Sexual assault of teen challenges stigma

By Jennifer K. Woldt of The Oshkosh (WI) Northwestern May 29, 2008


There's an unspoken stigma attached to being a male survivor of a sexual assault.

Mental health experts and prosecutors said a male is thought of as a stud who has conquered the woman, not as someone who has been victimized by a woman, who many in society view as a mother rather than an individual whose face may be eligible to grace the pages of the state's sex offender registry.

"I think in general women are seen as less predatory in sexual situations like this," said Richard Gartner, a New York-based psychologist and psychoanalyst who has written extensively on the subject. "Often the view is she is mentally disturbed and not dangerous and she didn't really mean to hurt him because any boy wants sex."

Those expectations were challenged this week when Teresa M. Cantrall, 41, of Oshkosh, was charged with three counts of sexual assault of a child under 16 years old.

Cantrall is accused of having a sexual relationship with a 13-year-old Appleton boy, which was discovered after the boy told authorities about the relationship after he was pulled over for speeding on U.S. Highway 41 earlier this month. She told police she knew the boy was 13 and that it "was wrong to have sex with him but that she loved him very much and cared for him a lot," according to the criminal complaint filed in Winnebago County Circuit Court Tuesday.

Child sexual assault cases are not uncommon, but Winnebago County District Attorney Christian Gossett said the Cantrall case was unique because it involved an older woman and a young boy.

There have been 23 child sexual assault cases referred to the district attorney's office since Jan. 1. The Cantrall case is the only one involving an older woman and a young boy.

"It certainly is unusual for what we normally see, which is men assaulting younger women," Gossett said. "I don't know if it's that we're really seeing it happen more or that if when it does happen, it makes the news. And what makes it newsworthy is that it's unusual."

The Internet makes information about these cases more accessible, Gossett said, citing recent cases such as Debra Lafave, a former Florida middle school teacher who admitted to having sex with a 14-year-old male student, or Mary Kay Letourneau, a married mother of four who had two children with a student she later married after getting out of prison.

The unusual cases have even surfaced in Winnebago County in the recent past.

Laurie J. Mosher, 45, pleaded guilty to sexual assault of a student by school staff in 2002. The former Oshkosh North English and drama teacher had an eight-month sexual relationship with a 17-year-old student who was living with her. The relationship began in June 2000 and lasted through February 2001, according to the criminal complaint. After agreeing to a plea agreement, Mosher was sentenced to 30 months in prison followed by a period of extended supervision.

"I think it's hard for us to reconcile the perception of the woman as a mother and a woman as a sex offender," said Kim Hlavka, a therapist at REACH Counseling Services in Oshkosh. "We have certain expectations of a woman, that she's a mother and a nurturer in society. And that makes it hard for us to also see that she could be a sex offender."

In the past, a young boy involved in a sexual relationship with an older woman may have received a pat on the back, congratulations or be considered a stud for conquering the woman while a young girl involved in a similar relationship with an older man is seen as being victimized by a predator.

But that perception is slowly changing, said Gartner, who has written "Beyond Betrayal: Taking Charge of Your Life After Boyhood Sexual Abuse."

"I think that's the attitude middle aged men may have because they remember the crushes they had on a teacher when they were young and they imagine if they had acted on it, they would be happy," Gartner said. "But often boys that get involved, even if it's a time when they're willing and in charge, later on they discover they have all kinds of social, emotional, sexual and addictive problems."

While they believe they should be happy, the boys instead experience problems such as being cut off from friends and family or not being able to talk to others about the anxieties they are facing as a result of the relationship, Gartner said.

Sexual assault remains an underreported crime, but slowly more cases are coming to the forefront as people, especially males, realize the importance of coming forward with their stories, Hlavka said.

"We don't get as many survivors out there, but it does happen," she said. "In professional circles we're acknowledging it more and we're getting there in society in terms of accepting that boys can also be victims."

Jennifer K. Woldt: (920) 426-6676 or jwoldt@thenorthwestern.com.

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