The “permissive times” fallacy of sexual abuse

The recent breaking of the story of sexual abuse at the prestigious Horace Mann School in New York has brought a number of ugly spectres out of hiding. One nasty shocker is the high prevalence of teacher-student sex abuse, even in the “best” schools; an institution’s quality of education seems to be no guarantee of student safety from sex predators. But an even uglier ghost from the past is a fallacy that’s being trotted out, often in court, by the abusers in an effort to mitigate the gravity of the charges: namely, the idea that “things were different then, so what I did was really not so bad”.

While the 1960s and ’70s were, on the surface, a time of sexual revolution, that doesn’t mean it was okay to molest kids then, much less that anyone who did deserves to be let off the hook now. The sexual revolutions of the era were limited to consenting adults only. The age of consent was not abolished as a result, and neither was the understanding that pedophilia and pederasty were aberrant from a psychological, as well as a legal, standpoint. In Amos Kamil’s powerful piece that broke the Horace Mann story, it’s quite clear that the students did not freely pursue sex with their teachers in a sign of the seemingly unfettered times. On the contrary, they often warned classmates about the most obvious predators:

Shortly after my arrival, a new friend walked me around the school, pointing out teachers to avoid.

“What do you mean? Like, they’re hard graders?”

“No. Perverts. Stay away from them. Trust me.”

I heard about some teachers who supposedly had a habit of groping female students and others who had their eyes on the boys. I heard that Mark Wright, an assistant football coach, had recently left the school under mysterious circumstances. I was warned to avoid Stan Kops, the burly, bearded history teacher known widely as “the Bear,” who had some unusual pedagogical methods. Even Clark came in for some snickering: he had no family of his own, and he had a noticeably closer-than-average relationship to the Bear, another confirmed bachelor.

It was juicy gossip, of course, but not all that different from what already swirls around the minds of sex-obsessed high-school students. Certainly it wasn’t that different from what swirled around the hallways of typically homophobic high schools at the time, when anyone who was a bit different was suspected of being gay and any teacher who was gay was suspected of being a pedophile.

High schools were homophobic in the late ’70s and early ’80s…an era which was supposedly the high-water mark of sexual permissiveness and promiscuity. And kids were wary of teachers who came on to them, and characterizing them as “perverts”! So much for the “permissive times” excuse that was trotted out in a subsequent story by a long-retired Horace Mann teacher, who admitted to “having sex” with students, but disingenuously mischaracterized the whole business as freewheeling and consensual:

Mr. Lin was articulate in the interview, sometimes philosophical and a bit puzzled by the resurfacing of the past. “I’m surprised they remember,” he said, referring to the students. “It was all so casual and warm.”

The era had not yet come when a teacher would be viewed automatically with suspicion for inviting a student to his home. Sexual scandals in institutions like the Roman Catholic Church and Pennsylvania State University were still decades away. Mr. Lin himself said he had acted “occasionally out of impulse,” adding, “In those days, the ’60s and ’70s, things were different.”

But they were not so “different” for the kids. Then, as now, and as ever since time immemorial, students have been hurt by sexual abuse, even when the abuser’s attitude was “casual and warm” and the encounter did not seem forced or violent. The harm done by sexual abuse is not a product of permissive or repressive times; it was, is, and will always be the result of a gross power differential between adult and child, teacher and student. As long as those in power make sexual advances on those without power, those who are in their care, those to whom they are in loco parentis, as teachers are with students, the dynamic is one of abuse. There is nothing “casual and warm” about the memory of being on the receiving end of such a betrayal of care and trust.

Even if a student is legally old enough to consent, the fact that a teacher has the power to give or withhold grades, marks and credits should be grounds for keeping hands off as long as that student is attending that school. And when a student suddenly leaves school and shacks up with a married teacher whose own daughter is almost the same age as she is, the loco parentis factor takes on a dark, perverse overtone.

Jordan’s mother Tammie Powers is blaming Mr Hooker for pursuing her daughter and taking advantage of her.

She claims her daughter’s grades fell this year and she started to have panic attacks ‘from the stress’.

She said Jordan was always a good and ‘compliant’ daughter.

She told The Bee: ‘I was really, really careful. I wanted her to be safe. In hindsight, in retrospect, I should have looked at things differently.

‘She looked up to him. He was in the position of an educator, you don’t abuse your student. Period.

‘She’s still in high school. She still lives at home. She has a curfew. That’s not OK.’

It’s surely no coincidence that the teacher in this case was a repeat offender, having groomed and pursued at least one other under-age girl. Nor is it a coincidence that the girl in question was fatherless; her vulnerability made her an ideal “candidate” in the eyes of her quasi-paternal “lover”. Sadly, it appears that she has been sucked back into his clutches. It might be a long time before she realizes that she was, indeed, abused.

Just as it has taken a long time for Horace Mann’s sexual-abuse survivors to come forward to tell their bewildering tales of excellent, unorthodox teachers who were nevertheless pederasts. And of whom one has had the audacity to claim that “different times” made it somehow okay.

The only thing that has really changed with the times is how confident abuse survivors feel about coming forward; that has decidedly grown since sexual abuse has been reported more often in the media and to police. In a final irony, the really permissive times — when it is permissible to say “I was sexually abused”, instead of keeping a dirty little secret until the perpetrator is in his grave — have come long after the sexual revolution and the conservative backlash against it. And courts are increasingly throwing out the specious old “permissive times” defence, too. In that sense, at least, times have changed for the better.

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