Most of you are probably familiar with the stories that continue to come out, pointing to an "epidemic" (I think that's the word they used) of student-teacher sex affairs. Of particular interest to many was the number of female teachers who had become involved with young male students, many of them in their early teens. Some call these teenage boys "abused," others consider them "lucky." Whatever, clearly the answer to ending this scandal is to allow teachers to marry - wait a minute, my mistake; it's allowing priests to marry that's supposed to end sexual abuse of teenage boys.
Clearly, if we learn anything from this whole mess, it's that the theory that allowing priests to marry will eliminate the pedophile scandal is nothing but a red herring. First of all, it's not pedophilia but pederasty that drove the Church's scandal - that and a rejection by the priests involved of Catholic teaching.
This, however, is a matter for another day. What interests so many about this teacher abuse study is a fundamental question of human curiosity: what do these grown women see in teenage boys? There's something almost nauseating about the whole thing. What I find interesting about it is how this behavior contrasts so dramatically with how women used to behave, or at least how they were portrayed in popular culture. Forget for a minute whether or not that pop culture portrayal was an accurate one; what mattered, in order for the portrayal to be a successful one, was that it was plausible.
Nowhere is that more evident than in pulp detective fiction, especially that from one of the genre's masters, Mickey Spillane, and his greatest creation, Mike Hammer. Hammer is, to put it mildly, a chick magnet (as well as a magnet for bullets, fists, Commies, Mafia, and all sorts of other unsavory characters). And we're not talking about ordinary women here - just beautiful ones. Breathtakingly beautiful ones. Hammer, at first blush, would seem to be the most unlikely object of desire.
He is, by his own admission, not a handsome man. It’s true that women often meet him after he’s been beaten virtually to a pulp by some nefarious perp, who invariably winds up dead, either right away – in the “you should see the other guy” school – or later on, when Hammer fulfills his mission of revenge. It’s clear, though, that Hammer harbors no illusions about his own appearance, even in the best of times.
And yet women literally throw themselves at him. Within minutes of the initial meeting, they’re tossing off suggestions and bon mots at him that would make a sailor blush. To these invitations Hammer often reacts lewdly, taking advantage of some, disdaining others. It must be nice to pick and choose that way.
Hammer is by no means unique in the world of detective fiction. Philip Marlowe, for one, has the same, shall we say, problem (especially when he’s played by Humphrey Bogart), and easy sex with loose women is a staple of both pulp and mainstream mysteries. Even Nick Charles, he of the Thin Man series, is one of those men who women want and men want to be like. Nick is considerably smoother and more handsome than most of them, however, plus he has Myrna Loy to come home to, and so he remains above those kinds of temptation.
Nevertheless, what is it about these characters that causes beautiful women – far more beautiful than the men are handsome – to throw themselves at them with a speed worthy of a Puccini opera? The reason for this animal magnetism, implicit in the Hammer books, is a simple one: manliness. Hammer is a real man, not a fake – a man who knows what he wants, knows how to get it, and, most important, isn’t afraid to take it.
And this is what brings us back around to the central question asked at the beginning – why the epidemic of female teacher-male student affairs? What is it that these older women – some barely older, some much older – could possibly find of interest in these boys? One theory that I find plausible is that implicit in these actions is a rejection of modern malehood – the lack of manliness so prevalent in men today. As the metrosexual (if that term isn’t already passé) becomes a dominant archetype of the modern man, more and more women yearn for that old-style masculinity found in the likes of Hammer and others. Enough with men who seek to be in touch with their “feminine side.” To many women, this breeds doubt, uncertainty, an unwillingness to take the initiative – hardly qualities that make a man truly attractive. Hugh Grant may be the ideal man for those tissue-drenching chick flicks that Lifetime and Hallmark live on, but it’s not hard to imagine that a real relationship based on that Hugh Grant character would lead to frustration and exasperation before too long.
So, confronted with the lack of “real men” out there, and dismayed by the alternative - young men wrapped up in rude, crude and boorish Maxim-like behavior, women reject the choices presented to them by conventional society and instead turn to the raw material, the stuff that their dreams can truly be made of. In the handsome, virile boy in their classroom they find a boy eager to learn, eager to please, with much to offer in the physical sense; but also one not yet corrupted by sensitivity training. Perhaps he’s a rugged jock, or a boy who exhibits all the hesitant masculine boisterousness that teenage boys usually have. Or he’s untapped ground, one who can be shaped not by the demands of society to emasculate himself, but by the desires of a woman who thinks (however misguided) she can teach him how to be a real man.
This kind of thing is really nothing new however, as is shown by Richard Strauss’ comic opera masterpiece Der Rosenkavalier. The subject matter in this story, written in 1911 but set in 1740s Vienna, was the source of some controversy as well. In it, we have the Marshallin, a charming but aging noblewoman, who is involved with Octavian, described as “a handsome young man with an eye for beautiful women.” Through a series of impossibly convoluted twists and turns, Octavian loses his heart to the beautiful young Sophie, who herself is engaged to the inept and repulsive Baron von Lerchenau.
Although the Marschallin is captivated by her affair with Octavian and falls in love with him, she knows that eventually he will leave her for a younger woman - one more his age. Eventually, this happens, and in the heart-wrenching trio "Hab' mir's gelobt" she releases Octavian to follow his heart and go to Sophie, saying she loves him so much she only wants happiness for him, even if it is with another woman.
With this ending, Strauss hints at the natural law of things, that eventually people - especially young ones - gravitate toward those of their own kind, their own age. And I think that what people most strongly object to in these teacher-student affairs is the idea that the young are being robbed of their future, of their natural maturing into the world beyond their youth, in essence being trapped into a lifestyle (and the consequences) long before they're ready to accept - or even understand - that life. Thus, they are not victims of sexual abuse per se, but of the same kind of abuse that we see in advertising campaigns, in peer pressure, in a hundred different ways - the abuse of forcing children to become adults before they're ready. Some would say that the unfortunate, if not ironic, aspect of this is that in the teacher-student case this is often being done by women who refuse to grow up, who yearn instead for their own childhood, free of responsibility.
As I say, I’m no sociologist, so I don’t pretend that this is anything other than a theory that I find compelling. It also suggests, but doesn’t necessarily deal with, the immaturity that these women themselves exhibit, their own failure to grow up and act responsibly. It does, however, answer a great many questions. And undoubtedly it says a lot about the present state of masculinity – or the lack thereof – in the modern male. I don’t know if we should be more worried about this epidemic of schoolhouse abuse, or the cultural forces that may be playing a part in it.
Whatever the case, this whole phenomenon should cause us to look closely at what our culture has become - how we view childhood, what it means to be a "real man" (and how through our culture so many of the natural aspects of manhood are being stripped away), and how for so many nowadays, adulthood is something to be put off as long as possible.
Originally published December 13, 2007
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