News & Politics

A Journalist's Shockingly Clueless Underage Rape Coverage

He doesn't seem to get it at all, and he's not alone.

Ottawa Sun court reporter Tony Spears doesn’t seem to understand how rape works. On Monday, he caused some much-deserved outrage on social media for his glib and clueless portrayal of raping minors.

It started when Spears sent out a tweet Monday morning breaking the news that ex-Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s former bandmate, school teacher Philip Nolan, was found guilty of “sexual interference” with a 13-year-old and sentenced to two years in prison. Spears used the word “tryst” to describe the relationship between the adolescent and Nolan, who was 29 at the time:

This quickly led to backlash on Twitter, with many people wondering why Spears didn’t use the word rape instead.

 

At this point, things got entirely out of hand, as Spears dug an even deeper hole for himself.

So it wasn’t rape in the “average everyday sense”? What does that mean? When given repeated chances to take back the tweet and apologize, Spears refused, insisting he was right to say the incident “ain’t rape” because of some bizarre definition of consent that allows for 13-year-olds to “consent” from their “subjective experience at the time.” Or something. (Spears declined to comment for this story.)

It’s not the first time Spears has used this type of titillating language to describe sex crimes. In a story from May this year about a 25-year-old soccer coach raping a 12-year-old, Spears called the rape a "tryst” and the predatory coupling a "star-crossed pair":

Tryst with girl, 12, gets coach 5 months jail

The girl's tender age—she was 12 at the time—doomed the star-crossed pair, who struck up an illicit relationship in the spring of 2014.

It culminated in kisses and risque social media messages—messages that Braithwaite's adult girlfriend found and turned over to the cops.

Crown prosecutor Peter Napier said he deserved five months in the slammer, particularly because Braithwaite was in a position of trust over the girl.

[....]

The most eloquent entreaties came from the victim herself, who addressed the court with confidence and poise.

"I don't see myself as a victim," she said.

Rather, she said, it is the justice system that has placed her in turmoil by prosecuting a man who listened to her troubles and treated her well.

"Maybe he isn't this monster that everybody thinks he is," the girl said. "I want everybody to know he's not a bad person."

Spears makes no mention of the fact that a 12-year-old cannot give legal consent in a "pairing" with someone 20 years her senior. Spears' use of "tryst" could be chalked up to a brain-dead rhetorical tic but his followup tweets refusing to call it rape, matched with his implicit maturation of the victim, displays a grotesque perception of sex crimes.

A similar type of equivocation was seen during the Roman Polanski dustup in 2010. Polanski was accused of raping a 13-year-old girl and was up for extradition, but the pundits who rushed to defend him painted the rape as anything but. The Washington Post's Richard Cohen wrote at the time:

There is no doubt that Polanski did what he did, which is have sex [Ed. note: Why doesn't Cohen call this rape?] with a 13-year-old after plying her with booze. There is no doubt also that after all these years there is something stale about the case, not to mention a "victim," Samantha Geimer, who has long ago forgiven her assailant and dearly wishes the whole thing would go away. So do I.

Notice the scare quotes around victim. According to creeps like Cohen, Polanski's 13-year-old target, whom he fed quaaludes and anally raped, wasn't a victim but a willing participant. For years, men in power who seduced and raped underage girls had their crimes dismissed as "affairs" and their victims cast as temptresses. Many people are still locked into this way of thinking.

As Nation and AlterNet contributor Redd Richardson notes, one University of Virginia poll showed that up to 35% of parents think a relationship between a 24-year-old and a 14-year-old either should not be a crime or should "maybe" not be a crime, while 65% said it should "definitely" be a crime.

Spears, for his part, insisted the act was "illegal and immoral" yet was determined to paint a young girl as someone capable of meta-consent. By doing so, he advanced the pernicious notion that some underage girls are to be treated differently because they're in love with a predator or because they "consented" in some vague, unknown sense to being exploited by men twice their age.

In one last brain-dead tweet, Spears seem to take pride in the outrage:

Thankfully, Buzzfeed's Lauren Strapagiel was there to help, tweeting a PDF guide on how the media should talk about sex crimes which everyone, namely the Ottawa Sun staff, should be required to read.

Adam Johnson is a contributing writer for AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter at @adamjohnsonnyc

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