By Isabel Ranney
This year has been marred with what appears to be an increase in teachers facing allegations and charges for inappropriate conduct with their students. Particularly, female teachers having sexually inappropriate relationships with their students feels to be more prominent in the media. As recent as September of 2023, a former female high school teacher in Arizona was arrested for allegedly having a sexual relationship with a student.
The increased media about female teacher sex offenders has also gained prominence in movies and televisions shows. In particular, on December 1st, Netflix released the film “May December” for streaming. The film depicts an actress, Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), as she prepares for a starring role in a movie about Gracie (Julianne Moore) and her relationship with her thirteen-year-old pet shop co-worker turned Husband, Joe (Charles Melton). To better understand her character, Elizabeth spends time getting to know Gracie, Joe, and their family. While the film grapples with morality and the inappropriate nonconsensual nature of Gracie and Joe’s relationship, it also revives national interest in the case of Mary Kay Letourneau, which serves as its obvious inspiration.
Mary Kay Letourneau
In 1996, Mary Kay Letourneau, then a thirty-four-year-old married teacher in Washington, engaged in a sexual relationship* with and later married her twelve-year-old student. By the time the student, Vili Fualaau, was fifteen years old, he was a father to two of Letourneau’s children, one of whom was born while Letourneau was serving time after she plead guilty to two counts of felony second-degree rape. After completing her seven-and-a-half-year sentence, Letourneau and Fualaau married in 2005. They were married for fourteen years before they separated. Letourneau passed away in 2020 from colon cancer.
The relationship between Letourneau and Fualaau received a massive amount of media attention, not just because of its criminality but also because of Letourneau’s continued insistence that she had done nothing wrong and she was ignorant as to the inappropriateness of the relationship. In the aftermath of the scandal, Letourneau and Fualaau published a book in France defending their relationship and depicting Letourneau’s imprisonment entitled “Only One Crime, Love.” Letourneau continued to assert that she had not known the relationship was illegal in an interview with Australia’s Channel 7 in 2018, stating “If someone had told me, if anyone had told me, there is a specific law that says this is a crime I did not know” and said she was “absolutely” wrongly convicted.
Female Sex Offenders
Female sex offenders are underrepresented, despite studies suggesting that females commit 15-20% of sexual offenses. In large part, this is due to societies resistance to recognizing women as offenders based on the outdated belief that women are incapable of being aggressive or predatory. This belief then leads to female offenders avoiding “detection, prosecution, and interventions like tracking, registration or mandated treatment” or having their responsibility minimalized. Studies also show that, unlike male offenders, female offenders are more likely to have been subjected to childhood sexual abuse, tend to believe that they are in love with the victim, that the relationship is and was not harmful, and that their victim is capable of consenting.
Letourneau represents the stereotypical female teacher sex offender. Based on interviews with 35 convicted female sex teacher sex offenders, the most common offender is white, college educated, has no prior arrests, is married at the time of the offense, and claims that their relationship with their student was consensual. Therefore, Letourneau’s insistence on controlling the narrative and maintaining her “innocence” is aligned with how these types of offenders behave.
Former Arizona teacher, Brittany Zamora, is another example of a married adult teacher who engaged in a sexual relationship* with her student, who was thirteen years old. Like Letourneau, Zamora did not express remorse for her crimes. Instead, she blamed her victim for taking advantage of her and being the pursuer in the relationship, portraying herself as helpless and emotionally manipulated. Shortly after being sentenced to twenty years, her attorney denied that Brittany was a predator, stating “this was not between a young child and Brittany. This was a teenager […] the teenager had boundary issues and was obsessed with Brittany […] the teenage boy was very aggressive and […] persistent.” Zamora’s inability to take responsibility for her actions is another common characteristic of female teacher sex offenders.
What makes “May December” really interesting is the way it portrays the victim, Joe, as he reassesses the origin and appropriateness of his relationship with Gracie. Toward the end of the film, Joe grapples with the fact that he was a child when their relationship started and that it was not as consensual as he had been led to believe. When he tries to broach the topic with Gracie, she gaslights him by denying any wrongdoing on her part and insisting that he was the one who pursued her. This depiction of a victim coming to terms with their victimization is important, as it helps shed light on the frequently overlooked harm caused by female sex offenders. It is also truthful, as Mary Kay Letournau’s former husband and victim, Fualaau has recently indicated that he is also coming to terms with his victimization, stating on “The Dr. Oz Show” that if he were attracted to a minor “I’d probably go and seek some help. I couldn’t look at a 13-year-old and be attracted to that because it’s just not in my brain.”
“May December” does a really good job of acknowledging the existence of female sex offenders, portraying their manipulation tactics, and drawing attention to the long-term impact on the victim. Although more research and studies need to be conducted to better understand the long-term harms of these types of relationships, raising awareness to this issue is critical in allowing these victims to identify themselves, heal, and recognize that they are not to blame for what happened to them.
*The term “relationship” is used here not to suggest that the interaction was in any way consensual, but that there was a sexual association between the two.
Isabel Ranney is an associate attorney at Woodnick Law and is licensed to practice in the state of Arizona. Prior to becoming an attorney, Isabel was a law clerk at Woodnick Law for nearly three years.