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Why Sexual Exploitation by a Teacher Is So Intensely Damaging

Why student-victims of teacher sex abuse frequently struggle to recover.

Key points

  • Society is largely ignorant about the devastating damage of sexual relationships between teachers and students.
  • Because of the unique and powerful role teachers hold in children's lives, any form of abuse or exploitation is magnified.
  • While the law prioritizes harm to the body when children are abused, it is the harm to the brain that makes teacher abuse long-lasting.
Cheryl Holt/Pixabay
Source: Cheryl Holt/Pixabay

Children are taught from kindergarten to trust, obey, and respect teachers. They are easily confused and manipulated by the small minority of teachers who abuse them.

Because few children are taught to recognize the red flags of abusive teachers, they may not be able to identify the abuse as it occurs. This deep confusion applies to emotional, psychological, physical, verbal, and sexual abuse. Frequently, these categories blur as an abusive teacher manipulates students to access a target.

Children are taught that teachers have the power to assign a value to them

Children are taught from a very young age, and the lesson is repeated daily, that teachers have the expertise to assess their abilities and their character. Children grow up in a society that assigns teachers enormous power to issue grades and write commentary about children in the present that can create or deny opportunities in the future.

Children are dependent on teachers to pursue and succeed at all aspects of their schooling, which includes the pursuits they are passionate about, whether in academics, arts, or sports. The dependence, power imbalance, and lifelong training to trust, obey, respect, and accept a teacher’s professional assessment make students vulnerable to the few educators who abuse and exploit them.

Teacher abuse blurs the lines between care, assessment, and exploitation

When a teacher grooms a child or lures a child into a sexual relationship, they blend the role of being in loco parentis (a caretaker) with the role of an assessor who opens and closes doors for the child in the present and future. The child knows that the teacher can enhance or block their ability to pursue what they love. Teachers who exploit children use their powerful position to weaponize a child’s passion against them if they do not submit.

The teacher can respond with affection or humiliation, care or cruelty. Many children believe it is their conduct that earns these teacher responses without understanding that they are being manipulated into being complicit to avoid displeasing the teacher and potentially “getting in trouble” with administrators or parents.

Children rarely report such abuse to parents because they do not have the experience, knowledge of abuse, or words to articulate or even understand the abuse that is occurring. They may not want their parents to think that they have displeased their teacher.

The lasting harm of teacher abuse

Frequently, a victim’s first experiences of romance, love, and sex are with an exploitative, abusive teacher. As adult survivors, these intimate experiences may be linked to abuse and cause many symptoms that block their ability to connect and trust others. Moreover, it has been documented on brain scans that childhood sexual abuse victims have neurological scars associated with the brain and body’s sexual function.

It is not just the body that is violated by grooming and sexual abuse. It is also the brain. Victims are left betrayed, confused, and unable to answer questions. The brain struggles to function healthily when it cannot make meaning of the world. As Michael Merzenich’s research documents, this can lead the brain into a “depressive suicidal swamp.”

Teachers who abuse are patient. Their behaviour is not impulsive; it is deliberate. They cast a wide net and test how far they can get with a number of potential victims until they hone in on a student who is vulnerable. With every passing manipulative act and exploitation, the brain becomes scarred.

Once a target is identified, the abusive teacher slowly erodes the child’s ability to understand their progressing relationship as harmful and manipulative. The power imbalance is so vast that the child simply does as he or she is told until they believe they are complicit in their abuse.

Identifying with the aggressor

“Identifying with the aggressor” is comparable to Stockholm syndrome, in which a hostage will bond with their captor. This bonding occurs because the brain is aware that the captor could harm or kill the hostage at any moment. The bond intensifies as a survival strategy to the point where the captor, in the mind of a hostage, morphs into a protector.

This phenomenon parallels what goes on in a child’s developing brain while being exploited by an adult in a position of trust and authority. The child’s brain informs them to put survival first and that means doing what the teacher demands.

Abusive teachers often threaten the child by saying the child is complicit in the sexual relationship and that they will both be exposed. They may threaten the child, who often has a loyalty bind and wants to protect their abuser. An abusive teacher may tell their victim that if they speak up, the teacher will get in trouble.

Victoria Model/Pixabay
Source: Victoria Model/Pixabay

Betrayal trauma

As studied by Jennifer Freyd and Pamela Birrell, these kinds of “betrayal traumas” are well-documented to do serious harm to victims over their lifespans, especially when not identified and treated by mental health professionals.

Frequently victims have so thoroughly identified with the aggressor—the teacher who exploited them—that they fully dissociate and do not address their internal crisis until midlife, or until symptoms become so debilitating that they need to seek support and help. They remain “blind” to their betrayal as a strategy to survive and not alienate the powerful adult upon whom they depend.

Dissociation

Dissociation allows the trauma from teacher abuse to be isolated and unexamined in order to remain safe from it. One part of the self knows that teachers receive trust, obedience, and respect; the other part knows one teacher is untrustworthy, dangerous to obey, not deserving of respect, and cannot integrate. This is a brain that cannot answer the question. It cannot make meaning.

Reconciling these two parts of the self can take many years as they are contradictory and society has not prepared children to recognize this confusing, frightening, destructive fact.

Child abuse committed by teachers in positions of trust and power can result in significant, lasting harm to the mental and physical health of victims throughout their lives.

The conflicted agony suffered by abuse victims frequently leads them to harmful coping mechanisms such as self-medicating with alcohol and drugs, entering into abusive relationships, failing to fulfill their potential, and self-harm including suicide.

The child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome

The “child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome” was documented by Roland Summit, who found that when children reported the abuse, they were frequently dismissed, the abuse was denied, and the child was blamed. The child victim internalized the abuse as if it was their own fault, becoming a “monster” in their own eyes, full of self-loathing and guilt.

This re-victimization of children occurs because abusive teachers are almost always intelligent, charismatic, in leadership positions of one kind or another, and have taken extensive time to groom their higher-ups, colleagues, and parents. These carefully cultivated bonds with adults and other students insulates them against reports of abuse.

Children need to be educated, as they are in academics, arts, and sports, about adult abuse, how to recognize it, how to report it, what vocabulary to use, and how to remain safe. Protection for children at school continues to be lax and rife with conflicts of interest. School leaders need to make child safety an absolute priority.

References

Freyd, J. & Birrell, P. (2013). Blind to Betrayal. New York: Wiley.

Merzenich, M. (2013). Soft-wired. San Francisco: Parnassus

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