The latest incident of a female teacher sexually involved with her male student came out just last week, but it’s not as clear-cut as some previous scandals. Hugo Schwyzer takes a look at the facts and suggests that the victimizer in this case may also be the victim.
Since the Mary Kay Letourneau-Vili Fualaau story shocked the nation more than 15 years ago, a series of female teacher-male student sex scandals have grabbed the headlines. Despite the statistical reality that the overwhelming majority of sexual predators are men, the media can’t resist giving disproportionate coverage to cases where the female teacher is young, white, and conventionally pretty. Sometimes, the effect of the salacious coverage is to minimize the very real harm that rape can do to boys. But one recent instance suggests that sometimes, it’s female teachers who are at least partly the victim of predatory male students.
Last week, the New York Post published exclusive photos of a public make-out session between 26-year-old Julie Warning, a global studies teacher at Manhattan Theater Lab High School, and an 18-year-old student of hers named Eric Arty. The splendidly-named (and untenured) Warning was placed on administrative leave; because the student was legally an adult, she faces no criminal charges. Like other women in similar situations before her, she does face the intense and humiliating scrutiny of the media; the Post described her as looking “like a wild child” on her Facebook page. (Warning, meanwhile, continues to deny that the pictures are actually of her and Arty.)
Last Thursday, the Post published a follow-up, including an interview with another of Warning’s students, who admitted that Arty had seduced his teacher as part of a pricey competition with several male classmates. “It was a bet with a group of his friends,” junior Andrew Cabrera told the paper, and “they gave (Arty) the $500 pot” after he successfully hooked up with Warning. According to the Gothamist, Arty claims to regret the trouble he’s caused his teacher, telling friends “I really started feeling for the shorty.” Nonetheless, the Post described Arty as “smug-looking” when a group of his friends descended last week on his Washington Heights home to “salute their conquering hero.” Meanwhile, the Gothamist reported that an ambulance was dispatched to the Warning family home to care for a woman who had requested transportation to a hospital.
If Warning was pursued merely for a bet, that fact doesn’t absolve her of her responsibility to avoid a sexual relationship with a student, even an adult one. There’s no suggestion that Arty assaulted or coerced her. She should face discipline. But in this instance, culpability is not a zero-sum game. While Warning behaved foolishly and unprofessionally, she was also the victim of what seems to have been an elaborate (and expensive) set-up by a group of legally adult men. The Board of Education ought to consider that as a mitigating circumstance when contemplating her fate.
The Post and Gothamist stories illustrate more than the titillating details of a teacher-student hookup. They remind us that so much of young men’s sexual behavior is driven more by the compulsion to impress other guys than it is by lust. We don’t need to know all the details of what transpired between Warning and Arty to recognize the familiar pattern in which young men use women as erotic currency to establish their own masculine credentials. In both the bet and his “smug” reaction to being revealed as the champion seducer, Eric Arty is very much a dude of his age.
In Guyland, the essential analysis of contemporary young American manhood, sociologist Michael Kimmel writes: “guys hook up to prove something to other guys. The actual experience of sex pales in comparison to talking about the sex.” He quotes “Ted,” a 21-year-old junior at the University of Wisconsin, whose reaction to sexual conquest sounds a lot like Eric Arty’s: “When I’ve just got laid, the first thing I think about—really, I shouldn’t be telling you this, but really it’s the very first thing, before I’ve even ‘finished’—is that I can’t wait to tell my crew who I just did. Like, I say to myself, ‘Omigod, they’re not going to believe that I just did Kristy!’” What Kimmel is describing is homosociality: the idea that even for straight men, the approbation of other guys is more important than sexual pleasure or any other validation that women themselves can provide.
Julie Warning may have made her own poor choices, but if the facts are close to what the Post and Gothamist have reported, she was also a victim of a cruel and familiar male sexual pattern. As a young, pretty teacher, she was surely the object of her students’ fantasies. But her perceived sexual attractiveness also made her an unwitting trophy in a puerile competition. In that contest, however, the top prize isn’t the hook-up itself. Nor is it the cash that Arty evidently won. The laurel is the crowd of cheering peers outside Arty’s home; the real blue ribbon is the notoriety that comes with being the guy who beat out all his buddies to score with the hapless “shorty.”
I know that female teachers (and other authority figures) can and do rape boys. The fact that they do it with a good deal less frequency than their male counterparts rape and assault young girls doesn’t excuse their crimes. But the Warning-Arty case shows us that when we’re dealing with young female teachers and legally adult male students in thrall to a destructive guy code, the question of just who is exploiting whom is decidedly murky.
However culpability gets divided, everyone involved—even the “conquering hero” gets hurt in the end. Warning faces yet-to-be determined disciplinary action. If true, Arty’s claim that he’s “started feeling” for his teacher drives home a sad reality: Homosocial competition rarely works out well for anyone. The desperate rush to win other men’s approval shuts boys off from their own feelings; like this Manhattan schoolboy, too many guys realize too late that they genuinely care for the women who are the collateral damage in these sad contests. The chances are that when the cheers and the “attaboys” subside, Eric Arty won’t feel like much of a conquering hero.
Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted. You can find him on Twitter at @hugoschwyzer.