4 min

Beyond the sound bites

How Robin Sharpe became the devil

John Robin Sharpe -a notorious name in the imagination of Canadians and a name that has had a disturbing and constant presence in the minds of the morally righteous. Even those who admit supporting a good legal challenge, feel they must, out of a vague conviction, abide by decisions that “draw the line” when dealing with issues of consent and sex laws in general.

Drawing the line is what I have often heard when I’ve spoken of Sharpe’s legal challenges around Canada’s child pornography laws and most current sexual assault conviction for events that happened more than 30 years ago.

Defending freedom of speech can validate the right of Sharpe to produce photographs of young men and boys and his SM writing because the courts have said that they have artistic merit. But Sharpe’s legal battle over an alleged sexual assault on a boy has many Canadians drawing the line, and others outright celebrating their heroic efforts to obliterate “child” pornography and to undo everything that Sharpe, 71, represents.

Crusades to save children unfold in many ways and sometimes the mere connection of children and sex inspires a renewed trust in the courts, a renewed trust in consent laws and a now popular reliance on the idea that boys don’t know what they’re doing in the hands of old “dirty men” (who are de facto in positions of authority and trust).

Sharpe’s recent legal battle involves one of these boys who not only posed for Sharpe’s camera but who developed a consensual relationship with him more than 20 years ago. Since there is no statute of limitations on crimes of desire, the now 35-year-old man joined the band of crusaders to undo a part of his life, a public admittance that returns him to an age of innocence whereby he can point to the nation’s favourite paedophile and complete the legal crucifixion.

Yet Sharpe’s two-year prison sentence on this charge will hopefully inspire us to ask questions about the harshness of the sentence, given the nature of their relationship and the testimony of the 35-year-old man in March of this year, who admits to having “liked” Sharpe, “but if somebody did that to [his] kids,[he’d] want to kill him.”

“Liking” Sharpe is directly connected to being an 11-year-old boy and having memories of the relationship that aren’t negative. The moral position to defend his children comes from a 35-year-old father who admits his earlier transgression of social rules and behaviours, only to later in life abide by social norms.

What does this moral position, this social norm currently look like? Who partakes in assuring that moral positions about non-abusive, non-coercive relationships merit criminal convictions? Legal scrutiny is not something that the majority have or want access to. Instead we are left with media sound bites. The outcome is further moral panic about young persons and sex, and a disconnection from a social world that actually fuels ideas of abuse about intergenerational relationships under the guise of “protecting” children.

After Sharpe was acquitted by the Supreme Court in 2002 for his SM literary work, it didn’t take long before the morally concerned jumped in to try and save the nation, exemplified by the introduction of Bill C-12 which basically attempted to eradicate the artistic merit defence, which helped Sharpe win that case.

Det Noreen Waters is representative of this mission. She has been commended by the Vancouver Police Force and honoured in 2002 for her persistence to introduce new charges, the assault charges, that would convict Sharpe once and for all. She’s also been commended by rightwing groups like Focus On The Family, who praise her efforts as extraordinary because of who she is: a mother, a wife and a detective who despises everything that Sharpe represents – an older gay man who likes boys. It is ultimately Waters who searched out the now 35-year-old man. On one website she takes solace in her family: “I have a nice home, I do crafts, I make brooches out of antique pieces of jewellery and I teach Sunday school.”

Is it possible to expect Waters and those who support her to consider an alternative that might actually make a distinction between real abuse, coercion, harm, consensual relationships, photographs and literary writing?

The point here is to question the sound bites that appear as headlines. Take Rosalind Prober, the president of a group called Beyond Borders, who has been in the courts as a “friend” of the prosecution. This particular nonprofit organization against child pornography clearly state on its website that intervening in court cases is a priority because, apparently, “children come first.” Furthermore, their moral position already privileges their presence and input in the courts most certainly beyond any possible contribution that may come from alternative voices.

It is no wonder that the media flashes pay particular attention to the opinions of Prober, who, after Sharpe’s Jul 19 sentencing, vaguely referred to Sharpe as an “example of the link between child pornography and child abuse.” What does this actually mean? What is this space between child pornography and child abuse? The vagueness stems from a strange recognition that if there isn’t abuse then maybe evoking something in between will carry the same weight. Maybe naming Sharpe as that link will socially situate a new breed of sexual outcasts, those who continue to defy and continue to fight (via appeals) without shame, and as the Crown’s lawyer put it “without remorse.”

Whether we understand or want to understand Sharpe, we need to question the extent to which the most recent conviction is morally inspired and to place our critique on organizations such as Beyond Borders who have the authority and the voice to tell us what moral links we should fear.

The question here is not whether Sharpe’s relationship with the plaintiff was socially acceptable or repulsive, or whether the partial truths of the media should have a determining impact on how we respond. We need to respond with a cynicism that situates morally driven organizations in this country as the main instigators of panic and fear and expose their apparent good deeds as the real threat to democratic citizenship.

* Maria-Belen Ordonez is a doctoral student in Social Anthropology at York University, who has engaged in conversations with John Robin Sharpe as part of her work.