The St. Paul’s rape case has lessons for us all

Owen Labrie of St. Paul’s School, an elite boarding school in Concord, New Hampshire, was found not guilty on August 28 of raping a fifteen-year-old freshman in conjunction with the school’s unofficial “senior salute” tradition. He was convicted of three counts of misdemeanor sexual assault and using computer services, such as Facebook and email, to lure a minor. The last felony will require him to be registered as a sex offender for the rest of his life and could result in seven years in jail. The court will sentence Labrie on October 29. The victim, who is now a sophomore, must now work on healing deep wounds that have been reopened as this case proceeds.

There are a couple of important lessons that the Dana Hall community can learn from this case of sexual assault at a neighboring independent school.

Lesson 1.        Rape culture is real and very dangerous.

To understand why this case happened, we must look at 159 years of history and of affluence, a history dominated by men, as St. Paul was an all-boys’ school until 1971. The “senior salute” tradition began when the school began admitting women. In this seemingly innocent tradition, older boys are encouraged to welcome younger girls with a hug or even a kiss. This case brings to light that girls are expected to agree to more than a kiss.

The “senior salute” is actually a competition in which male seniors try to engage in as many sexual encounters as they can with younger female students. According to the Boston Globe, the boys pass around a key to a maintenance closet where sexual encounters take place. Some male seniors calls this “slay[ing]” the school’s female population and refer to the month of the tradition as “SLAYpril.” This tradition allowed Labrie to more easily target the victim and other girls, as he drew up a list of girls he wanted to engage in sexual relations, with the victim’s name in capital letters. St. Paul’s clearly has a culture that encourages male sexual dominance and female submission: in short, a rape culture.

Seniors may not set out to harm the underclassmen girls at St. Paul’s School, but the “senior salute” encourages rape culture by pressuring older boys to make younger girls do anything. For instance, a senior is more knowledgeable and established in the social food chain than a freshman. Additionally, because St. Paul’s School was a boys’ school, there are still remnants of a male-dominated culture. The New York Times quotes Shamus Khan, an alumnus of the school, who says, “sex and sexuality [were] the pathway to belonging and ‘welcoming’ for girls” at St. Paul’s. Sex was the one tool girls could use to belong at their own school; this is objectification, another key factor in rape culture.

This case has shown that economic privilege matters, but gender may still matter more. Both male and female students may come from affluent backgrounds at St. Paul’s School, but there is no equivalent “senior salute” for senior girls at St. Paul’s. Masculinity is often equated to being sexually aggressive, and for women, femininity is sometimes defined as how vulnerable one is. When I realized this, it was eerily logical why the seniors preyed upon the more desperate-to-belong and weaker freshman girls.

Lesson 2.        School traditions must be regularly reexamined for unconscious bias and inequity.

Although we all hope that nothing so extreme ever happens at Dana Hall, it is important to remember that, like St. Paul’s, we have a long history of traditions, and we should keep in mind what happens when they are taken too far. At Dana Hall, traditions are facilitated by the school, and you are allowed not to participate, but there is a stigma associated with not participating in these traditions.

Take another example: you are a freshman at Dana Hall, and a smart, popular senior asks you to do something. You feel obligated to comply, even honored, and everyone else feels this way as well. This is how the young girl felt when Labrie invited her to participate in the Senior Salute. Labrie knew the pressure she was under to participate, and he exploited this. Dana Hall must continually examine its own traditions to ensure that all students are treated with respect and dignity.

At Dana Hall, we need to be prepared for the world outside the “Dana Bubble,” because misogyny is deeply ingrained into all parts of society. Misogyny is internalized into women as well, unknowingly, a product of the patriarchal machine that runs this world. As young women, we need to fight any thoughts of victim-blaming, tolerance for sexual assault, or acceptance of women’s still downgraded position in society. We need to hold true to the message of sisterhood at Dana Hall, especially since 1 in 5 women have been sexually assaulted in the United States. (The Boston Area Rape Crisis Center [BARCC] is a helpful resource for those who have experienced sexual assault.)

I hope the victim finds the strength to overcome this tragedy. I called her a “victim” throughout this article, but she is a survivor, as are all the other people that have experienced sexual assault. I hope to live one day in a world where women are safe wherever they go, even places like school campuses where they should be safe; however, my dream cannot be realized if we do not eradicate rape culture from our society.

Photo: The chapel on the St. Paul’s campus. Photo source: Building Conservation Associates, Inc.

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