Raise your hand if you’ve ever wanted to bang a teacher.
For as long as I can remember I fantasized about screwing an educator, but every year I was foiled. My teachers were either kindly old lesbians or profusely sweating heavy-set men with tobacco-stained teeth. Excellent educators and wonderful people, all of them, but not a sexual prospect in sight. I didn’t get my first attractive teacher until my last year of grad school. He had a full head of brown hair with a sprinkle of gray at the temples, wore elbow-patch blazers like Indiana Jones and smelled of pine cones and wisdom. I was newly married and not looking to mess that up. I graduated a year later without ever giving a blowjob during office hours.
The teacher is an enduring fantasy, like the librarian or the cheese guy at the deli (that just me?). It is this fantasy that makes us want to read works like Alissa Nutting’s Tampa. As adults who have made their way past AP Algebra, we can see both sides of the equation.
1) Banging a high school teacher would have been the ultimate conquest and made for a shocking story to tell at cocktail parties in my thirties.
2) Banging a high school teacher would have made me the victim of a sexual predator and would have caused irreparable damage to my psychological well-being.
Which witch is which? Nutting’s Tampa, the story of a twenty-six-year-old eighth grade teacher who screws her fourteen-year-old male students, takes us inside the question.
Tampa’s obvious comparator is Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Nutting herself said she wished to provide a contemporary Lolita, and the homage to Nabokov is evident, particularly in the early part of her text. Celeste, the aforementioned teacher, is rolling the idea of a pubescent boy around in her mind the same way that Humbert Humbert thought about his nymphets. Nabokov’s language was more delicate than Nutting’s – I can’t remember him ever mentioning a rimjob, for example – but both books deal with an intelligent paedophile. That shared theme is about as far as the comparison should go. Nabokov’s prose, and his mastery of satire, announce Lolita as a Literary Work. Nutting’s Celeste character is a hyperbole of the female paedophile archetype, but the attempt at satire is not well-formed enough to keep the dirty bits from seeming needlessly dirty. Celeste sucks a lot of fourteen-year-old cock, and if the intention was satire, I’m not sure the narrative required each and every blowjob to keep the story moving forward.
There’s another big difference between Tampa and Lolita, more important than even the blowjob count: the gender of the protagonist. Male and female sexual predators are treated differently in the public imagination. Public opinion about the male predator is easy; he’s a monster, throw away the key. But the female predator? That depends. How hot is she?
The more apt comparison is between Tampa and other examples of female paedophiles in our culture. So in this, as in many literary conversations, I’d like to draw our attention back to season one of Dawson’s Creek. The year was 1998. A young Canadian named Joshua Jackson who had not yet grown into his looks was playing the role of Pacey Witter, and an English teacher named Tamara was about to rock his world. The Tamara and Celeste characters aren’t identical, but they’re a better fit than Celeste and Humbert. Tamara, played by Leann Hunley (Anna DiMera on Days of our Lives) was in her late thirties or early forties when she was popping teenage cherry, and she was divorced, not a newlywed like Celeste. Otherwise the storylines run in parallel. In both cases it is the teacher who begins the flirtation—Tamara by renting The Graduate from Pacey at the video store, Celeste by asking fourteen year-old Jack Patrick to stay after class. In both cases the first sexual event, a kiss, happens in the classroom but the relationship is consummated at a deserted outdoor location. Both teachers make advances at adult males and in both cases these advances serve to confirm the women’s belief that adult males are “yucky” (paraphrasing).
Both Celeste and Tamara’s stories are based on real cases. Nutting has explained that Celeste is based on Debra LaFave. LaFave is most famous as the “too pretty for jail” defendant. Her defense successfully argued that she was so beautiful that she was certain to be the victim of sexual violence if placed in the general prison population. She was sentenced to three years house arrest. Pacey and Tamara’s romance was based on the relationship of Washington state school teacher Mary Kay Letourneau and a twelve year old student. Letourneau was incarcerated for six years and had two children by her student before he was fifteen years old.
At the end of the Celeste/LaFave story, the teacher has lost her spouse, friends, and livelihood, and is understood to be a sexual predator. At the end of the Tamara/Letourneau story, the teacher and student are still in love. Which is the better narrative? If we’re going to talk about hot female teachers having sex with their students, what’s the right way to end that story?
Nutting’s book has been criticized as pornographic, as smut without substance. Though I may object to the volume of sexual activity and the grace with which it is handled, this book isn’t smut. She’s no Nabokov, but if we’re going to talk about a teacher as a sexual predator, that story has to include sex. If you think of the story of Tamara and Pacey, as I often do, you’ll remember that sex was a side note in their relationship. Yes, she took his virginity, but that was less important than the fact that they were in love. Tamara can’t help but love Pacey. She even tries to initiate a relationship with a man closer to her age (Dawson’s teacher, Pacey’s brother), remember? Eventually, amid rapidly spreading rumours, in the interest of true love, Pacey stands up before the school board and says he fabricated the stories of Tamara’s affair with a student. He claims the only place such an affair exists is in his own imagination. Tamara leaves town. They remember each other fondly. Tamara isn’t a predator; she’s a confused woman in love with the hero from The Mighty Ducks. Pacey? He’s not the damaged victim of sexual abuse; he’s just a kid who got to live out a fantasy.
Tampa ends differently. Celeste doesn’t go to jail; like LaFave she’s too beautiful. She moves to a beach town and lures boys by pretending she’s a college student. She knows that in a few years she’ll grow too old to pass for college-aged and she’ll have to move again, to an urban centre with a supply of teenaged prostitutes. And what about her victim/partner? What about Jack? In the LaFave case, ‘too beautiful for jail’ failed to tell the whole story. LaFave refused to accept any plea that included prison time and was prepared to go to trial. Then CourtTV got involved and announced they would be broadcasting the trial. The parents of the victim had no choice but to agree to the house arrest plea. Their son had undergone serious trauma and they didn’t want to put him through the shame of a nationally televised trial. So LaFave served no jail time because of the trauma suffered by her victim.
When I summarized the plot of Tampa for my usually reasonable husband, he snorted “that’s not rape.” I raised an eyebrow.
“Every teenaged boy dreams of sleeping with a teacher,” he explained.
“Every teenaged girl dreams of sleeping with a teacher,” I countered.
“Obviously that’s wrong. You can’t allow teachers to exploit young girls like that.”
Society, we have a hot-for-teacher problem. Kids, please don’t sleep with your middle- or high-school teachers. That’s what college is for. You’ll probably regret it no matter your age but once you can legally buy wine you’ll be better equipped to deal with the fallout.
Artists and art consumers, please think critically about your student-teacher sex narratives. Perhaps some of the scenes in Tampa are difficult to stomach, and perhaps the attempt at satire falls flat, but if we’re going to talk about the Paceys and Tamaras, I want it to be clear that the motivations are sexual, not romantic.
– Eva Jurczyk is a writer and librarian in Toronto. She blogs about books and Kanye West at Red Brick Reads.