3 min

Student/teacher relationships

Professional misconduct or sex crime?

TEACHER AS TEMPTRESS. It is important to guard against abuses of professional power, but we need to ditinquish between a professional boundary violation and a sex crime. Credit: Ablestock

On Mar 6 teacher Paola Queen was arrested for allegedly having sex with a male student at Toronto’s Nelson A Boylen Collegiate Institute. The arrest was made as the result of an anonymous tip, and not based on a complaint from the student, who is believed to be 16 or 17. Queen faces one count of sexual exploitation. She’s been released on bail and will next appear in court on Tue, Apr 17.

Queen was arrested under Section 153 of the Canadian Criminal Code, which makes it a criminal offence for an adult to have sex with anyone under the age of 18 if they are in a position of authority over the youth. It’s a relatively new law, implemented in 1985, which has led to the criminalization of consensual sexual relations between teachers and students that were not illegal, nor necessarily seen to be harmful before 1985. (If there is no question of authority, the age of consent is 14, though there is currently a bill in Parliament that would increase that age to 16. See page 7 for more.)

The problem with Section 153 of the code is that it views 16- and 17-year-olds as children in need of protection. The conceptual slippage between child, adolescent, preteen and teen enables adults to conflate what are otherwise significant developmental life stages. We now regard a teen of 16 — old enough to get married — as a child. This conflation allows police to criminalize more sexual activities than they could in the pre-1985 era.

The criminalization of Queen is a case in point. The police arrested the teacher in the absence of a complaint from the supposed victim. No evidence of abuse or trauma is forthcoming; the age of the student counts as evidence of abuse in and of itself. The student (whose name has been withheld due to a legal ban) apparently does not see himself as a victim and has refused to cooperate with police gathering evidence. According to media reports, both the families of the so-called victim and of the accused approved of the couple’s 18-month-long relationship and are also not cooperating with the criminal investigation. The clandestine couple were living together at the time of Queen’s arrest and, in fact, preparing for the birth of their child.

Even Det Peter Duncan admitted in a public statement to the press that the teenager did not appear traumatized by the relationship, though he said, “This could be a young man who could take years to fully understand the impact on his life [of such an affair].”

As queer folk, we know that the law is used to regulate and discipline sex that heterosexual majorities view to be “abnormal,” “unhealthy” and “dangerous to children.” The real issue here is a paternalistic Criminal Code that refuses to recognize developmentally mature older teenagers as having sexual agency and the capacity to consent. It is important to guard against abuses of professional power, but we need to distinguish between a professional boundary violation and a sex crime.

We also need to stop and take notice that an unprecedented number of women teachers in Canada have been arrested as criminals for entering into consensual sexual relations (or mere flirtations) with mature teens. While heterosexual male teachers are far more likely to commit indecent assaults against students it is female teachers who are subject to sensational press coverage, and most likely to face professional discipline and criminal investigations. Given the disproportionate attention to female teachers we must ask if the uproar is really about protecting youth.

Professional panic about lascivious female teachers also includes those who have flirtations and/or queer sex with students. Ontario teacher Leanne Carla Robinson (formerly Leanne Carla Hanselman) lost her teaching certification for befriending a female 12th-grade student, inviting her to her apartment for the purposes of engaging in sexual activity and watching “pornographic” videos. Susanne Gagne was arrested in 1992 for allegedly having sex with a female student. British Columbia teacher Darlene Smart was similarly subject to professional discipline, criminal investigations and sensational media coverage for “fondling” and “kissing” teenage female students.

My queerdar tells me that the sex panics are not really about harm to minors so much as they are about fears of nonnormative or “queer” sex in schools. The gender-role reversal (older woman in position of power/younger male student) in cases like the one involving Queen, fuels the panic. The sex is being read as queer —not in the homosexual sense, but at odds with missionary and heteronormative rules about who should be “on top.” The infractions may also be read as incestuous because female teachers are coded as asexual, motherly figures with male students cast as sons. Both queer and incestuous readings set off homophobic alarm-bells.

The recent film Notes On A Scandal, starring Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett (both Oscar-nominated for their performances), brilliantly depicts the intimate cultural association between homosexuality and paedophilia in the school. Dench, as the repressed-lesbian admirer from afar, falls for the teenage-boy-loving teacher played by Blanchett. The interesting twist to the story is that the vilification of Blanchett’s character was fuelled not by a concern about child welfare, but by lesbian desires (possessed by the older teacher played by Dench) that could not be realized due to homophobic prohibitions.

I suggest that we take notes on real-life scandals, like the Queen case, and consider the extent to which female teachers are persecuted, not for violating the sexual innocence of teenaged boys, but for upsetting heteronormative protocols in schools.