Hot for Teacher

Sex is never simple. Sarah Bench-Salorio, a 29-year-old Orange middle school teacher, was convicted on Jan. 6 in Orange County Superior Court of 29 counts of lewd conduct for having had sex with three boys, two of them her students, each of them 13 years old or younger. She had sex with one of the boys in a deserted parking lot, in the back seat of her car, after telling his parents that she would be tutoring him. She had sex with them for months, evidently with some degree of cooperation from the boys, since they bought condoms prior to the encounters and, said one lawyer, “enjoyed their encounters with her, even anticipating them,” according to the LA Times. She was married. She was depressed and bipolar. She had no criminal record. She was a “teacher so popular that students clamored to be in her classes.” She wrote poetry about the boys. At her sentencing, Bench-Salorio said, “For 27 years of my life I was an upstanding individual with principles. I'm a good person. I understand I made terrible mistakes . . . I will beg and pray for the forgiveness of the families and all of those I hurt.” As central casting as that makes her sound, I still think I believe her. The parents of the boys said things like “She violated the trust and respect we naturally had for her as a teacher” and “She is a pedophile and a sexual predator.” I believe them too. The judge gave her six years.

The photos accompanying the stories in the LA Times and the OC Register look nothing alike—honestly, she could be two completely different people.

The law is not simple, either, but it hacks away at ambiguity all it can—it needs guilty-or-innocent, black-and-white verdicts, and so does a public eager to dispense with nuance and multiple motivation and attain the relief of swiftly applied justice. The legal system, if you're caught up in it, feels a lot like Kafka, a maze of absurd human drama, but the ones in charge of it can't afford to sit there and marvel at it all: they've got judging to mete out. The attorneys in the Bench-Salorio case embroidered their clients' stories as much as the judge would allow, but in the end the gavel came down and the teacher was led away in cuffs and will spend the rest of her life as a registered sex offender, which is, of course, the contemporary form of the scarlet letter. She is a branded pedophile, in this country (where we are as willfully unnuanced about sex as we are complexly knowledgeable about, say, iPods) a bottom feeder if there ever was one. This woman who looks like two completely different women in the photos? We can officially stop thinking about her now.

The boys, though, are another matter. As un-P.C. as it is, what everybody I've talked to about this case almost immediately wonders—and not just the men—is this: How much did the boys willingly go along with all this? How much did they want this? How much damage has been done to them by being “molested” (or being sexually initiated) by an older woman? You don't ask these questions about female victims in sex offense cases, of course, and in the penalty phase the district attorney in this case claimed there was no difference between a boy being molested by a female teacher and a girl being molested by a male teacher. Defense attorney Al Stokke, though, said “there is a distinction. It's not right. It's still a crime. But it should still make for a distinction.”

The judge ruled against any distinction, but the questions remain. Most men I know can recall what it was like to be 12 or 13, in constant thrall to this extraordinary new mystery called coming, which required nothing more than a closed bedroom door or a bathroom stall and a few quick strokes of one's own hand. It's a time of endless fantasizing—an old woman's bra strap could get you going, or a housewife in curlers, bathrobe and slippers getting the morning paper as you trudged to school, not to mention a popular and crisply dressed middle school teacher. In Fellini's Amarcord, a boy's sexual initiation by an older woman is treated as a sweet and funny memory, with no ill aftereffects. I'm guessing, in fact, there are tons of men out there who look at those boys and say to themselves, “Lucky little bastards.”

Which, of course, is way too knee-jerk. Even if their encounters with Bench-Salorio weren't technically coerced, and they had some of their fantasies fulfilled (as well as some they weren't even mature enough to conjure up), they're going to pay for that. What are their relationships supposed to be like with teachers from now on? How will they relate to girls their own age, to older women? And what dreams (or nightmares) may come in the privacy of their own heads? How are they going to act out later?

I don't know the answers to any of these questions. I do know that Americans pretend—against all the evidence in the world—that their kids are sexually innocent, and that cases like Bench-Salorio's tend to hush us up even more: we want to nail the predator, we want to completely exonerate the victims, we want closure and moral clarity. So, fine: we've locked up the woman; she's where she belongs for now. But don't think that locks the questions away. Sex is never that simple.

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