At first, I didn’t realize that my family’s origin story was a little off. I have a distinct memory of showing my music teacher a copy of my dad’s senior yearbook, pointing out the pictures of my parents with no real awareness of anything strange. My sister and I would pore over the words my mother had inscribed in that yearbook, giggling over her cringe-inducing inspirational message, but never considering much beyond its cloying sincerity.
Like Mary Kay Letourneau, like Brigitte Macron, my mother is a woman who married her former student. And like their respective husbands, Vili Fualaau and new French president Emmanuel Macron, my father was a minor when they met. Though there are differences between my parents’ story and the others—the age gap between my parents is less than half that of those couples, and my father was 16 when he met my mother—it feels disingenuous for me to deny that, on a fundamental level, my parents are like these scandalous couples.
I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to come to terms with the start of my parents’ relationship. And every time a woman like Letourneau or Macron winds up back in the news, I’m reminded once again that the love story that led to my existence is one that many people find appalling, abhorrent, and borderline unacceptable.
In the early 1970s, my father was a student at a private high school in suburban New England. My mother, an unhappily married twentysomething with a young child, was a teacher at that school. My dad was an underachiever, a troublemaker who hadn’t really believed in himself until his teachers (including, of course, my mother) saw his potential and transformed him into the impressive scholar I’ve known my whole life.
The details of how my parents went from student and teacher to friends to romantic partners have always been opaque. It was only after a night of drinking with my cousins, whose parents had been more forthcoming about those days than my own, that my mother began to open up at all. She explained how she’d first befriended my aunt, who’d connected my mother’s family with an apartment when their housing fell through. That apartment quickly became an after-school hangout spot for a number of students, including my dad. My mother and her first husband would hang out with the teens, an activity she insists was considered far more normal in the 1970s.
Spending time with my father, my mother has told me, made her realize that she enjoyed his company more than that of her husband. She eventually filed for divorce, and three and a half years after my father graduated high school, my parents wed. At their wedding, my father was 22. My mother was 32.
Growing up, the tale of how my parents met was just a quirky story. But as I edged into adulthood and developed a deeper understanding of the world, that story took on a darker cast. By the time I was in college in the early aughts, Mary Kay Letourneau, the Washington-based teacher who’d been impregnated by her then-12-year-old student, had reached the trashy biopic level of fame. During one winter break I devoured the Mary Kay Letourneau: All American Girl biopic when it aired on USA, hoping that this peek into the life of a famed sexual predator might help me understand what might have driven my mother.
Perhaps it was odd that I felt such a strong connection to Letourneau—most people would argue that, whatever similarities to their stories, a woman who pursues and has sex with a 12-year-old is vastly different from one who eventually partners with a young man she first met when he was 16. And, though maturity levels vary wildly from individual to individual, there is likely a significant difference between an adult feeling attraction to a tween, and feeling attraction to a teen who’s legally capable of consenting to sex. Regardless, learning the lurid details of Letourneau’s tale didn’t end up offering me any clarity.
Neither did my own stint as a twentysomething high school teacher. If anything, being routinely exposed to the clumsy, raw sexuality of adolescent boys, fending off their leers—and, on one occasion, gropes—made me that much more confused about my mother’s actions. What did it say about her that, as an adult, she’d found this sort of immaturity appealing? What lapse in judgment had allowed her to abandon all propriety and forge first a friendship, then an intimate relationship, with one of her students?
When I reached the cusp of 30, though, something began to shift. One of my former students—the charismatic shining star we’d all known was going to be somebody one day—had started working the front desk at my gym, and after a year of increasingly flirtatious chitchat, we eventually went out for drinks. At 22, about the age both Fualaau and my father were when they wed their older women, he seemed worlds away from the 15-year-old I’d had in my class.
I invited him back to my apartment. I gave into the temptation that had lured Letourneau, Macron, and my mom. And as we undressed one another, I began to see how the boundary between teacher and student, between an older woman and a younger man, can so easily disintegrate, leaving behind nothing more than two eager, amorous people.
When Americans learned that Brigitte Macron happens to be 24 years older than her dashing 39-year-old husband, setting off the predictable chatter about the oddity of seeing a post-menopausal woman paired off with a man in his prime, commentators were quick to point out that the age difference mirrored that of Donald and Melania Trump—and that few of us had batted an eye at the thought of a male septuagenarian paired off with a beautiful woman still in her forties.
Yet as more details of the Macrons’ relationship surfaced, the comparison felt fuzzier. Would we feel as okay with Donald and Melania if they’d met while she was still in her teens? If a 15-year-old Melania had become acquainted with a 39-year-old Donald as a student in his classroom, would it still feel normal?
