In 1998, Mary Kay Letourneau appeared on the cover of People magazine with her first child, Audrey. Bathed in warm light, with her blond hair softly curling and her brown eyes doleful, Letourneau could easily have been confused with the subject of a generic Sears portrait, if you didn’t read the accompanying headline: “The Teacher and the 6th Grader: Their Bizarre Story of Obsessive Love.” “Pregnant again after trysting with her former pupil, Mary Kay Letourneau, 36, is back in prison — and still defiant,” the cover line read, beneath a line about Bruce Willis and Demi Moore’s battle with their former nanny.
This language, of course, was woefully inaccurate: Letourneau, who died of cancer Tuesday at 58, did not “tryst” with her former sixth-grade pupil, Vili Fualauu, with whom she first had sex when she was 34 and he was 13. Despite the couple’s claims that the relationship was consensual and that they were deeply in love, according to any moral or legal definition Letourneau had raped Fualaau, and putting her beatific maternity photo on the cover of People would be akin to publishing beefcake prison shots of Jeffrey Epstein.
Yet this was not how people viewed the case in 1998. The media covered Letourneau not as a sexual predator, but either as a subject of prurient tabloid interest, on par with the domestic disputes of the stars of Die Hard and G.I. Jane; or as a tragic lover, ensnared in an ill-fated romance that society was simply unable to understand. (Often, as the People cover demonstrates, it was a combination of the two.) Perhaps more than any other figure in recent history, the media coverage of Mary Kay Letourneau is responsible for perpetuating the gendered double standard associated with child rape, or the idea that, while a male teacher having sex with an underage female pupil is reprehensible, a female teacher sleeping with an underage male pupil is not only forgivable, but worthy of a high five.
To scholars of mid-Nineties tabloid ephemera, the details of the case are well-known: Letourneau, a teacher in Seattle, Washington, met Fualaau when he was in her sixth-grade classroom (a little-regarded yet unspeakably icky footnote to the story is that she taught him when he was in second grade as well). They began their “sexual relationship” — as her obituary in the New York Times refers to it — in 1996, when she was 34 and he was 13, resulting in the birth of two daughters. Letourneau initially pleaded guilty to charges of second-degree rape, serving a reduced sentence of three months, only to return to prison for a seven-year sentence after violating a court order to keep away from Fualaau. When she was released in 2004, she was once again court-ordered to keep away from him; once again, she fought this order, and the two wed in 2005.
Letourneau’s repeated defiance in the face of statutory rape law should have served as an indication that she had serious mental health issues (she was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder). Yet her continued relationship with Fualaau only fueled greater public fascination with the story. The dominant narrative was that Letourneau was a woman swept away by forces beyond her control, what author Ronald R. Fieve referred to as a “star-crossed lover” who had merely suffered a case of bad romantic luck.
Throughout the public’s decades-long fascination with the couple, a few dissenting voices pointed out just how deranged this narrative was. “We are supposed to somehow believe they were just two fools in love,” writer Sasha Brown-Wortham noted in 2015, following a much-hyped Barbara Walters interview with the couple. “Despite the fact that he was a child and she was an adult.”
Occasionally, someone would bring up the psychological impact of Fualaau experiencing such abuse at such a young age. Yet, by and large, the irrefutable facts at the heart of the story — that Letourneau had raped an underage child while she was in a position of power and authority over him — took a backseat to the narrative that a pretty, delicate-featured, upper middle-class white woman had fallen madly and hopelessly in love with the wrong person, at the wrong time.
Since the 1990s, when Letourneau and Fualaau became tabloid fixtures, we have consistently seen coverage of female sexual predators undermine the severity of their crimes, focusing instead on the question of why an attractive older woman would exhibit sexual interest in an underage boy (and the perceived “luck” of the underage boy being subject to such an initiation). The New York Post described 27-year-old gym teacher Pamela Rogers Turner, accused of having intercourse and oral sex with a 13-year-old boy more than a dozen times, as a “stunning” “blond bombshell,” taking care to note her past as a bikini model for Harley-Davidson. (She pleaded no contest to four charges of sexual battery and was arrested again for sending explicit texts to the boy she abused, leading to a seven-year prison sentence.)
Debra Lafave, a Tampa teacher and ex-girlfriend of a Backstreet Boy who was charged with lewd and lascivious battery for having oral sex with a 14-year-old student, was breathlessly lauded in the press for her icy blond beauty, to the degree that her attorney used it as an excuse for her to avoid jail time: “To place an attractive young woman in that kind of hellhole, is like putting a piece of raw meat in with the lions,” he said in 2004. (Somehow, this argument worked: Lafave was sentenced to three years house arrest and seven years probation.)
For years, this dynamic was so omnipresent in media coverage of teacher/student underage sex cases that it was the subject of Alissa Nutting’s satire Tampa, featuring a sociopathic middle school teacher who hungrily preys on underage boys. In an interview with the Guardian, Nutting said that the Lafave case prompted her to reexamine her views on female sexual predators: “There is this absolute belief a lot of people have, which is, ‘He wanted it, how could it be a crime?’ Which I think is very faulty logic,” she said. She chose to use explicit, unflinching language to document the sexual abuse, forcing readers to confront the severity of the crime.
As our understanding of sexual abuse has gradually evolved, so too has our perception of female sexual predators like Letourneau. While tabloids and bro blogs still breathlessly document underage sexual abuse cases, with Barstool Sports issuing a nauseating annual “sex scandal teacher starting lineup,” it is relatively rare to see such offenders achieve the notoriety of a Letourneau or a Lafave. Thanks in part to shifting cultural mores and the relatively even-handed, sober coverage of accused female sexual harassers like Asia Argento, there appears to be a growing understanding that sexual abuse is sexual abuse, regardless of the physical appearance of the accused or the gender of the victim. (An AP tweet after Letourneau’s death referred to her being convicted of “child rape,” rather than a “tryst,” which underscores this cultural shift.)
Yet there is still an unspoken assumption that such assaults are somehow less severe or damaging to the victims than if the gender dynamic were reversed. Female sexual predators in teacher-student cases face far less punitive sentences than male sexual predators, according to a 2013 analysis, and judges continue to make elaborate justifications for such sentences, with one British judge telling a babysitter who sexually abused an 11-year-old: “It was quite clear he was a mature 11-year-old, and you were an immature 20-year-old, so that narrows the arithmetic age gap between you.” While few publications would dare to put an idyllic photo of a convicted predator on the cover, we still have a long way to go in terms of our understanding of the complex dynamics of sexual abuse.
Perhaps the sad ending to Letourneau’s story can be instructive in that regard: She spent the last few years of her life working as a legal secretary, cashing in on her notoriety by granting the occasional interview and hosting “Hot for teacher” night at a local bar. She and Fualaau separated in 2019. Apparently, to the end, Letourneau viewed her own narrative through the same lens as the 1990s tabloid media: “The cards were stacked against them, but they managed to have a long-term marriage,” a source close to the family told People after their split. “She still looks at their relationship as this amazing love story.”