Beyond Predators and Victims: The
Not-so-Sensational Story of Debra Lafave and Her 14-Year-Old
Boy: So what time are you planning on heading over?
Debra: Are you sure? Like, I just feel... I mean, I don't want you lying to your mom. I mean, it's like...
Boy: No, it's all right. She's gone in a sales meeting, like all day.
Debra: You're sure?
Debra: All right. Promise?
Debra: Pinky promise!
Debra: Say pinky promise.
Boy: Pinky Promise.
Debra: All right. Well, tell me a time.
On June 21, 2004, police in Temple Terrace, Florida, a suburb of Tampa, arrested Debra Jean Beasley Lafave, then 23 years old, a strikingly attractive remedial reading teacher at Greco Middle School. She was charged with four counts of lewd and lascivious battery against a minor and one count of lewd and lascivious exhibition.
Lafave had been engaged in a brief but consuming sexual relationship with one of her 14-year-old students. She and her student had sex five times, all within a week of the time Lafave was arrested. They had sex at Lafave's home, in her classroom, and three times in the back of her SUV while the car was being driven by the student's intrigued and impressed 15-year-old cousin.
"It was awesome!" the student exulted unambiguously to his cousin immediately after one of the sexual drive-arounds, while Lafave was in the bathroom. Sex with Lafave was the first time the student had had intercourse, according to his statement to police.
Awesome or not, Lafave could have been sentenced to up to 75 years in prison and fined $50,000 if convicted on all five counts. Her lawyer, John Fitzgibbons, initially announced to a fascinated world press that he planned to enter an insanity plea in her defense. "Debbie has some profound emotional issues that are not her fault," he explained. Lafave's older sister and close confidante, five months pregnant, had been killed by a drunk driver in an automobile accident three years earlier. According to testimony by Lafave's mother, in the wake of her sister's death "Debbie [has been] pretty much of a basket case."
In the end, Fitzgibbons chose to negotiate a plea bargain rather than go to trial. Neither Lafave, nor the student, nor the student's mother, nor County Prosecutor Mike Sinacore, wanted to endure the circus of a media-blitz trial. On November 22, 2005, Hillsborough County Circuit Court Judge Wayne Timmerman accepted a plea bargain agreement negotiated by Fitzgibbons and Sinacore, an agreement that set off a new flurry of press excitement because it allowed Lafave to avoid serving any prison time. Lafave, her lawyer argued, was simply too attractive to be put in jail.
"To place Debbie into a Florida state women's penitentiary," Fitzgibbons said, "to place an attractive young woman in that kind of hellhole, is like placing a piece of raw meat in with the lions. I don't think Debbie could survive it."
Judge Timmerman apparently agreed.
Lafave pleaded guilty to two counts of lewd and lascivious battery for which she was sentenced to three years of partial house arrest (a nightly curfew from 10 pm to 6 am), followed by seven years of probation. She was also required to complete an outpatient sex offender program, pay for the cost of any psychological treatment for the student, avoid contact with the student, stay away from places where kids congregate, and not possess any pornographic, sexual, or obscene material.
All parties to the case were pleased. The student's mother, in particular, was happy to see an end to the media celebrity that she seemed to feel was more of a problem for her son than the fact that he had had sex with Lafave.
"It's a very big distraction for him at school," the mother told Tampa television station WTSP. "He just wants to focus on school and having fun with his friends, and just living a normal life."
Speaking to the Lakeland (Florida) Ledger she repeated, "He deserves to have a chance to live a normal life, graduate high school and then move on to college without everyone knowing him as the 14-year-old boy in the Lafave case."
Asked how she felt about Lafave, the mother responded that she had forgiven her son's teacher, adding, "I pray she gets the help she needs."
Indeed, no one involved in the case seems to wish Debra Lafave any harm. Her husband, Owen, to whom she been married only 11 months when she became involved with the student, told Larry King, "I don't wish her any ill will.... She was an excellent teacher. She was very well respected. She had received awards based on her teaching ability.... She's very compassionate. She's a very sweet person, intelligent and obviously beautiful. There's a lot of great qualities about Debbie. That's why I married her.... I hope she doesn't go to jail." He was, however, suing her for divorce.
Unfortunately for everyone who wanted to put the tempestuous affair behind them, the Hillsborough County plea bargain was not to be the end of Debra Lafave's legal story. Because Lafave and her student had sex in two counties, Marion County (Ocala) Circuit Court Judge Hale R. Stancil needed to approve Lafave's plea bargain as well.
