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The United States has seen a sharp increase in reports, arrests and media coverage of teacher sexual misconduct with students. A new study has examined the impact of the sex, sexuality and age of abusers on teachers’ perceptions of sexual misconduct. The study found that teachers’ responses to misconduct varied based on certain characteristics, which can influence whether victims report the misconduct.

The study, conducted by researchers at Prairie View A&M University and the University of Nevada, Reno, appears in Feminist criminology.

“Because the sexual abuse of a child or adolescent in any setting has significant psychological, emotional and physical consequences for the victim, the sexual misconduct of teachers is a serious public health problem,” said Kristan N. Russell, assistant professor of legal studies at Prairie. See A&M University, who led the study. “Yet very little research has been done to examine the factors that affect how these cases are viewed.”

Public perceptions matter, Russell argues, as they can contribute to the stigma experienced by victims, and also affect victims’ willingness to disclose or report these types of cases. Public perceptions also inform legal decision making regarding these cases.

The 495 respondents in the study were recruited through a crowdsourcing website in 2019. They were over 18 (the average age was 36) and were predominantly white (60%), male (60%) and heterosexual (74%).

Interviewees were asked to read one of eight randomly selected fictional newspaper articles describing the case of a local teacher who engaged in sexual misconduct with a 17-year-old student. The articles described forms of non-sexual contact (sending nude photos and sexting) and forced rape. Then the respondents answered questions about their perceptions of the case and their general attitudes towards such cases.

Articles varied by gender of teacher (male or female), gender pairing of teacher and student (opposite gender / heterosexual or same sex / homosexual) and age of teacher. (26 or 52 years old). The teacher’s photos, which were archival photos, varied by gender and age.

While the study found no evidence of significant interactions between gender, sexuality, and age, it found that each of these factors affected respondents’ perceptions. Specifically:

  • When the teacher was female, respondents perceived the relationship as less prejudicial to the student, the student more mature and responsible, and the relationship more acceptable.
  • Heterosexual couples were seen as more acceptable than same-sex couples, with the student being seen as more mature and responsible in heterosexual couples.
  • When the teacher was older, respondents perceived the teacher as more responsible and the student as having psychological problems contributing to the reasons for participating in the interaction. The teacher’s age was not significantly related to respondents’ perceptions of the impact of the relationship on the student.

The results suggest that the harmful aspects of sexual teacher misconduct can be minimized when the teacher is female, leading to underreporting of this type of misconduct by victims, the authors note. Additionally, gender matching affects perceptions, with heterosexual relationships being less likely to be reported than same-sex relationships. This illustrates the persistence of stereotypes that portray homosexuals as predators or pedophiles, and it too may help reduce disclosure by victims in an effort to avoid stigma.

“Our results can be used to develop trainings to educate teachers and students about factors that influence perceptions and may contribute to underreporting, and intervention and reporting strategies,” suggests Kjerstin Gruys, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Nevada, Reno, co-author of the study. “We hope that by educating people about what to know about laws and consent, and by allowing systematic and anonymous forms of reporting, students and staff can feel comfortable and safe. to report crimes. ”


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