How The Mrs Robinson Effect Is Harmful To Child Sex Abuse Survivors

A leading criminology expert has warned of the “Mrs Robinson” effect, where adult women who engage in sexual behaviours with a young male are seen as less harmful or even fantasy-like.

Taking the name from the classic 1967 film The Graduate, the Mrs Robinson effect can be deeply harmful to victims of child sexual assault where the perpetrator is a woman.

“In instances where cases are portrayed with sympathetic or fantasy-like tones, this can be particularly problematic,” said Dr. Lara Christensen from the University of the Sunshine Coast.

“Members of the public may misinterpret these cases as being less severe. Victims [may also] forgo the emotional support and intervention that they may require because they might feel that individuals will not take their disclosure seriously.

“Further, when these victims do not disclose, there are female perpetrators who avoid consequences.”

Recently, the United States has been gripped by the case of a teacher who admitted performing oral sex on a 14-year-old boy, but avoided jail and was permitted to keep her teaching licence. Closer to home, a former house mistress in NSW was given a suspended sentence after pleading guilty to sexual intercourse with a number of the students, aged between 15 and 17.

But one of the most famous cases was that of primary school teacher Mary Kay Letourneau, who was convicted of child rape after her sexual relationship with her sixth-grade student was revealed.

Mary Kay LeTourneau listens to testimony during a court hearing in Seattle. Photo: AAP.

A new documentary about Letourneau, the scandal, and her decades-long relationship with her former student, the now 34-year-old Vili Fualaau, promises to “set the record straight”.

In the documentary, Mary Kay Letourneau: Autobiography, Letourneau claims there “wasn’t anything going on at all” when Fualaau was her student, and that their relationship started when the two were taking classes at the same community college.

“Am I sorry he’s the father of my children and the man of my life?” Letourneau says in the documentary.

“No, I’m not.”

Mary Kay Letourneau in the upcoming documentary. Photo: A&E.

Individuals do have the right to tell their story, said Christensen, but she expressed concerns about the possible flow-on effects of the documentary airing.

“I think we should take this opportunity to reflect and challenge any misconstrued beliefs that we may hold on the topic of female child sexual offenders in general, including embellishments of fantasy,” she said.

Research indicates that child sexual abuse perpetrated by women can be just as psychologically damaging for the victim as abuse perpetrated by men, and in some cases just as physically harmful.

But separate research with members of the public reflects a gender bias where female perpetrators are less harmful, more sympathetic, and in some cases, like a fantasy.

A study by Charles Sturt University asked individuals to read two hypothetical scenarios about a student-teacher relationship, where everything was the same except for gender.

1997: Mary Kay LeTourneau, 34, holds the baby, fathered by a 14-year-old boy she once taught as an elementary school teacher Photo: AAP

“Individuals reported greater anger and want for more severe consequences when the scenario involved a male teacher and a female student as opposed to a female teacher and male student,” said Christensen.

In fact, it’s thought that women make up about 20 percent of predators in substantiated child sex abuse cases, according to recent research out of the United States published in the Journal of Child Sex Abuse, up from an estimated five percent in the 1990s and 2000s. And in these cases -- about 78 percent of them in fact -- a female abuser is their victim’s parent.

“Traditional sexual scripts suggested that females were carers, nurturers, and sexually passive,” said Christensen.

“In turn, the thought of females who sexually abuse children would have greatly challenged traditional sexual scripts many years ago.”

But attitudes are changing. Her research, published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, suggests that the views of frontline staff have changed dramatically over the last 20 years.

“It seems to suggest the gender of the offender is insignificant in how they perceive the case – if you are inappropriately dealing with a child, you are breaking the law,” she said.

“Similar to male offenders, they highlighted that female child sexual offenders have diverse motivations, come from various backgrounds, and there is diversity in the breadth and severity of the crimes they commit, ranging from compulsion, through to sexual interest, and also sadism.”

Further research is still needed, she said, but times are changing.

To speak to someone about child sex abuse, contact 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732, or find a list of state and territory support services here. If you are in distress, contact Lifeline in 13 11 14.

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Lead image: StudioCanal