Reporter’s ‘tryst’ tweet to refer to sexual assault met with online outrage

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Former prime minister Stephen Harper and his band Herringbone including Phillip Nolan (far right) receive applause after performing in Toronto on Sunday, December 1, 2013. Nolan was sentenced to two years in jail on sexual exploitation charges of a teen girl. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young]

By Terri Coles

An Ottawa reporter’s use of the word “tryst” to refer to an ex-teacher’s sexual assault of a teen girl was swiftly criticized online.

Twitter and Facebook users objected to a tweet from Ottawa Sun courts reporter Tony Spears, who described the illegal sexual relationship between Phillip Nolan — a former elementary teacher and onetime bandmate of Stephen Harper — and the 13-year-old girl as a “tryst.”

“Ex-PM Stephen Harper’s former drummer Phillip Nolan has been sentenced to TWO YEARS in jail for tryst with then-13-yo girl student. #ottnews,” Spears tweeted.

Nolan was sentenced Monday to two years in prison for two counts of sexual interference in 1990 and 2000. He also received a sentence of three years’ probation and will be on the national sex offender registry for life.

Online commenters, including feminist organizations and other journalists, objected to Spears’ use of the word with romantic implications to describe the relationship between an adult male in a position of trust and a teenaged girl too young to give legal consent to a sexual relationship.

“When a reporter uses the word “tryst” to describe the assault of a minor, I want to take away their laptop and say “NO MORE WORDS FOR YOU,” Lucia Lorenzi posted.

Alexis Isabel tweeted, “It’s because no one ever sees statutory rape as rape. And I’m tired. If you’re grown and preying on a child that makes you a PREDATOR.”

@ottawasuntonys wowwwwwwwwwww, is this not a good day for you,” @bruce_arthur tweeted.

Many tweeted their offence at Spears’ wording using the hashtag #usetherightwords, in reference to a recent guide on reporting on sexual crimes released by Femifesto, a Toronto-based feminist organization.

“News stories about sexual violence affect the way we think about it,” the organization’s introduction to the reporting guide reads. “This tool was created in recognition of the power media has in shaping understandings of sexual violence, and to support those who work in the media as they navigate covering sexual violence.”

Spears defended his use of the word, tweeting “Nope. ‘Tryst’ reflects the victim’s subjective experience at the time. And the offence is sexual interference, not rape.”

According to the Criminal Code, sexual interference refers to “every person who, for a sexual purpose, touches, directly or indirectly, with a part of the body or with an object, any part of the body of a person under the age of 16 years.”

Spears’ article itself was clear about the damaging nature of Nolan’s abuse of the girl, who reported him to police in 2013.

“The trauma Mr. Nolan caused was immeasurable,” judge Ann Alder said of the victim during Nolan’s sentencing hearing in Ottawa on Monday. “For years she suffered alone. She suffered for something that she was not responsible for — that Mr. Nolan was responsible for.”

The Ottawa Sun used the word “tryst” earlier this year in a tweet about a similar case between a 12-year-old girl and her soccer coach. A Sun article about the man’s sentencing referred to he and the girl as “star-crossed.”

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