Last month, I wrote about how the media and prosecution in the Michelle Carter trial capitalized on age-old misogynistic narratives about “sneaky” and “manipulative” women to secure the teen’s homicide conviction based on her words alone. This month, I visit another high-profile criminal defendant known for her beauty, one who inspired a fictionalized version in Alissa Nutting’s novel Tampa — deemed “the most controversial book of the summer” of 2013. Nutting was inspired by Debra Lafave, a teacher in Florida who made headlines for having sex with a 14-year-old male student in 2004. Nutting and Lafave attended high school together, which led Nutting to start thinking about female predators and how they’re portrayed in the media. The novel is told from the point of view of Celeste Price, a fictionalized Lafave, whom Jezebel called “a beautiful pedophile.” She’s also a sociopath.
In an interview that came out around the time Tampa was released, Jezebel asked Nutting — who thoroughly researched Lefave’s and similar cases — whether she thought female sexual predators are treated differently. She responded unequivocally in the affirmative. “I think female predators tend to be sexually objectified and obtain a sort of celebrity status,” said Nutting. “[Men aren’t] sensationalized or sexualized in the same way.” (Confirming her point, as Broadly pointed out in a 2015 article, a Google search for “female sex offender” yields the following: “Hot for Teacher 2010: The 42 Sexiest Female Sex Offenders” and “Top 10 Sexiest Female Sex Offenders.”)
Lafave was famous for her bright-blonde hair, large blue eyes, and former career as a bikini model and for her attorney’s argument that putting Lafave in prison would be like “throwing meat to the lions.” (In 2006, the Guardian published a piece on the case entitled “Too Pretty for Prison.”) While Lafave’s original charge carried up to 30 years in prison, prosecutors offered her a deal: In exchange for pleading guilty to two counts of lewd and lascivious battery, Lafave received three years of house arrest, seven years of probation, and no jail time. This result was striking compared to fellow Floridian Ethel Anderson, who was sentenced to 38 years in prison for sexually assaulting her student, or Toni Lyn Woods, who was sentenced to 20 years in West Virginia for the same.
Lafave’s case ignited a debate about whether society is willing to punish sexual misconduct where the defendant is a conventionally attractive woman. Doesn’t every teenage boy fantasize about having sex with his hot blonde teacher?
Christopher Anderson, board member of New York organization Male Survivor, told me that female sexual perpetrators are prosecuted less frequently than their male counterparts, and when they are, they tend to receive more lenient sentences. As evidenced by the the differing sentences outlined above, Anderson further told me that “attractive” female defendants receive more lenient sentences for misconduct than less-attractive ones. Moreover, “press coverage of female teachers abusing male students uses language that minimizes the crime” — what’s likely to be described as rape or sexual abuse when the victim is female turns into a “relationship” or “romp.”
Last fall, an Atlantic article announced, based on a study led by a team of researchers at the UCLA School of Law, that female sexual predators are more common than one might expect. Self-proclaimed “masculinity expert” Andrew Smiler, PhD, told me that our society has trouble seeing women as sexual predators for several reasons. First, stereotypes paint women as caregivers and men as “strong and mostly invulnerable,” so “being the victim of any crime that isn’t committed by another man challenges our notions of male strength.” We also expect men to initiate sex, so it’s difficult for us to imagine the reverse. Finally, Smiler told me, our assumption is that men always want sex. We have trouble envisioning a scenario in which a man has sex against his will. As current President Donald Trump said when asked about Debra Lafave on a 2004 radio show, “I know a lot of guys who are trying to date her right now, Don.” He proceeded to argue that the sexual assault may have been beneficial to the victim: “It might have given him confidence, actually.”
Until as late as 2013, the laws reflected these views: The FBI defined rape as something that can only happen to women: “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will” (emphasis added). Now it’s defined in gender-neutral terms: “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part of object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”
So we have trouble seeing women as sexual predators. You may be thinking: Who cares? But in fact, the misconception both reflects and furthers gender inequality.
Lara Stemple, director of the Health and Human Rights Law Project at UCLA Law and leader of the aforementioned study, told me that “gender stereotypes dictate that women are vulnerable and need of protection,” while men are “sexually insatiable.” Anderson echoed: The “underlying assumptions” — that “women can’t be powerful, men are sloppy/lazy/unworthy of being sexually desired” — reflect “extraordinarily toxic ideas that infect our culture.”