Gender has always been a factor when it comes to discussions of sexuality, and youth sexuality in particular. Early consent laws were solely concerned with protecting female virginity; it wasn’t until the late 20th century that American consent laws even began to consider the possibility that young men might need legal protection from sexual exploitation and abuse. As late as 1981, the Supreme Court was voting to uphold consent laws that only protected young women.
Though we’ve since embraced both the concept of a gender-neutral age of consent and the existence of female sexual predators, it’s impossible to ignore the way our sexist ideas about gender, libido, and power shape our ideas of what sexual exploitation looks like—and, by extension, offer a degree of clemency to attractive young women who pursue teenage boys, no matter the air of impropriety.
There’s an agency afforded to adolescent boys that we don’t give their female peers—an assumption that if sex is on offer, they’ll readily want it. Exploitation and sexual abuse are assumed to be things that can only happen to women or, in some cases, between two men (as Milo Yiannopoulos learned when he attempted to defend pederasty). While young women who fall prey to older men are presumed to be manipulated and abused—a belief that’s taken to task in both Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel, Diary of a Teenage Girl, and Wendy C. Ortiz’s memoir, Excavation—young men drawn to adult women are presumed to merely be answering nature’s call.
It’s a tension explored in a 2006 episode of South Park titled “Miss Teacher Bangs A Boy,” where police officers shrug off reports that a kindergarten teacher is sleeping with a student after learning that, first, she’s a woman and, second, she’s hot. In a similar vein, Alissa Nutting’s 2013 novel Tampa offers up the tale of Celeste Price, a beautiful sociopath who meticulously plots her way into the pants of her pubescent male students.
Nutting has said that the book is intended to “challenge and engage” our cultural blind spot around the male victims of sexual assault. Yet in some ways, Tampa reinforces that blind spot rather than exposing it. Price’s targets are presented as eager, sexually curious 14-year-olds who are—to the extent that it’s possible—consenting to her sexual attentions.
Indeed, by offering up numerous examples of young men who decline Price’s advances, Nutting (perhaps unintentionally) makes Price’s eventual sex partners seem complicit in their statutory rape. As Charlotte Shane notes in a review of the book, the “tacit suggestion is that if Celeste were motivated by love or planned to marry [her victim] once he’d graduated high school… [he] would have ended up happier than he does at the novel’s end.”
Though young women are presumed to be damaged by the experience of sex itself, young men are only seen as suffering if the ultimate outcome of their sexual exploits is a negative one. It’s a toxic, sexist conviction—but the degree to which we’re socialized to believe it seems capable of transforming it into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It’s difficult to say how much my parents benefited from these gendered assumptions at the time when they got together; I’ve received conflicting stories on how scandalous my parents’ peers considered their pairing. But for me, at least, it’s somewhat easier to accept the story of my dad falling for and marrying his hot, older teacher than it would be if the genders were reversed. The inherent power imbalance created by their social roles feels offset by the one imbued by their genders.
Last week, it was announced that Letorneau and Fualaau had split. The social media reaction was predictable: Letourneau was again decried as a pervert, a rapist who’d robbed Fualaau of his childhood and whom he was lucky to be rid of. But the celebration may be a bit premature. According to Radar, Fualaau has said the separation was only because he wants to start selling marijuana cigarettes, and being married to a sex offender is bad for business; reports say he and Letourneau are still together.
Even if that’s not the case, it’s worth noting that, in spite of everything, their relationship spanned over two decades. They’ve raised two children together, they’ve stayed loyal to one another through criminal trials and being the subject of media circuses and Mary Kay’s seven-year prison sentence. Though longevity doesn’t necessarily indicate a relationship’s health, it seems impressive that, against all odds, Fualaau and Letourneau have withstood a degree of stress and tension and drama that would crumble most marriages.
My parents have been married for more than four decades. They’ve raised three children together, they’ve moved around the country—around the world!—together, been loyal to one another through trauma and tragedy and heartbreak. My parents love each other more than most couples I know, and it often feels like that reality has to outweigh the transgressive nature of their foundational story.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fully condone the events that brought my parents together. But I also can’t discredit the love, the life, and the family that’s persisted decades after my mother’s initial transgression. I understand why people look at women like Mary Kay Letourneau and Brigitte Macron and see vile, abusive monsters. But for me, it’s hard to look at the lives these women have built with their husbands and not see a glimpse of the close, loving family of which I’m proud to be a part.