By Barbara Goldberg
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A "Saturday Night Live" skit about a male student having sex with his female high school teacher painted the relationship as every teen boy's dream, but drew a firestorm of criticism on social media.
The reaction to the comedy sketch reflected a growing view among law enforcement and victims' advocacy groups that it is no laughing matter when a woman educator preys on her male students.
In U.S. schools last year, almost 800 school employees were prosecuted for sexual assault, nearly a third of them women. The proportion of women facing charges seems to be higher than in years past, when female teachers often got a pass, said Terry Abbott, a former chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Education, who tracked the cases.
This year's numbers are already slightly ahead of last year with 26 cases of female school employees accused of inappropriate relationships with male students in January compared to 19 cases the previous January.
Female educators who sexually abuse their students are facing tougher prosecution in part because there are more women police officers. There is also a greater awareness among prosecutors, judges and the general public that students who are victimized by an authority figure, regardless of gender, experience trauma with life-long consequences.
"Law enforcement is increasingly feminized, and women are much less prone to the old attitude: 'Oh, this is just some kid who got lucky,'" said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center. "They recognize the issues involved and they go after women who violate the statutes."
Depression, low-self esteem and difficulty maintaining future relationships are among the long-term consequences that male victims face, according to experts. Those problems are sometimes compounded by confusion and guilt over whether they are actually victims since their adolescent bodies involuntarily respond to physical contact.
Child abuse experts agree it appears female teachers are being prosecuted more vigorously than in the past.
The crackdown is the result of "two seismic shifts," said Christopher Anderson, executive director of Male Survivor, the largest U.S. advocacy organization for male sex-crime victims.
"One is a recognition that it does not matter who the perpetrator is or what the circumstances are. A teacher has absolutely no business engaging in sexual contact with a student," Anderson said. "The second is a shift in the culture where boys and their parents are feeling empowered to come forward to say that something has been done."
In recent weeks, a Stamford, Connecticut high school English teacher, Danielle Watkins, 32, whose case was prosecuted by a female state's attorney, was sentenced to up to 10 years in prison for having sex with an underage male student.
In Michigan, a female judge sentenced Kathryn Ronk, 30, a Spanish teacher at Bishop Foley High School in Madison Heights, to up to 15 years in prison for having a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old boy, saying "the law does not recognize a double standard."
In New Jersey, a female prosecutor said the most lenient plea deal she would offer Nicole Dufault, 35, a Columbia High School English teacher accused of sexual relationships with six teenage boys, was 15 years in prison.
There are contrary examples, such as Pennsylvania's Erica Ann Ginnetti, 35, the Lower Moreland High School math teacher who had sex with a 17-year-old student and was sentenced to 30 days in jail by a male judge who said, "What young man would not jump on that candy?"
That was after a female prosecutor reportedly said in court that the victim's senior year became a nightmare, his grades plunged and he still struggles with social interactions.
But the Twitter furor ignited by the April "SNL" skit in which a male judge fist-bumps a boy who had sex with his "hot" teacher indicates how attitudes are changing.
"Appalled by the #SNL sketch glorifying sexual abuse of a male student by female teacher. Sends the worst message &minimizes real experiences," tweeted Heather Timmis @hnt108.
An SNL spokesperson declined to comment.
There is no central U.S. reporting system for tracking female teachers who prey on male students, according to federal education officials, but Abbott has been charting the crimes from news coverage. His research showed that female teachers far more often than male teachers use social media to lure students, creating an electronic "paper trail" that may aid prosecutions.
School districts are increasingly moving to ban private social media contact between teachers and students, sometimes in an effort to prevent inappropriate relationships.
"Social media enables the behavior to start," Abbott said. "There is no way that a teacher is going to walk up to a kid in the hallway and say, 'Hey, would you like to see a naked picture of me?' They won't do it. But they will do that on social media. It's like it erases what used to be that barrier."
(This version of the story corrects to say Bishop Foley High School, not Madison High School, in 12th paragraph)
(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Scott Malone and Andrew Hay)