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On TV, Teachers Molesting Students Is No Big Deal



A horrific trend in American society is the sexual molestation of students by their teachers.  While undoubtedly there have always been some such instances, in recent years the number of cases and – even more importantly – the attention they have been given in the media has increased.


The increased attention is a problem in itself. The very fact that such cases have been given increased prominence in the news means that to some extent consumers have become accustomed to hearing about the issue…and as a result they have, to some greater or lesser degree, been desensitized to it. Hearing about teacher-student molestation has become commonplace.


Whereas in the past such behavior would have been universally decried as aberrant and even perverted, today many media outlets treat news about child molestation with indifference, or at least with a decided lack of condemnation.


Inevitably, given the entertainment industry’s fascination with and overemphasis on sex – particularly sex involving teenagers – several TV dramas have recently incorporated teacher-student sex into their storylines.  And while straight news programs merely report on the issue, TV’s dramas sensationalize and, in some cases, even glamorize teacher-student molestation.


A few programs do treat teacher abuse of students as being negative, though even these use the issue in a highly sensationalistic manner. The first episode of Fox’s new drama Lie to Me involved the “human lie-detector” Cal Lightman and his team investigating the murder of a female high-school teacher, in which a male student was seen running from the crime scene. Cal’s team discovers that the male student had stalked the teacher, spied and taken photos of her through a window, and masturbated to fantasies of her, but did not have sex with her and did not kill her. An added fillip to the story is the revelation that the school’s male principal actually murdered the teacher – because the teacher had learned that the principal had molested a female student and gotten her pregnant.


Another surprise twist on the teacher-student sex theme was found on the November 11th, 2008 episode of the CW network’s teen soap 90210, in which rumors fly about Mr. Matthews’ supposed sexual relationship with new student Kimberly. Students chatter salaciously about the alleged molestation, text-messaging one another with statements like, “I saw Matthews doing it with new girl Kimberly in his car,” “Mr. Matthews has taken a student’s virginity,” and the response, “Has she tried to kill herself yet?”  The episode’s twist revelation is that Kimberly is actually an undercover policewoman, who is tracking the dealer supplying the 90210 students with drugs. Yet, for most of the show Mr. Matthews is considered to be a pedophile – and while ultimately it is revealed that he is not, the attitude taken by the teens throughout the episode is one not of revulsion but of acceptance, perhaps mixed with a bit of mild distaste.


Even this level of slight disapproval was missing from the treatment of teacher-student sex on CW’s other – and infinitely sleazier – teen-targeted soap Gossip Girl. On the February 2nd episode, bad girl Blair seeks vengeance on her new teacher Rachel, who has earned Blair’s enmity by actually daring to hold the teen to some standards in her schoolwork. In revenge, Blair accuses Rachel of being sexually involved with a student, Dan. Blair’s ploy works, and Rachel is fired. But the follow-up is even more irresponsible: when Dan goes to Rachel’s apartment to apologize for what has happened, Rachel suddenly kisses him.  Stating that “I don't teach at Constance anymore,” the teacher pulls her now-former student into her apartment. The viewer sees them tearing each other's clothes off while they kiss passionately, with Dan ending up on top of Rachel in bed.


This storyline is misbegotten on so many levels it is difficult to know where to begin in criticizing it. While Blair is a somewhat negative character, the show’s creators undoubtedly expect their teen viewers to sympathize with Blair in her struggles with a demanding teacher. Thus, getting a teacher fired by falsely accusing her of molesting a student is just another scheme. And hey, look! They ended up sleeping together anyway (of course they did – doesn’t everyone have sex with everyone else on TV shows?), so Blair really wasn’t wrong to do what she did. In fact, the viewer may conclude, her actions therefore perfectly acceptable.  To this may come the inevitable response, “It’s just a TV show! Teenagers don’t believe or imitate everything they see!” Doubtless not; but while teens may not imitate this precise scenario, the cumulative effect of watching such shows cannot help but lead to a worldview that sees teacher-student sex as common, and therefore unremarkable. And rather than showing the very real devastation such a false accusation could have on a real teacher’s career and life, Blair is permitted to get away with her lies unpunished, with no negative consequences. Such a portrayal is the height of irresponsibility.


Of course, for the ultimate in irresponsible treatment of teenage sexual themes, American programming yields to the trans-Atlantic hijinks of the British program Skins. Carried in the U.S. on cable network BBC America, Skins reveals a universe where teen sex is as common as breathing – and about as frequent.   Throughout the program’s first two seasons, teenager Chris was continually used for sex by his psychology teacher Angie. After their first sexual experience together, Angie tells Chris, This was a one-off. I don't have sex with my 17-year-old students. And you do know that this can never ever happen again.” She then follows this statement by pouncing on Chris and kissing him some more. Eventually, Chris meets Angie’s fiancé (who informs him that Angie has herpes); nevertheless, Chris continues to dream about more sex with his teacher. Skins’ second season also featured its own episode about a teacher falsely accused of sexually harassing a female student…though the viewer sees that he did harass a different female student.


A final instance of this disgusting trend occurred on the February 3rd episode of FX’s Nip/Tuck. This episode (which was named the PTC’s Worst Cable TV Show of the Week) featured a subplot in which a teacher who – but here’s the dialogue:


Mrs. Wells: “I was teaching second grade and this sweet eight-year-old boy walked into my homeroom and entered my heart—“


Sean: “You fell in love with an eight-year-old?”


Mrs. Wells: “No, of course not. We had a rapport. But then later when I was teaching seventh grade, and Ricky showed up in my class again—“


Ricky: “I was thirteen.”


Mrs. Wells: “He was very mature for his age... he seemed to understand me in a way no man ever had... do you believe in soul mates, doctor?”


Sean: “I believe little boys have crushes on their teachers, and that those teachers are supposed to have boundaries.”


Mrs. Wells: “But that's the thing about falling in love, there are no boundaries. My life was transformed…It was as if I finally found happiness and I was not going to let that go!”


So, Mrs. Wells continues, even though life “conspired against us,” she still succeeded in molesting little Ricky. After he turned 18 and she emerged from serving jail time for statutory rape, she married him. But in a “humorous” coda, Ricky later learns that Mrs. Wells is now having sex with his thirteen-year-old brother.


Of course, one really cannot expect that Nip/Tuck – easily the most depraved program on basic cable – will portray child molestation with any more condemnation than it has shown towards bestiality, incest and necrophilia (all of which have formed the basis of plots on the sick show).  But it may be a new low even for that program to portray sexual abuse as a jolly, humorous laugh-getter.


Extensive scientific research has demonstrated that teens are influenced by portrayals of sex on television.  One study even found that teens who watch portrayals of sex on TV are twice as likely to become involved in a pregnancy as those who do not. By their constant emphasis on sex, programs like Gossip Girl and Skins are already encouraging teens to have sex with one another. Now, with its largely approving portrayal of sexual abuse, TV may be encouraging those same teens to view teacher-student sex as just “something that happens.” Given the evidence that an increasing number of teachers actually are molesting their students today, the entertainment industry’s portrayal of teacher-student sex is akin to telling a woman that being raped is “no big deal.”  Television owes its teenage viewers better.

TV Trends: This column was compiled from reports by the Parents Television Council’s Analysis staff.


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