On December 8, Stancil, known for being tough on defendants, rejected the plea bargain, and set April 10, 2006, as the date for Lafave's trial. Beauty, it seems, can cut both ways in courts of law. Ocala defense attorney Charles Holloman was not surprised by Stancil's stern ruling.
"Every time I have had an attractive white woman [client] and there has been a chance of jail time," he told The Ocala Star-Banner, "Stancil throws her under the bus."
* * * * *
The case of the beautiful young teacher and her enthusiastic, even-younger student has captured the erotic imagination of a good deal of the national and international press, and the erotic fantasies of a good number of American males as well.
Google Zeitgeist reports that, for the weeks ending November 28, December 5, and December 12, 2005. Debra Lafave ranked first, sixth, and fifth among all gaining Google queries -- outpolling such then-hot topics as Xbox 360, box office hit "Chronicles of Narnia" and Oscar hopeful "Brokeback Mountain."
If surfing the extensive network of Debra Lafave-infatuated websites and chat rooms provides any indication of how American men feel about Debra Lafave having sex with her student, the feelings of American men can be summed up in one, rather simple, collective thought: "Where was Debra Lafave when I was in junior high school?" Lafave's young student, rather than being perceived as the victim of a predatory adult, seems to have become one of the most envied males in the country.
"If they had 'em like that when I was in school I would have failed the eighth grade, several times, on purpose!" exults one respondent in The Boston Herald's Talk Back section
"All of my female teachers in high school looked like Ernest Borgnine... This kid hit lotto!" says another.
"Remember when you were in high school, fantasizing about that one afternoon where your hot Spanish teacher would keep you after class got out and the two of you would have wild, passionate sex right on her desk? Well this kid actually fucking did it! He had sex with the hot teacher!" swoons a blogger on ThisIsWhatWeDoNow.com
"This lucky 14-year-old little bastard got to knock boots with his fantasy teacher," notes a blogger in The Toronto Globe and Mail. "Lucky little [expletive deleted]."
Sensational stories about Debra Lafave and her student quickly spread throughout the national and international press, focusing as much on Lafave's appearance as anything else. Photos of a bikini-clad Lafave sitting rather demurely astride a motorcycle were publicized widely. Tales of a sexual relationship between her and another woman were publicized, denied, and confirmed.
Officers of the Temple Terrace Police Department proved to be as susceptible to Debra Fever as their non-professional counterparts. While Lafave was in custody, three detectives from her case arranged to have a series of nude photographs taken of her -- close-ups of her genitals (described meticulously in one police report as "a shaved pubic area leaving a strip of hair") while Lafave was in stirrups. The officers allegedly intended to shoot a series of close-ups of her breasts as well, but were interrupted before that could occur.
It was only when Lafave's attorney learned of the photos and complained to Judge Timmerman that the photos were seized and sealed. Under Florida's liberal public access laws, they would otherwise have been available to any and all interested parties, which is to say they would have been all over the Internet.
"The officials from the Temple Terrace Police Department took photos of the genital area of my client," Fitzgibbons angrily told an attentive and fascinated press. "Very explicit photos, pornographic photos, and then attempted to photograph her breasts.... She's not even safe with the police."
The media, delighted to have new lurid details in the case, were given yet more grist three days later when one of the detectives who authorized the photos of Lafave was arrested during a sting operation by Tampa police, allegedly offering a woman $140 for sex.
* * * * *
Public appreciations of the supposed good fortune of Lafave's 14-year-old student turn out to be very much in tune with the student's own view of his situation. Statements taken by police from both the student and his cousin show that both boys considered themselves to be blessed, and certainly far from victimized, by their contact with Lafave, at least until they got caught.
In his statement to police, the student notes that he was pleased when Lafave began paying special attention to him toward the end of the school year. At first, he told police, he and Lafave had what he called a "hi/bye" relationship. The student told police he sat next to his attractive teacher on one school field trip. "They talked," he said, "nothing exciting. Just them getting to know each other." The two got to know each other more at a student's party on the last day of school, to which a number of teachers were invited. Lafave was the only teacher who showed up.
Lafave invited the student to spend time in her classroom after school, which he often did. She gave the student her cell phone number. One time, in her classroom after school, Lafave told the student "she had been thinking about him a lot and had feelings that made her smile when she thought of him." They kissed for the first time.
The student called his cousin and close friend to tell him about the "hot teacher" at school who liked him. The cousin told the student he didn't believe him. The student said he would prove it.
