The Psychology of Sexual Abuse

A reporter from a local Delaware paper asked for my comments related to recent charges against a local high school teacher who had a sexual relationship with a 17 year old student.



What do you think drives or creates such relationships–for both the student and the adult? Is there a common factor?

It will vary from person to person. It’s highly personal, individual and complex. Sex is like that, if we’re honest and candid about it, at least with ourselves. There has to be a reason the adult would be looking for something like this in the student-teacher relationship. The idea of a power dynamic seems like it would have to be part of it. To the student, it could be a different kind of “high.” Not power so much as visibility. Someone who’s an authority who pays attention to you, and it feels good to be visible. Those are the first explanations I think about, although there surely could be many.

What kind of emotional intelligence/boundary training should be given to people working in schools? Should it vary depending on their job within the school?

I don’t think it’s something that can be intellectually taught. A teacher would not do something like this because he or she is honestly ignorant of the fact that this is a bad idea for a lot of reasons. I maintain that people know what they’re doing, a lot more than we realize. A teacher not having sex with a student? Come on, it’s just common sense. No seminar is going to prevent this from happening.

I suspect that some people like the danger, or the risk. To some, the danger of an emotional/sexual relationship makes it seem more exciting or tantalizing. Most don’t take it this far, and some don’t want this aspect in their romantic/sex lives at all. But in some the desire is there. This is why people who have extramarital affairs have them. Sure, it usually means they’re not quite happy with their existing marriage. But they also like the “danger” because it somehow, to them, seems more intimate. Think of two lovers running from an evil government, or other evil social forces, who try to drive them apart. Their love is stronger than those forces. This is romantic, right? We’re mostly a free society, so we don’t have that kind of thing to contend with (thank goodness). However, it’s also kind of boring — to some. They equate danger with intimacy.


What kind of policies should school administrators or counselors push for to protect both students and employees?

All you can do is uphold the rule of ‘no sex with students’ and hold people accountable for the rule. If people violate the rule, they should be held accountable. I worry about public schools, because there’s so much politics and unionization involved there that you perhaps cannot fire somebody until they have actually committed a felony. People who are responsible for running the schools should have leeway to fire people at the first sign of trouble. I once heard of a small private business where an employee got fired for bringing in inappropriate/sexual pictures to the staff. The owner just fired this person, as was his right. In a school, especially a public school, I don’t know how much leeway there is to exercise simple common sense. Anything to address that issue would be helpful.

What can parents do to teach their children about personal contact and boundaries with teachers, both in and out of school?

The most important thing a parent can do is create a psychological atmosphere where it’s ALWAYS ok to bring up ANYTHING. The rule in every household should be, “No question or comment, made privately at home, is ever a stupid comment. There are no stupid questions.” Common sense also dictates that young children be told that nobody has a right to touch them without their consent, and that if this ever happens they should of course tell the parents that it did. But let’s be realistic here. There’s a difference between a 17 year old and a 7 year old. I’m not condoning a teacher crossing that line with a student (who’s not yet officially of age), but I don’t see how whatever the parent said to the child of 7 or 8 would have had any bearing on this situation, once the young adult is 17 and has a mind of his or her own.
What can be the lasting impact on child?

It depends on the age, and it depends on the child. A child who is forced to tolerate inappropriate touching, or more, and feels he or she has to keep a secret and live in shame about it — this will have a lasting impact, or at least until the child can grow up and speak about it to someone, and see it for what it is. I’m certainly not going to say it has no impact on a child if he or she can speak about it, but given that sexual abuse does go on, the imperative is that children feel they can talk with adults about what’s happening, if it does. The child should see that the adult gets held accountable, to create a sense that justice and reason do exist in the world … or at least can.


Is there anything you would care to add or mention that you think is relevant?

I want to mention that there’s no reason an adult, who was victimized as a child, has to remain a permanent victim or feel permanently “damaged” because of what happened. Perhaps he or she will feel that way, but I question that it’s fair and reasonable (to oneself) to look at it this way. In a way, this is giving in to the victimization to let yourself feel like “damaged goods” because of bad or wrong judgment that someone inflicted on you when you were too young to have any judgment yourself. This is often where counseling goes with people, to help them come to see it this way. One of the biggest challenges in life is to face the day not as a victim, but as a competent and happy adult, whether one was victimized in the past, or not.