and to act like a child or a teenager long past the time when we are chronologically so young.
There are many ways in which we interfere with the psychosexual development of children and young people, leaving them vulnerable to abuses of power, both as perpetrators and as victims. We can deny and pathologise our own sexuality as parents, choosing to make sex and the sexual body taboo subjects and shameful secrets. We can carry our own unexplored histories of sexual abuse into our relationships with our children, making the felt reality of sexuality one laden with shame. We can objectify and we can lie about sex, we can abuse others and ourselves and we can normalise power imbalances in our homes. And we can lead lives where there is no place for sexual expression at all.
There is more to the prevention of sexual abuse and exploitation than simply protecting children from the sexual advances of adults. We also need to make room for real sexual openness and acceptance in our homes and schools. In a sense what we do when we acknowledge and deal openly about sex with children and young people, is that we refuse to buy into the myth of the innocence of children, insofar as we take innocence to mean an absence of sexuality.
Often confused with our understanding of children’s vulnerability to adults in power, is our own discomfort with sex in education. There are literally hundreds of stories of teachers being stood down or disciplined for bringing sex into the classroom, whether it be the recent case of the Geelong teacher daring to have a public sexual life with a former student or Helen Garner being fired in 1972 for giving impromptu sex education lessons in a Year 7 classroom.
Perhaps our fascination with the current wave of stories featuring teacher transgression has as much to do with our own sexual confusion and struggle to mature as it does with our continuing desire for the safety of children.
ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.
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