Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mary Kay Letourneau: The Romance That was a Crime

Sexism or Legit Distinction?

Mary Kay Letourneau, 1996
Mary Kay Letourneau, 1996
The case of Mary Kay Letourneau and her 13-year-old lover focused attention on questions of sexism, gender bias, and biological gender differences.  Many observers thought the elementary school teacher was getting far more public sympathy than a man would who committed a similar offense.  Her insistence that she did not deserve punishment for a sex act motivated by love grated on the sensibilities of those who believed a man who made such an excuse would be laughed at.

On the other hand, some pointed out that the case is far different from that of an adult man having sex with a 13-year-old girl in one very vital respect.  Vili did not get pregnant and go through birth and never had any possibility of doing so.  Mary Kay did.  Regardless of age differences or anything else, the female alone bears the child and the physical and psychological costs of pregnancy itself.  As a woman who knew the principals in the case commented, "A 13-year-old girl getting pregnant is a heck of a lot different physically than a 13-year-old boy getting someone else pregnant." 

Mary Kay Letourneau mugshot
Mary Kay Letourneau mugshot
Another vital, biologically imposed distinction lies in the construction of male and female genitalia and how that is expressed in the act of sexual intercourse.  The female does not have to be aroused in order to engage in sexual intercourse; the male does.    California's statutory rape law defines the crime as "an act of sexual intercourse accomplished with a female not the wife of the perpetrator, where the female is under the age of 18 years."  The constitutionality of the statue was challenged on grounds of gender discrimination in the case of Michael M. v. Sonoma Superior Court, 450 U.S. 464 (1981).   The Superior Court, then California's state Supreme Court, and finally the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the statute as constitutional.  The latter ruled that, because "one of the purposes" of the law is to "protect women from sexual intercourse and pregnancy at an age when the physical, emotional, and psychological consequences are particularly severe" and men do not get pregnant the "gender classification is not invidious, but rather realistically reflects the fact that the sexes are not similarly situated in certain circumstances."

In the case of Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau, both parties agree that Vili initiated and enjoyed sex with Mary Kay.  But because the child rape law in Washington State is gender neutral she is legally a rapist and he a victim.

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