A Conversation With Alissa Nutting: The Female Teacher, Male Student Dynamic
A few years ago, Alissa Nutting wrote the book “Tampa.”
It’s a satirical account of a female teacher, a sociopath, and her seduction of a middle-school student. Nutting is an assistant professor of creative writing and English at UNLV. After she wrote “Tampa,” she said many of the victims and perpetrators of student-teacher relationships contacted her. Some were angry.
Why did you write this book?
I was really struck by the disconnect between the public reaction when a male teacher is having relations with an underage female student and when a female student was having relations with an underage male student.
There seems to be this national fetishization when a woman teacher who is doing this as opposed to a man. And I was really struck by the ways we encourage it. The ways that a lot of times these women go on to become social celebrities.
On researching the book:
I was really sort of struck by the perception that if it is a woman teacher and a male student there is absolutely no way that it can be a harmful experience to the student. That it can only be a positive thing.
I really think we do a disservice to adolescent boys within this regard. It makes our entire environment into one where women cannot be sexually predatory. Where if you are on the receiving end of any kind of sexual attention or advance for a woman, particularly an older woman, I think they feel a lot of sexual pressure to go along with that whether they wanted to or not.
A lot of times on different message boards, something I saw repeatedly was just the sentiment that men cannot be raped by women... Legally it is certainly untrue. Legally it is statutory rape, no matter what because we understand developing brains. We understand there is a power dynamic of experience and a power dynamic where consent may not be understood in the same way for a minor.
Do you have any idea why that exists?
We have an inability in our country to see women as being sexually violent. I think half of that is we don't see women as being sexual equals to men and I think the other half of that is it is far more uncomfortable for us to see women as sexually violent and as sexual predators.
On being contacted by victims and perpetrators:
I got a lot of emails and letters from men who had been in relationships like this when they were underage. Some of them were positive and some of them were very negative. I got a few letters and emails from women confessing to these relationships.
The emails I got from men... they wouldn't give a name. A lot of times they said the created an alternate email account to send you this. They did not want the story to ever be known because they had so much shame.
Do have a theory as to why teachers, male or female, do this?
I don't have that role or those credentials, but a thing to think about and bring up... we are putting this message out in our cultural that when it happens and its a female teacher it cannot be harmful or negative experience for the male student.
I do think we send this social message of harmlessness, but in both cases its a power dynamic. We give teachers a privileged position of power and influence in the lives of adolescents and I think that that's a boundary that we owe it to children of all genders to really patrol.
Alissa Nutting, creative writing and English professor, UNLV