Thus it was that, when the student and Lafave decided to have sex for the first time, the student arranged for them to first pick up his cousin in Ocala -- 100 miles away -- and bring him along to Lafave's apartment in suburban Tampa. The cousin watched a video downstairs while Lafave and the student had sex in her upstairs bedroom (oral sex -- Lafave was having her period). Afterwards, all three watched television together before taking the cousin home to Ocala. On the way back to Ocala, the student and Lafave had oral sex again in the back of the car, while the cousin drove. Early the next week, Lafave and the student arranged for the cousin to drive Lafave's SUV around Ocala on two separate occasions while the student and Lafave had intercourse in the back.
Indeed, the student and Lafave only had sex one time without the cousin. That was in Lafave's classroom when Lafave "sat down next to [the student] and asked him if he wanted to have sex. He told her he did. While he was sitting on the couch she straddled him, facing him, and asked him if he was sure. He said yes."
Both boys were clearly excited by the whole caper. Their statements to police are peppered with references to "hot teacher" Lafave. It was when the cousin's mother overheard her son excitedly telling a friend about the student and his "hot teacher" that she first got wise to what was going on. She confronted the cousin who first lied but then confessed. The cousin's mother called the student's mother who confronted the student. The student admitted that he had been having sex with Lafave. Presumably he didn't tell his mother how "hot" Lafave was, or how "awesome" the sex. The student's mother called the police and the party was definitely over.
Up against both his mother and the Temple Terrace police, the student cooperated in trying to get Lafave to incriminate herself on the phone. The student called Lafave several times in the next few days, asking questions designed to get her to acknowledge that they had had sex, while the police recorded the calls. Perhaps the student was bad at entrapment. Perhaps he didn't really want Lafave to get busted. In any case, Lafave does not say anything unambiguously incriminating on the phone. Portions of the tape, released by the police, quickly became available on the Internet, along with a complete police transcript of the recorded calls.
On the tape, Lafave sounds surprisingly young, even younger than the student. She expresses concern for the student several times, not wanting to put him in a situation where he has to lie to his mother for them to be able to meet. She asks him, "Are you ok?" and "What's the matter?" and "Did you miss me last night?" She calls him "honey" and "my dear."
She asks if he enjoyed himself the last time they had sex. (He assures her he did.) She asks, "Are you freaking out?" and "Everything's good with you?" and "Everything's cool?" She asks about his well-being so often that the student gets perturbed. "I'm just making sure you're all right," she explains.
She talks about how she called the student's mother the night after their last sexual encounter, apologizing for keeping him out late. She tells how she told her husband "pretty much the whole story... except, you know, why we went to Ocala." She notes that her husband "actually gave me advice on what to say to your mom." She asks if the student had gotten to play in the school basketball game after their sexual encounter (he did), and if he had had a hard time concentrating on the game. ("A little," the student admits, adding, "I did pretty good though.")
* * * * *
While it's hard to compose any meaningful or detailed picture of the quality of the relationship between Debra Lafave and her student, what's striking about the information publicly available is the extreme innocence and naiveté of both parties, particularly Lafave. In the public mind, sex between teachers and adolescents is assumed to be an interaction between a manipulative, predatory adult and an innocent, traumatized victim. Transcripts of the phone calls between Lafave and her student, statements given to police by the student and his cousin, and Lafave's childlike voice on the tape recordings, make it difficult to view Debra Lafave as a devious predator. If anything, she seems astoundingly immature, and remarkably unaware of the gravity of her situation, or the dire consequences that will result if she is discovered. She seems genuinely concerned about the student's frame of mind, and checks with him several times about whether he's sure he wants to have sex, or to see her again.
Beyond the glare of media sensationalism, the Debra Lafave story raises a number of complex questions about sexual relationships between teachers and adolescent students and, more broadly, about sex between adolescents and all adults.
What is the nature of the sexual relationships that occur between adolescents and their teachers? Are most of them intentionally manipulative and/or abusive, or are they, by and large, innocent, if misguided? Are relationships between female teachers and male students categorically different in tone from those between male teachers and female students? What about same-sex relationships between teachers and students?
Are these relationships inherently harmful to the students? When there is emotional damage to the student, is that damage a consequence of the sexual contact itself, a consequence of the guilt and secrecy connected with having a sexual relationship disapproved by society and peers, or a consequence of the emotional storms generated when such relationships become publicly known and subject to the glare of media attention? Is it possible that some relationships of this sort might actually be beneficial to the student?
