Call Sexual Abuse What it is

You may have recently seen the headline that Vili Fualaau filed for legal separation from his wife Mary Kay Faulaau (formerly Letourneau) after 11 years of marriage.  And you probably remember the scandal that took place in the 1990s when Mary Kay Letourneau – a 6th grade teacher sexually abused her then 6th grade student Vili Fualaau who was just 12 years old at the time.  This story captivated the nation for a variety of reasons.  Some stated that this was every young man’s fantasy – the attractive teacher and the male student – while other were infuriated that Mary Kay initially got off with little more than a slap on the wrist (6 months in jail, with 3 months suspended). While on trial the first time, she gave birth to their first daughter.  However, despite a legal requirement that Mary Kay stay away from Vili for life, the abuse continued and she became pregnant with their second daughter. As a consequence of violating her probation by abusing Vili , Mary Kay was sent to prison for 7 years and Vili’s mother retained custody of the children and raised them. Upon her release from prison in 2004, Mary Kay married Vili, who by this time was an adult and had successfully petitioned that the no-contact order be lifted – and they have lived together as husband and wife with their daughters for the past 11 years.

As a sexual violence prevention researcher, the way this story has been portrayed in the media has angered me tremendously over the years.  Media stories have consistently referred to the sexual abuse of Vili as a love affair.  Barbara Walters interviewed Mary Kay upon her release from jail and asked her if the affair with Vili was “passionate”!!!  Walters again interviewed the pair in 2015 in an episode entitled: “Mary Kay Letourneau: Forbidden Love”.

Now imagine for a second that Mary Kay was a male 35-year-old teacher and Vili was a 12-year-old girl.  There is no way there would be a discussion of love, love affair, passion etc… This would be called what it is – sexual abuse.  Mary Kay Letourneau sexually molested Vili and she is a sex offender. While people often do not think of women as sex offenders, about 10% of all sexual offenses are committed by women.  While we know less about female sex offenders than male sex offenders, the research does suggest that the victims of female sex offenders suffer just as much as victims of male sex offenders.

Vili has stated in a televised interview that “I am not a victim” – but he is.  Vili was a minor – he was incapable of providing consent. Mary Kay was an adult, there are legal and cultural taboos about adults having sexual relations with children and as a society we have these in place for a reason. Sexual relationships with adults are damaging for children. In 2002, Vili and his family sued the school board for failing to stop the abuse.  He reported that because of his relationship with Mary Kay, he had suffered emotionally and dropped out of school.  While it is impossible to tease apart how much of this was due to the molestation and how much would have transpired anyway – I would venture to guess that the sexual abuse played a significant part in his troubles.

As a society, we have started to recognize that we must change our perceptions of sexual abuse and the language that we use to describe it.  However, yesterday as the news of the separation broke – headlines still referred to the abuse of Vili as a “relationship”, a “love affair” and that Mary Kay and Vili were “lovers”.  This is not okay.  This suggests that it is somehow all right for  35 year old woman to have sex with a 12 year old boy – and it is not.  While there is still a cultural infatuation with the hot sexy teacher, and Vili and Mary Kay even hosted several “Hot for Teacher” nights at a nightclub – this needs to change.  There are consequences to the children who are abused by adults, and using language such as “passion”, “lovers” and “affair” to describe sexual abuse only serves to muddle our understanding of what was in fact a crime.  Mary Kay Letourneau is a female sex offender and she sexually abused Vili Fualaau – we need to call sexual abuse what it is,  as this is the first step in preventing these types of events from occurring in the future.

Elizabeth L. Jeglic Ph.D.


John Jay College

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