Jonathan Zimmerman: Africa has corner on teacher abuse





[Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history at New York University, is teaching this semester at the university's study-abroad program in Accra, Ghana. He is the author of "Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century" (Harvard University Press).]

ACCRA, Ghana -- Mary K. Letourneau. Debra Lafave. Lisa Lynette Clark.

Wherever you look, there's a U.S. teacher having sex with a student. Or so it would seem, if you read the tabloids or watch late-night TV. Lafave had trysts with a 14-year-old student in her apartment, car and classroom; Clark was impregnated by her son's 15-year-old friend, whom she wed the day before she was arrested; and Seattle's own Letourneau did seven years in prison before marrying Vili Faualaau, who was all of 13 when their affair began.

Contrary to what you might believe, however, there's no "epidemic" of teacher-student sex in the U.S. And the best way to see that is to come to Africa.

According to a widely publicized 2004 study released by the Department of Education, up to 10 percent of U.S. students had suffered "sexual abuse or misconduct" in school. But the study included everything from off-color jokes and gestures by teachers to nasty comments from other children. Nobody knows the prevalence of teacher-student physical abuse, which is far less common than media reports would suggest.

In Ghana, by contrast, we do know. And the abusers are almost always men. According to a 2003 study, 27 percent of surveyed schoolgirls admitted they had been propositioned by a male teacher; 25 percent said they knew of at least one teacher having sex with a female student.

Ghanaian law proscribes sex with children younger than 16, while the school code bars "immoral relations" between teachers and students. But the rules are rarely enforced.

Earlier this month, local newspapers reported that a teacher had impregnated one of his students. His penalty? Colleagues made him buy new chairs for the school.

To be sure, some students choose to enter sexual relationships with their teachers. But there's always an element of coercion involved. Girls exchange sex for their school fees or living expenses, sometimes with the blessing of their financially strapped parents. Others are promised higher grades if they sleep with a teacher.

To hear many teachers tell it, though, the fault lies entirely with the girls themselves. According to a 2005 U.N. report on violence against children, African teachers "justified sexual exploitation of female students by saying that their clothes and behavior were provocative, and that they were far from home and in need of sex."

Others simply blame the West, which allegedly has infected Africa with the virus of licentiousness. Once upon a time, the story goes, Africans practiced sexual continence and restraint. But then risqué music videos and hip-hop music spawned prostitution, homosexuality and, yes, teacher-student sex.

Never mind that Africans practiced polygamy long before Westerners came here, or that the sexual abuse of students predates MTV and Puff Daddy. As early as 1964, Ghanaian newspapers reported that "Classroom Cassanovas" -- that is, male teachers -- were impregnating their female students. Then, the papers went on to charge the usual suspects: the hypersexual West, and the abused girls.

"What has encouraged these tendencies in our people?" the Ghanaian Times asked. "Before the arrival of the white man, we accepted the taboos which our societies placed on sex. These kept us free from many immoral deeds."

But now the damage was done, the Times continued, contaminating teenage girls most of all. "Modern medical facilities have encouraged immorality," it declared, in a backhanded swipe against contraceptive services. "Many of our girls misuse these, to their own eternal regret and remorse in later life."

Back in the U.S., too, conservatives have been quick to blame our own teacher-student sex scandals on contraceptives, sex education and an overall decline in social morality. " 'Right' and 'wrong' just aren't real to us anymore," wrote one commentator on the Christian Web site WorldNetDaily, in the wake of news reports about Letourneau and Lafave.

In fact, these scandals show just the opposite: In the U.S., we have a remarkably strong consensus against the sexual abuse of students. And the consensus extends to the abuse of boys by female teachers. According to the 2004 Department of Education study, 40 percent of educators charged with sexual misconduct were women.

Yet there's really no evidence that teacher-student sex in U.S. schools is on the rise. If anything, the news reports have made educational officials ever more vigilant in preventing it.

So the next time you see a lurid headline about "Hands-on Sex Education" or "Hottie Pedophiles," don't just snicker in outrage--or tut-tut in titillation. Instead, be thankful that your own kids are so well protected from predatory teachers. In Africa, many children aren't so lucky.

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