Students and teachers often develop a close relationship, but what happens when that relationship becomes sexual? Michael Sheather discovers that the psychological and emotional effects are often devastating.
Stephanie* says she was innocent and naive before she first kissed the teacher. Yet that innocence disappeared the moment their lips touched.
"I'd never done anything like that before," says Stephanie, now 30, who fell in love and began a sexual affair with her 33-year-old drama teacher when she was just 17.
"I'd kissed a couple of boys at parties, but I'd never been with a man before, not like that. When he kissed me, I remember thinking that I must be the luckiest student in the school. I'd wanted him for so long and now there he was kissing me. I felt like all my dreams had finally come true."
The harsh truth about illicit student-teacher relationships is that the reality is almost never related to the fantasy. As Stephanie discovered when her teacher/boyfriend married someone else, student-teacher affairs are illegal for a good reason.
"I believed that I loved him and that he loved me," says Stephanie, now a mother of three and in counselling.
"I wholeheartedly believed we would run away together and that all my schoolgirl ideas about romance and love would come true. I was only a teenager and I had no idea how much he would hurt me."
Reports about inappropriate behaviour by teachers with their students appear to be on the rise. Just recently in England, a teacher and a 15-year-old schoolgirl made international headlines when they fled the country for France, where they hid out until authorities found them and extradited them home for the teacher to face charges over his relationship with a minor.
Here, in Australia, the laws between states differ, but all discourage sexual relationships between a teacher and a student, some even if the student is over the age of consent and the sex is consensual.
Every year, an estimated 25 teachers are suspended or deregistered in Australia for sex offences — many, if not most, because of inappropriate relationships with their students. Yet this, say experts, may be just a shadow of what is really happening in schools.
"I don't think we will ever truly know the extent of these relationships," says Dr Freda Briggs, Professor Emeritus of child development at the University of South Australia.
"The courts can only deal with cases where there is hard evidence. Many teachers have dubious relationships of one kind or another, but are never fully investigated because the student, out of loyalty or perceived affection, refuses to cooperate. And I suspect many more go undiscovered."
For Stephanie, secrecy about her affair with the teacher was paramount. "I was friends with this guy almost from the day he came to the school," she says. "He was tall and good-looking, with long hair and a ponytail. I had a crush on him from the first time I saw him," she says.
"He asked me and a friend to come to his place on weekends to play games. He was like one of us, laughing and joking, like he was one of the kids. Then, in Year 12, when I was 17, I helped him direct the school play and we worked side by side. That's when it all happened. We would exchange messages on the internet at night. That's when I told him how I felt about him, how I wanted to kiss him."
To Stephanie's surprise, the teacher admitted his own feelings. "I was shocked, to be honest," she says. "I expected him to say go away or stop or something, but he said that he felt the same way and that just put the green light to all those schoolgirl dreams."
That weekend, she visited him and they kissed for the first time and then had sex. Though the teacher was engaged to another woman — a woman only one year older than Stephanie, who had quit Year 11 at the teacher's previous school to be with him — Stephanie believed she was the most important person in his life.
"We were always worried about being found out," she recalls. "He told me I could never tell anyone, not even my best friends and certainly not my parents. I think people suspected, but we were careful not to show anything in public. It was our secret."
Stephanie's experience closely follows a classic pattern of behaviour observed by Dr Freda Briggs.
"Offenders often seem above reproach and most people would never suspect them. They relate to their victims as though they are kids themselves. That's one of their strategies and they use their position of power to create secrecy, mainly to protect themselves.
"These people cloak their actions in the language of love. Typically, they say they have a special bond with the teenager, make them feel special in some way or say they can help, but what it is really all about is power and sex. It's an exploitative relationship with all the power on one side."
*Names have been changed.
Read more of this story in the December issue of The Australian Women's Weekly.