Owen Labrie, who was accused of raping a 15-year-old schoolmate at the St. Paul’s School in May 2014, was acquitted on Friday, the 28th of August, on main rape charges. Labrie, who was a highschool senior at the time of the incident, was described to have lured the female classmate to a remote rooftop after sending her an email invitation to take part in a popular St. Paul’s tradition, the “senior salute”. The ritual involves graduating male seniors who proposition as many younger female students as they can for intimate, and in many cases, sexual contact. Labrie, like many of his other male peers, created a list in the spring of 2014 with the names of the girls he planned to approach, and his accuser sat at the very top of that list in bold capital letters.
On the evening of the assault, the freshman girl agreed to follow Labrie, 18 then, to a mechanical room on campus that he opened with a key that was passed down from senior class to senior class, and was meant for the use of male students at the school who wanted privacy. And it is there, in that isolated and dark room, that the assault took place. What began as light kissing quickly transformed itself into dangerous and non-consensual violations of body and trust. During the trial, the young girl recounted the tragic events in horrible detail. According to the New York Times, Labrie first began with groping her: “he bit her chest too... and tried more than once to remove her underwear.” During the trial, the girl said that she repeatedly told Labrie to stop, but he did not listen. She also mentioned being afraid of Labrie at that dark moment, and she spoke of not wanting to aggravate him for fear of what he might do to her. She said, “I tried to be polite as possible.” Later, according to The Times, “she described Mr. Labrie ‘scraping’ the inside of her body with his hands. Moments later, she said, he penetrated her, and with both of his hands visible near her head, she added: ‘It had to be his penis.’"
After a powerful testimony and an all-around tense trial, Labrie was acquitted of the more serious aggravated sexual assault charges, but was found guilty of three misdemeanor charges involving endangering the welfare of a child (children in the state of New Hampshire are not able to give consent until they are 16 years of age), as well as penetration with his penis, mouth, and finger. He could be facing up to 11 years in prison, and will have to register as a sex offender.
But, what is arguably more alarming than this case are the questions of male entitlement and a history of sexual abuse that are emanating from the St. Paul’s School, one of the oldest and most prestigious institutions in the nation. An institution that prides itself on both academic rigor and astounding character allowed its male students to prey and violate their female counterparts without any consequences. This ritual, this tradition, was acknowledged and accepted in the school’s community, and little critical dialogue surrounding the long tradition took place until after the rape accusations were made public.
Shamus Khan, a former alumnus of the School, wrote about notions of ritual at his alma mater in his 2011 book entitled “Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School.” Jess Bidgood of the New York Times summarizes the book and writes, “that rituals are used there mainly to impose hierarchy, with some of the rituals organized by students having taken on a pointedly sexual turn. There is the annual dance, called Screw, when “the sexual desirability of girls is determined by their value on the ‘screw’ marketplace,” he [Khan] wrote. He also described ‘newb nights,’ in which new female students had to divulge their sexual pasts.”
It it made quite evident that there was a certain troubling and age-old culture of misogyny at the School, and also a certain compliance from educators and other administrative staff at St. Paul’s. But the question I believe we all want answered is why? Why would a school of distinguished, forward-thinking people, leave their female students in unsafe territory? Well, the answer to that is complicated, but there is no doubt that we can trace a kind of hatred or disregard for women and girls for centuries, even all the way back to the Greek philosophers, our beloved founding fathers of Western thought. Though I don’t think the administration at St. Paul’s actively went out of their way to ensure that these female students were in harm's ways, I do think they are implicated in this violence because they knew about it and chose to turn their heads.
On the subject of wealth and privilege, it is important to note that Labrie was one of the few low-income students at St. Paul’s. Though the School is home to Secretary of State John Kerry as well as Cornelius Vanderbilt, and though it cost about $50,000 dollars to attend the school per year, Labrie was said to be on full financial aid and was raised in a single-parent home. He was not your typical wealthy trust-fund baby. To put it bluntly, Labrie most likely did not have a strong sense of self prior to enrolling at the prestigious institution, and was probably very hungry to fit in with all the wealth that surrounded him. And that meant participating in violent acts against young girls all for the approval of his rich buddies. When something terribly bad comes to light, it usually involves one (or a few) individual taking the fall for a whole community of people.
There are heavy, looming undertones of class when it comes to this case. What Labrie did was wrong. Period. He had no right to pursue the girl in the way he did. He had no right to violate her in the way he did. She was a minor, and especially impressionable. But, I think it is important to consider if Labrie had been a wealthy boy from a wealthy family, would justice have been served to him in the same way? Would the language we’ve used to talk about him be the same?
While rape and rape culture are not new forces in this world, the ways in which they come to happen and manifest themselves certainly have been changed by tools like social media. Prior to the girl’s assault at St. Paul’s, Labrie had numerous crude online conversations with fellow classmates about what he and his friends planned to do to these girls, and they made use of violent and sexist words like “slaying” and “scoring” to better illustrate what they had in mind. In other words, social media like Facebook created what seemed like a “safe” space for these young men to prey on young girls, and ultimately allowed for scary acts of hyper-masculinity that really would not have been tolerated elsewhere.
When one sits behind a computer screen, one gets the notion that no one is watching. One is then given permission to be one’s most frightening and honest self. And that is just what these young men felt. Here, in this digital space, they no longer played the role of “big brother.” They felt no responsibility to look out for their younger, female, counterparts. Rather, their role, as men, became finding every possible way to hurt and exploit these girls. That is what they had to do to “feel like men,” and that is what they did.
This is what Owen Labrie did.
While social media played a huge role in this unhealthy and dangerous exercising of hyper-masculinity, it is also important to note how social media is changing sexual relations amongst young people like Labrie and his victim. When you consider our [millennials] parents’ generations and the generations that came before them, most sexual contact was a result of an emotionally developed relationship. But with the rise of apps like Tinder, and the general sexual norm of our times, sex is now the point of origin for many young people today. As a result, there is bound to be much confusion and misunderstanding surrounding the nature of the sexual experience, the respect both parties bring to the experience, and where people draw the line for what they will and will not do. There is no doubt that things like this informed the unfortunate incident at St. Paul’s, and will continue to damage and endanger all kinds of relationships if we do not start talking about it now.
It is obvious that I don’t have all the answers, and honestly, and I don’t think anyone does. But I do think that it is critical for us, as fellow citizens, as friends, as lovers, and as classmates to creates spaces for men and women to come together and talk. After speaking with a close friend, and asking her what she thought would better gender relations between men and women, she said the following: “ I think communication is the best way to do that. Relations between anyone are easily strained if you don’t understand their motivations, and the best way to do that is to listen” (Marija Petkovic, Stanford University-Class of 2018). Poet, Lucille Clifton once wrote, “everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed.”
As a woman, I live with that line every day of my waking life. And now, we live in a world where cruel acts against women are becoming normalized, are becoming male ritual. Something is not right, but for now, I speak for those who cannot speak, and I lift up the women and girls in this world (girls like Labrie’s victim) who do find the courage to create a language for themselves, who find the courage to tell their story.