In 1996 teacher Mary Kay LeTourneau repeatedly raped 12-year-old Vili Fualaau, a student in her sixth-grade class. Despite conviction of child rape charges, she served only a six-month jail sentence. Although ordered to stay away from her victim, two weeks after her release in 1998 she was caught in the midst of a sexual encounter with him. He was then 14 years old. She was returned to prison for an additional seven years. In 2004, after her release, a judge granted her victim’s request to lift the No Contact Order between the two. They married in 2005
The daughter of U.S. Congressman John Schmitz, Mary Kay and her siblings were reportedly raised in a conservative Catholic household in California. According to the Crime Library, her childhood was filled with trauma. Her brother died when she was 3 years old, and the family later discovered that her father had two illegitimate children. As a college student at Arizona State University, Mary Kay began dating fellow student Steven Letourneau. When she got pregnant, they reportedly followed the advice of family and got married, despite personal reservations. They moved to Alaska for Steve’s work, but were supposedly plagued by relationship woes. Though they went on to have four children, financial problems reportedly put further pressure on an already strained marriage. When Steve’s work took them to Seattle, Mary began taking courses to become an educator, successfully beginning a career teaching second grade in a Seattle suburb in the early ’90s.
A case study of the Mary Kay LeTourneau child rape case was used to investigate the relationships between gender, crime, and the media. Newspapers, television news, syndicated infotainment television programs, and national magazines were critically analyzed. A frame analysis of the newspaper coverage was completed and it was found that the Seattle Times and New York Times initially characterized LeTourneau as a typical criminal by focusing on official accounts of her crime. This was true for television news as well. After her incarceration, all media tended to represent her in terms of conventional gender stereotypes. LeTourneau’s criminal behavior was justified with several perspectives. Her bipolar diagnosis was used to excuse her actions. Also, LeTourneau’s failing marriage and personal tragedies assisted in representing her as a social victim who was forced into the involvement with her student. Her crime was often described in terms of the love between the two. LeTourneau’s social identity as a mother and teacher was emphasized over her criminal behaviors. Local television news often reiterated information that was broadcast on less objective tabloid-style infotainment programs. In doing so, the discourse presented LeTourneau as a media icon who received media attention on issues that were independent of her crime. “Totality” coverage that presented in-depth and lengthy representations continued this tendency to depict LeTourneau as a woman rather than a criminal. It was concluded that LeTourneau’s gender and her identity as an attractive, white, and middle-class teacher was the primary force that caused her representation to be positioned within sex-based stereotypes. By locating LeTourneau into an “appropriate” and constructed gender role, the media assisted in the manufacturing and upholding of our culture. Sex-based stereotypes of female criminals acted as organizational mechanisms that positioned the coverage into dominate ideological constructs of what it is to be a woman. Essentially, her social identity was defined by portraying what a woman is not—they do not rape. To accomplish this maintenance function, the media repositioned LeTourneau into traditionally accepted female roles of mother, teacher, and wife, opposites of a criminal.