By Abby Bordelon and Eliza Holmes
Art by Ashley Xie
Content warning: discussion of sexual coercion and manipulation
You’re sitting in your high school English class, waiting for the teacher to arrive. You’re at a table in the back row, talking to your friends about what you all did over the summer. Then, the teacher walks in. He’s a tall, well-built man. You notice his bright, expressive eyes as he scans the classroom looking at his students. As your eyes meet briefly, you feel your heart starting to beat faster. You blush and think to yourself, he’s kinda hot.
Maybe this has just happened to the two of us, but we don’t think that’s the case. The “hot for teacher” trope is present in many movies and TV shows we’ve seen throughout our lives. When we both were young, we can remember “shipping” Ezra and Aria — #Ezria — from the show Pretty Little Liars, but what we didn’t realize was how horrible it was to want a predatory teacher and his student to end up together. Even now, rewatching the first episode of Pretty Little Liars, we find ourselves wanting Ezra and Aria to have a happy ending. I mean, he IS very attractive and sweet…wait, no! See, this is the issue with the portrayal of the hot for teacher trope in pop culture: we find ourselves in a perpetual contradiction, oscillating between discomfort from and support of student-teacher relationships.
Ultimately, this portrayal of student-teacher relationships is dangerous, as it romanticizes and normalizes the inappropriate aspects of such relationships. When young kids are exposed to these relationships in pop culture, they become desensitized to the possible danger of such situations. Because student-teacher relationships are so present in the media, young children may see these relationships as normal and start to imagine relationships with teachers. These crushes perhaps seem harmless at times, but they can morph into unsafe situations when teachers seek to abuse their power and take advantage of students. What is not addressed in Hollywood is how student-teacher relationships are often rooted in an imbalance of power dynamics, and if not addressed, may have serious consequences for developing healthy relationships going forward.
While Ezra and Aria’s relationship in Pretty Little Liars is portrayed as blissfully romantic for the most part, this is not a realistic portrayal: student-teacher relationships are anything but. The Washington Post revealed in a 2014 article that there were 781 cases that year of teachers in the United States convicted or accused of sexual relationships with students.1 The Post article claims that the issue lies in social media and text messaging. “Nearly 80 percent of youth ages 12 to 17 own a cellphone, and 94 percent now have a Facebook account.”2 This makes unsupervised, inappropriate communication between students and teachers easier, which can certainly exacerbate the issue. This fact, however, does not explain why the issue occurs in the first place. Why do teachers sexually assault their students and what factors contribute to putting students at such a high risk?
Teachers are already in an authoritative role over their students in a regular classroom setting. When a teacher wants to take advantage of students, they can use this power to their advantage and groom their students. Grooming is when a teacher makes a student feel special, either by singling them out, buying them gifts, texting them, or showing any other form of unique affection.3 Their victims are oftentimes vulnerable and may not even know that they are being taken advantage of, partially due to the normalization of fictional student-teacher relationships.
For example, in 2008, Gabriel Huerta, a student of Bonita Vista High School, joined the school’s band. Although new to the band, Huerta’s teacher Jason Mangan-Magabilin, appointed him drum major the following year, a position usually given to more experienced seniors. In the following years, Mangan-Magabilin began to show Huerta even more special attention by giving Huerta his number and hugging him. He even began to give Huerta rides after school and invited him over to his house during Huerta’s junior year. Huerta recalls that at the time he felt special and felt that Mangan-Magabilin would always be there for him, even in his darkest moments. Their relationship eventually became sexual during Huerta’s senior year of high school, and now looking back, Huerta feels he was robbed of many firsts, including his first kiss, boyfriend, and sexual encounter.4 While Huerta was led to believe his bond with Mangan-Magabilin was special, Mangan-Magabilin was using that bond to exploit Huerta and take advantage of him sexually. Huerta’s story is unfortunately one among many.
The portrayal of student-teacher relationships as acceptable and desirable in fiction needs to stop. If this idea is not as normalized in pop culture, maybe fewer teachers will take advantage of students. Teachers also need to be forcibly reminded that being in a position of power does not permit them to take advantage of their students. They do not get to use their power to manipulate students and take their autonomy away. We need to establish more definitive policies that set clear boundaries between students and teachers. We need to have more conversations as a society about how fictional couples such as Aria and Ezra proliferate misconceptions that romanticize student-teacher relationships. Hollywood needs to portray relationships in ways that do not normalize power imbalances. We need to better protect vulnerable students. We need to have some serious conversations about healthy relationships, and soon.
 Terry Abbott, “More Teachers are Having Sex with their Students,” The Washington Post, Jan 20, 2015.
 Abbot, “Teachers having Sex.”
 Kayla Jimenez, “Grooming is a Gateway to Sexual Abuse, But Schools Are Virtually
Powerless to Stop it,” Voice of San Diego, Jun 4, 2019.
 Jimenez, “Grooming is a Gateway.”