Criminal trials are great at exposing painful social problems but terrible at addressing them.
In New Hampshire, a young man faces multiple charges of sexual assault arising out of an incident at an elite private high school, St. Paul’s School. The school boasts graduates like Secretary of State John Kerry, former FBI Director Robert Mueller. Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau and thirteen U.S. ambassadors, three Pulitzer Prize winners, two World Series of Poker winners, actor Judd Nelson and sons of the Astor and Kennedy families, according to the school’s website.
But according to trial testimony, the school has a darker side which seems to condone the targeting and demeaning of young girls. The testimony describes a “senior salute” tradition that encourages senior boys to compete to have sex with freshman girls each spring. A key to a maintenance room was even passed around among senior boys to allow for private trysts.
The St. Paul’s defendant, Owen Labrie, was eighteen at the time of his alleged sexual encounter with the freshman girl, who was fifteen. Given Labrie’s Facebook messages asking if she was on the pill and admitting to using a condom, as well as several of his friends’ testimony that he’d bragged about having sex with the girl, the state’s statutory rape case appears strong.
But to many, the girl’s lighthearted “haha” messages after the encounter undercut her claim of forcible rape. Others see this as a naïve girl’s inability to appropriately grapple with what had just happened to her.
One of the more disturbing elements of this case is the girl’s insistence on being non-confrontational during and after the incident, which she calls rape. Over and over again she says she was concerned about being nice, as in this rough transcript of testimony where she describes a Facebook conversation with Labrie in which she asked if he used a condom:
Prosecutor: And so the next message is from you. And what does that say?
Girl: “Like a condom just in case?”
Prosecutor: Can you explain why you’ve done that?
Girl: Again I’m dragging it out trying to be as non-offensive and subtle as I could be, even though I was freaking out inside. And I added the “just in case” so I didn’t seem like I was — I don’t know, I didn’t want to offend him . . . I was just trying to be as careful as possible.
Girl: Of hurting his feelings.
Prosecutor: You were concerned about hurting his feelings?
Girl: Yes, I was.
Regardless of the outcome of this case, we need to teach our girls self-defense. Every girl, before and during adolescence. (I recommend the Israeli martial art Krav Maga, which I trained in for years. But in a few weeks our daughters can learn basic skills that can save their lives.) And equally importantly, we must teach our girls to stop worrying about everyone else’s feelings, and that there are many times when being clear, direct and confident is more appropriate.
Nice is overrated. Especially after a rape.
The girl went for emergency contraception after the incident. The school nurse asked her if the sex had been consensual. She said yes. The girl now says she didn’t want to make waves. Again, understandable but used against her at trial.
We need to teach our girls to speak directly and clearly about sexual assault.
And of course we must teach boys that girls are not notches on a belt, and that rape victims suffer profoundly for years. I’d bring in adult rape survivors to educate them about the pain their actions can cause. Rape is not a game. If they cannot get that message, they will face serious legal consequences. They need to learn that.
Whether this young man is guilty or not, the school must learn from this experience that it has utterly failed to teach appropriate behavior to its live-in high school students.
When will those high-profile graduates push the school to act?