Research suggests that sexual relationships between adolescents and their teachers are surprisingly common, and often difficult to categorize as simple sexual abuse -- evincing immature, reckless tenderness and infatuation more than any kind of obvious power manipulation.
A 2003 study by Charol Shakeshaft, analyzing data from an extensive earlier survey of high school students by the American Association of University Women, found that fully 6.7% of the high school students had had relationships involving physical sexual contact with one or more teachers. The study also found that 43% of the teachers involved in those relationships were female.
An equally surprising study by Temple University psychology professor Bruce Rind and others, published in 1998 in Psychological Bulletin, reported that sexual contact between adults and minors is extremely diverse in nature and spirit. The study, a statistical analysis of 59 surveys of college students who had been sexual with adults while they were minors, found that the assumed negative effects of sexual contact between adolescents and adults are "neither pervasive nor typically intense," especially for boys.
Equating "the repeated rape of a 5-year-old girl by her father with the willing sexual involvement of a mature 15-year-old adolescent boy with an unrelated adult" makes little sense, say Rind and his co-authors. Simplifications such as these, they argue, only interfere with the development of effective responses to both truly abusive adult-child sex and arguably consensual sex between adolescents and adults.
Judith Levine, author of Harmful to Minors, a thoughtful and comprehensive look at the effects of public policy on the sexuality of children and adolescents, notes that "almost all of the teachers [who engage in sexual relationships with high school students] are young. They're not that far from the kids in terms of life experience. The impulsiveness is typical of people that age. It makes perfect, non-pathological sense that they should be attracted to these students. It's probably unethical, but its not pathological, and certainly shouldn't be criminal."
* * * * *
When I was in high school, there was one teacher who stood out from all the others in a way that I'm imagining Debra Lafave stood out from the other teachers at Greco Middle School. She was young, attractive, vivacious, full of energy that she expressed with her body as well as with her mind. On top of everything else, she didn't maintain the professional aura that seemed so much a part of all the other teachers' personalities. She was down-to-earth, she talked to us students about her personal life, she didn't create a sense of separation between herself and us.
She was, well, sexy, although I never would have thought of her in that way then. I don't think any of us would have thought of her in those terms then. But we all knew that there was a special energy about her and we enjoyed being near her so we could feel the radiance of it, share it, reflect it, imitate it to some degree.
She had a boyfriend, I think he was her fiancé, whom she adored. She was quite open in talking to us about their relationship, about their being in love, about places they would go and things they would do together. Through her we got a sense of what it was like to be 25 years old, in love, and excited about life.
I remember one time when Miss Klein (not her real name) was telling a group of us, with much gesturing and excitement, about a restaurant she and her boyfriend had gone to over the weekend. It was an Italian place, she told us, and as you entered there was a big fountain with a statue in the middle of it, a statue of a cherub, and the cherub was holding his penis and the water in the fountain poured out of his penis. She thought the fountain was the coolest thing in the world, and of course we all did too. We laughed. We looked at each other with wide eyes. Miss Klein was talking to us excitedly about outrageous fountains full of peeing cherubs!
We all knew that she enjoyed our company, enjoyed joking with us, enjoyed telling us stories, enjoyed telling us stories about sexy things, enjoyed hearing our stories, enjoyed us. And I knew that, of all the students, I was her favorite. There was something special between us, powerful and unnamed, a vibrant mutual appreciation. It was exciting and it felt good.
Fortunately, it was a time before concern about teenage-adult sex had been raised to the level of mass hysteria. As a result, Miss Klein was able to be personal and real and vibrant and sexy and emotionally expressive to me and to many of the other students in a way that would be professionally dangerous today.
I remember at least one time when Miss Klein came to my house after school. I have no idea how she came to be in my house, but that's where she was. The one thing I remember about that time is that I took the opportunity to play her the music that I found the most thrilling in all the world -- the pure liquid voice of Joan Baez, and the majesty of Handel's Messiah. Playing that music for Miss Klein was my unconscious, unspoken way of showing her what I had discovered so far about the wonder of ecstatic feeling. Somehow I knew that she would appreciate what this was about for me.
We lay side by side, stretched out on the living room carpet, close in front of the speakers, sharing a feeling that I would later learn to literalize and express explicitly as sex. Miss Klein grinned at my passion for the music and I felt confirmed, felt that she understood and respected my pubescent passion, and could see that my passion was not entirely unrelated to the passion she experienced in her life, in her body, with her fiancé, even though it expressed itself in very different ways.
