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In prep school rape case, glimpse into objectification of girls

The rape trial in Concord, N.H., has provided a window into the type of language that some young men used at their school. Colleges, and to a lesser degree high schools, are trying to improve messaging about sexual assault.

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    Owen Labrie listens to testimony in Merrimack County Superior Court Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015, in Concord, N.H. Labrie is charged with raping a 15-year-old freshman as part of the "Senior Salute," a practice of sexual conquest at the prestigious St. Paul's School in Concord.
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During closing arguments Thursday in the trial of Owen Labrie, a former boarding-school senior accused of raping a 15-year-old fellow student last year, prosecutors and defense attorneys painted starkly different pictures of what transpired. Jurors will now decide if they believe he raped the girl after targeting her for sexual conquest, or if it was a case of flirtation leading to mutual sexual contact, stopping short of intercourse.

Whatever the outcome, the trial in Concord, N.H., has provided a window into the type of language that proliferated among some young men at St. Paul’s School – various slang words for sexual behavior and pulling “every trick in the book” in pursuit of it.

The very normalcy of such language needs to be interrupted, advocates for sexual assault prevention say. The callous and objectifying attitudes that those words suggest create a climate that condones sexual violence, they say.

Increasingly, colleges, and to a lesser degree high schools, are looking for ways to improve their messaging about sexual assault prevention to create a culture that tips toward mutual respect.

Strategies include everything from bystander education to a better understanding of consent. The messaging can also “dispel rape myths” such as the notion that only violent attacks by strangers constitute rape, says Allison Tombros Korman, executive director of Culture of Respect.

“There is not a one-size-fits-all prevention approach,” says Ms. Korman, whose group works to promote best practices in campus sexual assault response and prevention. 

Part of the efforts involve more research into the attitudes of men and boys who commit sexual assault, or who support the idea that forcing or coercing sex is acceptable.

A small study published in December explored some characteristics of college men who endorsed forcing intercourse when asked about various behaviors that would constitute rape but weren’t labeled as such. The men, however, did not endorse rape when it was labeled that way, suggesting that they were not clear on the definition of rape.

These men did not score high on a scale of hostility to women, but they did score high on callous sexual attitudes, such as objectifying women and expecting men to be sexually dominant.

The findings suggest that a man in this category has “personality characteristics” that may lead him “to not perceive his actions as rape ... and [to] view the forced intercourse as an achievement,” writes University of North Dakota researcher Sarah Edwards and her coauthors in an article published in the peer-reviewed journal Violence and Gender. “The primary motivation in this case could be sexual gratification, accomplishment, and/or perceived compliance with stereotypical masculine gender norms.”

Of 73 men in the study whose responses could be fully analyzed (most of them were juniors at an undisclosed university), 49 showed no endorsement of force or rape; 13 endorsed using force, but not if it was labeled rape; and 10 endorsed both force and rape.

The questions in the study asked whether the individual would engage in certain behaviors “if nobody would ever know and there wouldn’t be any consequences.” This type of hypothetical question is used to get at attitudes and evoke honesty, because direct questions about behavior may trigger fear of divulging criminality.

After the survey, which Ms. Edwards hopes to replicate on a national scale, researchers gave all the subjects information about the university policy on sexual assault, hotline numbers, and other educational material.

The group that endorsed force but not rape to some degree reflects “a certain subculture where it’s permissible to use women, or your friends might encourage you to act in a more sexually aggressive way,” Edwards says.

For prevention messaging to reach this group, young men may need broader discussions about social norms of masculinity. Without such discussions, they are likely to think they don’t need something specifically labeled rape prevention, the study suggests.

While many colleges still rely on one session at freshman orientation, or an online module, to address sexual assault, “we’re seeing more buy-in to the idea that prevention education needs to be ongoing and consistent,” Korman says.

As of July 1, college campuses across the country are obligated to provide ongoing prevention and awareness campaigns under amendments to the Clery Act that were part of a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

A small fraction of campuses, such as Colby College in Waterville, Maine, have started requiring sexual assault awareness education for each of the four years students attend the school. Others, such as Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., are working with local rape crisis centers to provide confidential advocates on campus.

Ultimately, campuses need to prevent sexual assault not just through education, but also through “reckoning with how their policies and procedures and ... their physical spaces are either contributing [to] or condoning or preventing ... violence,” says Kate Rohdenburg, program director at WISE, a sexual and domestic violence crisis center in Lebanon, N.H., which recently partnered with Dartmouth. “It’s critical to be looking at the culture and climate.”

When members of the campus community don’t adhere to the standard of respect, campus officials are starting to act more swiftly. University leaders this week condemned banners hung outside an off-campus fraternity house at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., proclaiming messages such as, “Rowdy and fun. Hope your baby girl is ready for a good time.” The Sigma Nu chapter was suspended by the national fraternity pending an investigation.

St. Paul’s School, the institution that has received attention because of the Labrie trial, itself has taken steps in the past year to improve the culture for relationships. It has brought in a variety of experts and educators to address a range of issues, although some critics say the school should have done more before the incident involving Mr. Labrie.

Parents also have a role to play – well before their children get to a college campus. “Parents should talk to their kids about these issues,” says Elizabeth Englander, director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University.

You can’t stop boys from talking, and it would be difficult to get them to stop competing, Ms. Englander says, “but at the very least, we have to give them a little bit of a different perspective so that when they are bragging to their friends or talking about how it’s no big deal what they do, there’s at least one other voice that they’ve heard.”

Over dinner, parents could talk to kids about a news article or ask them if they hear gossip among their friends about sex and what they think about it, she suggests. “But for many parents, it’s painful to think of their adolescents as sexual beings.” Societally, she says, “we’re sort of bumbling along,” hoping someone at school or home or the doctor’s office will talk with kids about these complex subjects.

• If you or someone you know needs help, please contact the confidential National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE(4673).

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