Sexual assault specialist Holly Richmond, PhD, told me that our society has trouble seeing women as sexual predators “because…we can’t even see them as sexual beings other than how they have been defined by the traditional male gaze.” She continued, “Women can be sexy, but when it comes to female pleasure for it’s own sake (not her partner’s) and for her own sexual self-efficacy, we tend to take that much less seriously. To give a female sexual predator that much sexual power is culturally antithetical to what we’ve been taught.”
Given these assumptions, Stemple told me, “Women who perpetrate sexual abuse are more likely to be portrayed as misguided than predatory.”
Nutting told Jezebel that this double standard perpetuates the “harmful patriarchal stereotype that female sexuality [is] simply there for male use with no agency of its own, that it doesn’t hold power.” Our culture sends a message to men, she says, that any time you have the option to have sex with an attractive woman, you have to take it. But for women, you always have to “guard yourself against it.” A la Trump’s take, a hot woman exists only to sexually gratify the man — our inability to see her as a predator stems from our larger views that women lack sexual agency.
In Tampa, ironically it’s the very gender inequality that renders women as powerless sexual objects that drives Celeste to prey on the vulnerable (a provocative but nonetheless fascinating premise). Teenagers are uncorrupted by the corrosive influences of the patriarchy. They are in awe of Celeste and haven’t yet learned to degrade her. “I remember taking my shirt off for a friend’s younger brother in college. The way his eyes lit up like he was seeing snow for the first time.” Celeste finds sex with adult men, such as her husband (whom she married mostly to “avoid the frenetic pace at which idiot men would hit on me during daily errands”), to be nauseating. She drugs him to avoid having sex with him — Celeste is the self-proclaimed “zookeeper” to his “tranquilized bear.”
I asked Anderson and Richmond whether there might be some truth behind Nutting’s bold premise — the notion that female sexual predators might be acting (inappropriately, of course) in response to being weakened by the patriarchy. Richmond called Celeste’s motives “a stretch.” Likewise, Anderson told me, “I’ve never heard of any case where the person engaging in abusive conduct is attracted to a given person’s relative innocence of character in the way the novel portrays is as you’ve laid it out.”
Anderson said what’s more common is “a sort of emotional fantasy played out where…female perpetrators tend to focus their energy on connecting with a specific target and ‘convince’ themselves they are actually building a real emotional love bond with the child they are abusing.” He told me this situation differs from “serial male offenders, who don’t necessarily make the same kind of emotional bonds over the long term with victims.” (Anderson stressed, however, that these scenarios should be “heavily asterisked to say that every case is unique.”) His characterization of female sexual assault is admittedly different from that explored in Tampa, in which Celeste’s draw to her victims seems more lascivious and less emotional, though I couldn’t help but notice that Anderson’s description mirrored the foregoing stereotypes: Male predators are motivated exclusively by sexual desire; female predators by emotional connection. In this sense, Tampa got something right: Criminal narratives are often socially constructed.
Echoing the scholars, Nutting told Jezebel that society is “most comfortable talking about female sex when it’s in the confines of romantic love.” She said she deliberately resisted this narrative, which is “precisely the reason that it’s hard for us to see females as sexual predators with male victims in the first place in our society.” Nutting posited that Tampa would have been received as less “controversial” if she “spoke about the ways or reasons the woman herself is a victim (which we care about far less, if at all, when the offender is male), showed her being contrite and ashamed, took the focus off the sex or belittled its harm and violence.” But she didn’t want to rewrite the version of the story that we see time and again on the news. Instead, Nutting wanted Celeste to be salacious, assertive, and emotionally cold — a satirical character designed to challenge gender assumptions.
Stemple told me that society needs a wider understanding of sexual perpetration that relies on evidence rather than gender stereotypes. “We can be both gender inclusive, taking into account all perpetrators regardless of their sex, and also gender sensitive, understanding that women and men are influenced by gender norms and are often differently situated on account of this.” Unless we can recognize women’s “complex, sometimes contradictory, attitudes and behaviors,” we will continue to perpetuate the notion that women are “weak and one-dimensional,” and that female sexuality exists only to satisfy male desire.