Miss Klein and I never expressed our appreciation for each other, or our shared appreciation for passionate life, in any kind of directly sexual way. I was very young at 15, had not so much as kissed a girl in a sexual way. It never would have occurred to me that the bond I felt with Miss Klein had anything to do with sexual attraction, although I can clearly see it in retrospect. I certainly never experienced any kind of sexual energy coming from Miss Klein toward me.
But what if she and I had taken our mutual excitement and appreciation into the realm of physical sex? What would have changed for me, in terms of my subsequent sexual development, self esteem, personal identity, and experience? What if I had been more mature sexually, more interested in physically exploring my sexual feelings, as Debra Lafave's student clearly was? Would the forbidden nature of sexual contact with an older person, with a teacher, have shrouded any sexual activity in guilt and shame, or would the outrageousness of such a connection have been a source of additional excitement and attraction? Would a sexual overture from a teacher have felt like an intrusion, even if she genuinely cared about me and understood the distance between her life situation and mine? Would it have felt like a demand that I could not say no to? Or might I have experienced it as a positive statement about my desirability, a confirmation to hold up against sexual self-doubt as I began to be sexual with other people my own age?
I have heard many stories from people whose first sexual experience was as teenagers with adults, many of whom have said that these experiences taught them things and gave them positive feelings about themselves that served them well throughout their lives. One woman friend talks of a middle-aged man who hung out in the park next to her high school when she was a girl. All the girls at her school knew that this man enjoyed initiating girls into sex. Those girls who wanted to be initiated by him would approach him in the park and see what would develop. My friend had her first sexual experience with this man who, she says, was sensitive, caring, considerate, and knowledgeable. She credits her still vibrant sexual relationship with her longtime husband to this man, who would certainly have been locked up for life if he had ever been discovered.
For better or for worse, Miss Klein and I kept our delight with each other strictly in the non-sexual realm. When I graduated from high school (still not quite 16), Miss Klein wrote in my yearbook: "David, keep enjoying life, people and discoveries always as you do now -- life will be great." She was right about that.
Under the yearbook photo of the cheerleader squad, she felt free to add: "I wish you great success here too!"
* * * * *
In a thoughtful article in The New York Times ("The Siren Song of Sex With Boys," December 11, 2005), Kate Zernike writes that, in cases like that of Debra Lafave "because many of those named as victims refused to testify against the women in what they said were consensual relationships, not everyone agrees that the cases involve child abuse."
Zernike cites the Rind study and notes that in Canada and in much of Europe, the age of consent for sexual relations has been lowered to 14, following the recommendations of a series of national commissions studying the subject. Harmful to Minors author Judith Levine agrees that age of consent laws are often arbitrary and run contrary to what is known about adolescent sexuality and the psychological effects of sexual relationships between adolescents and adults.
"Age of consent laws," says Levine, "have very little to do with scientific research. They're really about the preservation of feminine purity. People are not worried about boys in the same way that they're worried about girls. People consider it unimaginable that a girl would have a similar experience to that of a boy -- a sense of conquest, of excitement, a learning experience, or that the victim would be resilient."
Perhaps the much publicized story of Debra Lafave will have more impact on American sexual culture than providing a momentary boost to the fantasy lives of several million American men. "If what comes out of this is that there is some sort of reexamination of age of consent in general or even a small shift of opinion," says Levine, the Debra Lafave case "might in the end have some sort of positive effect on public policy."
[More information on Debra Lafave is available at the Free Debra website: debra-lafave.tjp.hu. Scroll to the bottom for photos of Debra. The tape recording and phone call transcript are at Debra-lafave.tjp.hu/archive.html#archive, posting of December 3, 2004. Comprehensive information and commentary is also available on Gary Cruse's website, The Owner's Manual, gcruse.typepad.com/the_owners_manual/2005/01/debra_lafave_up.html.]
© 2006, David Steinberg
The sexual embrace can only be compared with music and with prayer. - Havelock Ellis
This column is written by long-term activist David Steinberg. David is a photographer, author, editor, and publisher. His previous books include Photo Sex: Fine art sexual photography comes of age; Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies, The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self and his most recent book Divas of San Francisco: Portraits of transsexual women. He is currently working on two books of couples photography, This Thing We Call Sex, and Sex and Disability. He lives in San Francisco. If you would like to receive Comes Naturally and other writing by David Steinberg regularly via email (free and confidential), send your name and email address to David at firstname.lastname@example.org. Past columns are available at the Society for Human Sexuality's "David Steinberg Archives": www.sexuality.org/davids.html .
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