Life is unpredictable. Just ask Hillary Clinton. I mean, you wake up Tuesday morning planning to give a big electoral hug to Michigan, and you go to bed not caring if arsenic starts flowing through the tap water in Flint. You just never know how the day is going to pan out, so to speak.
This week, I thought I was going to write about politics yet again. I figured there would be some new expose about Donald Trump’s trumpet or Clinton’s hard drive (which sound, uncomfortably, like the same thing). But except for a few more (yawn) primaries, nothing new came over the wire.
In the end, though, I found my topic: a human specimen that surpassed even the candidates in mediocrity.
On Monday, a former swim coach and counselor named Emily Feeney admitted to having stalked a 16-year-old student at Malvern Prep, a private Catholic school in suburban Philadelphia. Feeney didn’t actually plead to “stalking,” and the sanitized term used by the news reports was “tried to seduce,” but the evidence presented to the court makes it pretty darn clear that this was no wink-wink, ha-ha, Mrs. Robinson scenario.
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Feeney sent thousands of texts over a period of months, threatening the student, cajoling him, transmitting suggestive photos and even cornering him in her classroom. At one point, she held the promise of a Harvard scholarship over his head. At another point, she kissed him. There is no word on whether he kissed back, but there are strong indications that her attentions were unwelcome. One of the texts made public was from the victim, who tried to get his stalker to leave him alone by writing: “I’m not interested in you end of story. I’m 16. I’m not into you.”
You would think this would shame a pre-menopausal woman with young children to get a grip on something other than her students. But the harassment continued until someone reported her to the police.
And after getting the best lawyer money could buy and a sympathetic hearing from the prosecutor, Feeney pleaded guilty and got … five years probation. Not jail time. Not house arrest. Probation, and registration as a sex offender.
Her attorney was quoted as saying that “This case involved a single kiss.” I would respectfully suggest (and it’s really hard being respectful in this type of a situation) that the case was about a lot more than a single kiss. It was about thousands of harassing messages and photos and attempts by a horny middle aged woman to steal a teenager’s adolescence from him.
When I put that on Facebook, I wasn’t surprised to find that some people had a hard time seeing what all the fuss was about. There is a strange blind spot that we have in this society about boys who are sexually harassed by older women. One of my Facebook friends implied that he doubted the boy was “traumatized.” But we have no problem reacting when the roles are reversed and a male coach sends suggestive texts to a female student. It’s a not-so-subtle way of saying that our girls are more fragile, and precious, than our boys.
That should have changed in the decades since the priest abuse scandal was exposed, but it hasn’t. Speaking of which, imagine if Emily Feeney were actually the Rev. Emlen Feeney, and he’d done what she admits having done. There would be a move to burn him out of the rectory.
But a blonde, affluent and educated female of a certain age gets off with a literal slap on the texting hand, primarily because we still haven’t acknowledged that boys, and men, can be victims of the same type of horrific abuse as women.
My friend Glenn works in the field, and he made this wise and perceptive comment: “From reporting possible abuse to prosecution, women absolutely get breaks. Imagine the outcry if a male coach did the exact same thing to a female on his team.” Yes, imagine. Except we don’t have to imagine. We’ve seen those men get jail time.
Sexually predatory women are not Mary Kay Letourneau one-offs. They are real, and they should be treated the same way any other rapist, abuser or predatory is treated. Society should not devalue its boys because there is some archaic sense that it’s a compliment for a woman to seduce a younger man.
I remember when I first experienced this gender disconnect about sexual abuse. I was preparing a battered spouse visa for a client, and needed to get a psychologist to write a report on the harm being suffered by the immigrant spouse. When I told the therapist that the spouse was a man from Italy, she actually laughed at me. Apparently, males are not able to be victims in this society, especially if the victimizer is a woman.
As the aunt of a beautiful little boy, I find that to be despicably short-sighted.
I once taught in a boys’ school, and one of the students asked me out to the prom (which by the way was the only time I was asked to a school dance). I smiled and responded, “That is so flattering, I’m really touched, thank you and not in a million years.”
That doesn’t make me special. That makes me a marginally decent human being who understands that gender is irrelevant to trauma. In fact, you could say that boys suffer more from unwanted sexual contact because society still isn’t ready to take them as seriously as their sisters and girlfriends.
That’s why Emily Feeney got a pass, for making much more than a pass.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may send her email at email@example.com.