Is Cougarism a new trend ?

More and more women being charged with having inappropriate relations with minors such as the Melbourne woman charged with having sex with a 14-year-old boy after befriending his mother and offering to do the school run have provoked an extraordinary range of reactions. The case, heard in court this week, has triggered an ethical debate about whether sexual crime committed by females should be treated the same as if the perpetrator had been male. Kimberley Annette Gale, 24, who pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual penetration of a minor, claims attention from the boy made her feel “like she was 16 again”. Her defence barrister described her crimes as at the lower end of offending and said she had a troubled childhood, appealing for a wholly suspended sentence. But the boy’s legal team wants a jail term.

Lawsuits like this highlight how, as a society, our attitudes are very different depending on gender. In response to the "school run sex" story, many described the teen victim as "lucky" for bedding an older woman. Meanwhile, Gale was portrayed as a “cougar” - a popular TV fantasy stereotype in 2010. Comments trivialising the issue included “Kimberley, can I get a lift to school as well?” and “It's not like the kid was raped, he was probably thinking more along the lines of 'yeeeewwww this is awesome!' Most people start having sex at 14/15 these days anyway.” Others, however, pointed out that if it was a 24-year-old man and a 14-year-old girl, they would probably not condone it.

So is it simply a case of schoolboy fantasy comes true? Or is it more sinister: a sexual predator grooming a minor before committing statutory rape? Consider this: boy has struggled with what happpened , according to the prosecutor, and cried when it was revealed. His mother, who had no reason to be suspicious of Gale after meeting her at a local football club, trusted her to deliver him safely to school. It was only when the school reported the boy had been turning up late that she made alternative transport arrangements. And on confiscating her son’s mobile, she intercepted a text from Gale saying she missed him and another saying she loved him.

Despite Gale's guilty plea, you can't help but wonder if her sentence will be as severe as it would be if she were a man and the victim a girl. Should they be treated the same? A friend argues they shouldn’t but is briefly stumped when I ask why. Then he replies that the fact a male would need an erection to have sex is a factor. And, in his opinion, that’s close to giving consent - if he was old enough. Plus, he says, she was quite young too: 23 when it happened.

Still, I'm not convinced. For a start, 14-year-old girls can be just as sexually precocious as their male counterparts but that doesn't mean an adult-aged man can assume they are “up for it”. At school, I remember a 13-year-old female classmate virtually propositioning a good looking young teacher whom she had dreamt of marrying. Irrespective of his job, it wasn’t a green light for sexual contact. And as for Gale’s age, we have to draw the line somewhere to distinguish childhood from adulthood. When you’re a legal adult, you automatically have responsibilities. That includes making sure your sexual partners are over the legal age of consent.  Sure, the punishment may not be as severe as if the boy were pre-pubescent - but it’s still a crime.

In another case that made headlines earlier this week, a 17-year-old village boy was gang raped by 10 knife-wielding women in Papua New Guinea. He was taken to hospital after the attack and police fear the women may have been infected with HIV. Suddenly the question of whether he had an erection - a biological impulse he may have been unable to control - or how old the women were seems irrelevant. Yes, the circumstances are very different, but he too is the victim of sexual crime. Hopefully his attackers are given the same jail term as a pack of males would get.

There have been numerous cases of women, usually portrayed as sexy Mrs Robinson-type characters from the film, engaging in sexual relationships with boys in recent years. They make headlines because they are more unusual than male-on-female sexual crime. But behind the entertainment lies a tragic truth. Many believe adolescent boys who are seduced by older women, as in Gale’s case, aren’t really harmed by their experience. But research suggests this simply isn't true. Boys suffer the same feelings of shame, depression and guilt as girl victims; problems that persist into adulthood.

With a high proportion of such cases never reported for fear they won’t be taken seriously – a worry, it seems, that is unfortunately justified –  perhaps we need to re-consider our response and have more sympathy for the boys involved. 

What do you think? Should women who commit sexual crimes against boys be punished in the same way as male offenders? Or are they different and, if so, why? 


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