Double standard: Female sex offenders can get 'sweetheart deals'

TUPELO -- Females make up a minuscule percentage of sexual assault offenders, but many go unreported and unpunished.

Just 3 percent of the people listed on the state's sex offender registry for Northeast Mississippi are females. But officials say the actual number should be higher.

"One of the biggest problems is male victims are a lot less likely to come forward," said Tupelo Police Lt. Lynette Sandin. "There is a stigma, they are embarrassed."

In her nine years of working with victims, S.A.F.E. Inc. crisis counselor Susan Naron has only had one male sexual assault victim. And she worked with him over the phone.

"Many of them don't want to come forward, even though it is causing problems," Naron said. "There is a stigma to being a male victim."

And even when the victim does come forward, getting an indictment can be difficult. Investigators and prosecutors present the evidence, but at least 12 of the members of the grand jury must say a crime was committed before an indictment is handed down.

That challenge is harder when the victim is male and the offender is an older female. Some jurors view that more as a right of passage into manhood than a criminal act.

"There is a perception out there among some people that there is no such thing as a male sex victim," said District Attorney John Weddle. "Any time you present a case, it is subject to the combined perceptions, ideas and belief systems that each person brings to the jury.

"As a prosecutor, we try to set out the facts and explain what the law is. And sometimes the law can be confusing."

The law can be even more confusing dealing with teenagers having consensual sex. If one was under 16, the age of consent, a crime occurred according to the law and they could be facing five years in prison. If one was under 14, the older person could be facing a life sentence.

Grand juries are unlikely to charge dating high school students with a sex crime. But even when there is a wider gap in the ages, it is not always easy to get an indictment.

"We always have the victim testify," Sandlin said. "But sometimes they will come out and say they don't want the offender to be charged or go to jail.

"In the eyes of the law, a crime has been committed but it's up to the grand jury to hand down an indictment."

Sweetheart deals

Officials say there is a double standard when it comes to handing out sentences to sexual predators. When a female is convicted of a sexual assault, her sentence is often a lot less than a male counterpart.

"We had a schoolteacher who having sex with a 16-year-old student," said Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson. "She pleaded guilty and was given four months in prison and had to write a 1,000-word essay.

"If you flip them around and have a male offender and a female victim, they would throw the book at him. I have never had a male offender who didn't get a strong sentence. And a lot of times, they were run through the federal system as well."

Lee County Sheriff's Office investigator Donna Franks recalled a 33-year-old woman convicted of having sex with a 12-year-old boy. That offender got a plea deal that had her pay the victim's family $30,000 and saw most of her 20-year sentence suspended. She ended up only serving about two and a half years.

"Women can get some sweetheart deals," Franks said.

Changing the culture

In order to treat victims and offenders equally, without regard to gender, will require changing the mindset of society.

"The rape culture says men always want sex so you can't be a victim of sexual assault," said S.A.F.E. Inc. community educator Amelia Parkes. "When dealing with sexual assault, the culture says girls are the victims and men are the perpetrators."

The concept is so ingrained, that even some of S.A.F.E. Inc. literature on sexual assault lists "hostility toward women" and "unrealistic views of women" as warning signs. But in some cases, it is the women who are the aggressors.

"Some think the men are always willing participants," Parkes said. "There are certain physical responses to stimulation that a man can't stop, even under duress."

She cited the case of a college student who had too much to drink at a party and climbed into bed to sleep it off. A female who had a crush on him took advantage of him.

"He told her to stop, but in his condition, he wasn't able to fight her off," Parkes said.

April is National Sexual Assault Awareness Month. While counselors and other professionals deal with the impact on victims on a regular basis, they spend more time each April to talk to others. That includes everything from talking to teens to sponsoring events like Blue Jeans for Justice.