Splashed across the front pages a few weeks back was the high school yearbook photo of North York teacher Paola Queen, arrested for allegedly having sex with a male student.
Further salacious details were offererd: she is reportedly pregnant with her student-lover's child and is not allowed to have contact with him pending a court date April 17.
Queen, a family studies teacher at Nelson A. Boylen Collegiate Institute in North York and a former Catholic Children's Aid Society child protection worker, is not the first female educator to face professional castigation and criminal investigation under section 153 of the Canadian Criminal Code (which stipulates that it's an offence to have sex with a young person age 14 to 17 with whom one is in a relationship of trust or authority.)
This is a relatively new law, and it's riddled with problems. It doesn't demand evidence of abuse and assumes that mature teens are necessarily traumatized by sex with adults. Section 153 also fails to differentiate between sex based on consent and sex based on coercion and the flagrant abuse of professional power. The fact is, if Queen were not a teacher, the sex would not have been illegal. Society seems to care less about whether a relationship is coercive, harmful or consensual than about the age of the younger party.
Since section 153 was passed in 1985, an escalating number of female teachers have been vilified as pedophiles, sexual predators and dangerous to youth.
In the Queen case, the clandestine couple lived together prior to the arrest. The boy (unnamed due to a legal ban) was 16 or 17 when the affair began and is refusing to lay charges. The families of the alleged victim and the accused, who knew about and approved of the relationship, are not cooperating with police. The couple were preparing for the birth of their child.
Moreover, there was no victim complaint statement, and police arrested the teacher acting on an anonymous Crime Stoppers tip. Certainly, there is nothing laudable about the teacher's behaviour. It is a professional boundary violation. But should we continue to classify such instances as abuse, particularly when child protectionists fail to demonstrate harm?
Of course, female teachers (like any adult in a position of care, trust and responsibility) can harm those we designate as under age. But there needs to be a distinction between a professional boundary violation and a sex crime.
Then there's the problem of slippage between "child," "adolescent," "preteen," and "mature older teens above 16" that enables police, school administrators and child protection workers to step in where they are not always needed (or wanted).
But besides a Criminal Code that refuses to recognize developmentally mature older teenagers as having sexual agency and the capacity to consent, there is the problem of gender bias in the way the press sensationalizes alleged infractions by female educators. Maybe the prurient news coverage says less about child sexual abuse than it does about our willingness to see female teachers as sexy, savvy and available for adult fantasies?
In Notes On A Scandal, a film portraying a fictional incident of teacher-student sex, it's not a child at risk that crystallizes the scandal so much as adult jealousy and erotic intrigue.
Who didn't wonder what Cate Blanchett would wear to the Oscars when nominated for her debut as a teacher caught up in a sex scandal? How many adult fantasies about high school teachers were ignited? Perhaps it's time to own up to our fascination rather than criminalizing teachers.
Sheila Cavanagh is a York U professor and author of Sexing The Teacher: School Sex Scandals And Queer Pedagogies.email@example.com