High school rape case points to larger problem
August 27, 2015
By Dianne Williamson at the Telegram & Gazette
It's known as the "senior salute," and a teen on trial for allegedly raping a freshman at the elite St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H., had written up a list of potential conquests.
Defendant Owen Labrie testified in his own defense Wednesday and denied that he sexually assaulted a 15-year-old girl last year in a secluded campus room, just days from his graduation. Labrie was a prefect at the school and had already been accepted to Harvard, where he planned to study theology.
But prosecutors said Labrie was also an eager competitor in the "senior salute," a ritual in which senior boys try to score with younger girls. According to an affidavit, Labrie told police he was "trying to be No. 1 in the sexual scoring at St. Paul's School."
Whether or not Labrie is found guilty of rape, testimony in this high-profile trial in New Hampshire underscores troubling ideas about sex and consent among young people.
"Where to start?" asked Toni Troop, spokeswoman for Jane Doe Inc. "This case makes clear that rape culture is not a theoretical exercise. It's a reality on far too many campuses and in society in general."
We could start with the very idea of the senior salute, of course, in which young girls are considered sexual playthings for predatory older boys. We could note that Labrie and his friends regularly referred to "slaying girls" as a competition. Finally, we could refer to the claims of defense lawyer J.W. Carney, who told the jury, "The girls would be honored and proud about this, that they were the focus on the senior salute."
But the alleged victim, now 16, seemed neither honored nor proud when she took the stand and under aggressive cross-examination by Carney - who also represented Whitey Bulger - cried that she was raped and "violated in so many ways." She said that Labrie spit on her, called her a tease and bit her. In explaining why she exchanged friendly text messages later with Labrie, she said she didn't want to be "offensive." She also testified that it was "nice" that "here's a person who paid special attention to me."
Once again, we're forced to ponder the troubling messages we're sending young girls about sex and self-esteem. Labrie, meanwhile, testified Wednesday that "score" and "slay" were terms that could refer to a range of activity, from a kiss to sex. He claimed the slang terms were "pretty much always said to get a laugh" and "it was never serious." The defense contends that his contact with the girl was consensual but they didn't have intercourse.
Forensic specialists testified that the girl’s underpants tested positive for semen, although it could not be determined that it was Labrie’s. But his DNA was found on her underpants. On Monday, several current and former St. Paul’s students testified that Labrie told them he’d had sex with the alleged victim.
The administration at St. Paul’s School, meanwhile, has said little to nothing about a case that cries out for leadership and action. In a statement Monday, it claims that “allegations about our culture are not emblematic of our school or our values, our rules, or the people that represent our student body, alumni, faculty and staff.”
Some would say otherwise. He politely declined to comment when I contacted him yesterday, but Shamus Khan, an alumnus and now associate professor at Columbia University, wrote about the school's sexual culture in his 2011 book, "Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School."
He wrote about the annual dance called Screw, where "the sexual desirability of girls is determined by their value on the ‘screw’ marketplace." He wrote about a ritual in which new female students had to divulge their sexual pasts.
“There was the common denominator of sex and sexuality as the pathway to belonging and welcoming for girls,” he wrote.
But Troop said such attitudes, in addition to harming young women, are also damaging to young men.
"We're training young men to believe that this is the path to relationships and sexual activity, and nothing could be further from the truth," she said. "There's room for experimentation, but there's never room for disrespect and abuse."
She also said she hoped the administration uses the case as an opportunity to create a healthier climate at the school, in the form of support programs and open discussions.
"The question is, 'What are they going to do about it?' '' Troop said. "They have an opportunity to show real leadership and not to shy away from these issues. If this is happening in high school, it's not as though such behavior just stops."