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'I do not see you as predatory' politics of statuatory rape and journalism

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The Toronto Star loves writing about teachers behaving badly.

During my time at the Canadian Federation of Students, every time a “teacher scandal” hit the Toronto Star, a co-worker of mine would call me into his office to read the latest scandal together. It would be regular: a few times a month. Each time I’d think “Man, the Toronto Star hates teachers.”

Part of that is that I come from a family of teachers. We read the blue pages aloud. We debate the details (and unknown details) when we have the chance. Throw in some administrators and union reps among my aunts and uncles and you have a recipe for many an entertaining night.

Recently I’ve been unsettled by the relentless coverage of the case of Mary Gowans.

Gowans clearly overstepped boundaries in a relationship she had with a former student. Upon graduating Grade 8, the pair became questionably close. A judge is determining just how close, as Gowans faces a maximum 10-year sentence for sexual interference.

She had a relationship with this student. He babysat her kids, volunteered with her and exchanged up to 2,000 texts with her over a few years. Their relationship ended when the former student (a strapping young lad by accounts from the Star and Rosie DiManno) touched her and she (uncomfortable with how far it had gone) ended their “relationship.” He told his mother and charges were pressed. Closing arguments are ongoing on whether or not a legal line was crossed.

While reading the seemingly endless stories coming from the Toronto Star, I’ve felt uneasy. Yes, Gowans crossed a line. But why is she getting this level of attention from the mainstream press? Are all adults implicated in inappropriate relations with children held to the same standard?

Then I’m stuck with the story of Officer Curtis Borel. About the same age as Gowans, he was convicted of the charge that Gowans is being tried for: sexual interference. But, where Gowans’ version of sexual interference was horseplay and a questionable multi-year relationship where they may or may not have kissed, Borel admitted to raping a 15-year-old girl.

He was handed a 20-day sentence, served on weekends, and probation.

Now, I’m not an advocate that anyone should be in jail. With folks remaining in jail for organizing around the G20 who have all served more than a 20-day sentence (and who, none of them, were convicted of raping children), I see jail as the least effective way possible of dealing with people who “break the law.” So, this is not an advocacy piece for jail.

No. This is an advocacy piece for fairness.

Borel was sentenced at the beginning of August. Despite this, I can’t find any record of his case being covered by the Toronto Star. (To check, I Googled my name and Toronto Star and many hits over the past year surfaced. Hardly scientific, but helpful nonetheless).

This story isn’t complete as we don’t know the outcome of Gowans’ trial. However, to read the Toronto Star’s coverage paints the picture of a desperate woman who gambled her family and husband on a kid. Her life is ruined.

No doubt Borel’s is ruined too. But there’s a difference between Borel and Gowans’. She never had sex with her former student. Borel met his victim at a “party house” and articles about her paint her as reluctant, unsure and having had sex with him consensually…. as if a 15-year-old can consent to sex with a 39-year-old.

So, I remain torn. Is it the fact that Gowans is a teacher in Toronto, and Borel was a cop outside of the GTA that has changed the level of coverage? Doubt is, as the Toronto Sun covered the trial. Is it the fact that Gowan’s transgression is worse than Borel’s? No… Is a teacher subject to greater scrutiny than police… seemingly yes, in this case.

But, I also can’t shake out of my head that this has more to do with the fact that Gowans is a woman. The boy with whom she had a relationship is, despite being a boy and the victim, consistently described by his manliness: his athleticism, his height, his apparent strength. Gowans is painted both as a predator and a victim. Indeed, when you read through the “alleges” she comes off as a victim.

In Borel’s case, the victim is clearly a victim, but her hesitancy builds a narrative that Borel, who was in personal trouble, just decided to have consensual sex with…oops…. someone who turned out to be 15. It’s Trainspotting all over again (with a 10-year age difference turned into a 29 year age difference…). And, in the end, he (legally) got off pretty light. (no doubt that his life is otherwise ruined).

So, I’ll have to wait until the verdict in Gowans’ trial to make a better comparison.

But the questions still remain: what is with the Toronto Star’s obsession with teachers?

There are bad people doing their jobs poorly everywhere. The difference here is this: Gowans was, despite her transgressions, a highly popular teacher in her school. This builds a delightful, and easy narrative.

We have no idea what kind of cop Borel was… the newspaper coverage didn’t dredge up that kind of information.

But to me, this is a story of a one-way mirror.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a similar record of journalists who do their jobs poorly as we do teachers (or even cops). But journalists who write about these trials do so as if they exist in a vacuum. This does more damage than good both to the victim, the perpetrator and to the community at large.

It’s no secret that teachers having sex ignites the online world like little else (other than cute cat pictures): take a quick look around Fark and this is obvious.

However, mainstream papers have a duty to be consistent in their coverage. Stop with the public crucifixions of people (teachers, especially). Or, if you’re going to treat a Mary Gowans in this way, you better spend the same amount of resources (and Rosie DiMannos) on the Curtis Borels of the world.

So, with more questions than answers, I’m left with a simple piece of advice to the editors out there:

Journalists should  keep in mind that theirs is a distorted lens. They are not under the same scrutiny that they dish out and this gives them power. For example, no way would I write about the gross, lecherous behavior I’ve seen or have heard of undertaken by journalists (conferences are great for watching this), but I’ve heard and seen it happen. I’m unaware of anything to the extent of Gowans and Borels, but, just because no one’s writing about your sexcapades doesn’t give you a green light to destroy the lives of others.

Journalists: please, please please: use caution and keep your humanity as you yield your keyboards.

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