Feminism | Posted by Claire B on 09/16/2015

Consent in the Age of High School Hookup Culture

Owen Labrie

Owen Labrie

A few weeks ago, I took my seat in the huge auditorium of my East Coast college preparatory boarding school for Proctor Training. The week-long event involved a series of workshops and lectures that train dormitory proctors how to address issues that may arise in the community over the course of the school year. We reviewed “no-grinding” dance rules, gendered dormitory visitation policies, and health center pamphlets — probably the same policies that have been upheld at countless college preparatory schools across the country for years.

But this time around, there was an elephant in the room: The Owen Labrie trial.

On August 28th, 18-year old St. Paul’s School senior Owen Labrie was found not guilty of felony sexual assault charges, but was convicted of having sex with a girl who was below the age of consent in May 2014. The Harvard-bound student participated in the “Senior Salute,” a tradition in which senior boys try to hook up with underclassmen girls before graduation. Labrie told police he was “trying to be number one” in the competition, according to the Daily Beast. The violating incident in question was a “giggly tryst,” during which he truly “thought she was having a great time,” the New York Times reported.

The survivor, however, remembers the incident differently. Specifically, she said she was “violated so many ways,” and described the interaction as rape. Yet, she hardly felt empowered to immediately identify it as such: Like so many other survivors, the young woman at the center of this case reported that she was “scared of rocking the boat at her prestigious new school, anxious about offending a senior boy, and worried people would think she was just being ‘dramatic.’” As the New York Times summarizes, the case is centered on “conflicting stories” and “the credibility of the female accuser.”

St. Paul’s Schools “Senior Salute” may be a particularly offensive tradition, but the school is hardly the only one to perpetuate hook up culture. “Hooking up,” or sex outside of a relationship, has become the norm rather than the exception on many high school campuses. While it can be empowering and beneficial for some, it undeniably enforces slut-shaming and objectifying behavior among others — and every time a girl is shamed for what she’s wearing, or a boy slapped on the back in congratulations for a hookup, these stereotypes deepen. Entitlement combined with guilt and pressure can easily produce a dangerous sexual environment.

Though conversations around “rape culture” are usually focused on college campuses, and the “epidemic of sexual assault” evident there, this case proves that we must recognize that rape culture is evident at the high school level as well. More than acknowledging its existence, however, this case is painful evidence that a dialogue about sexual respect and the tenets of enthusiastic consent at the high school level is long overdue. By refusing to engage in frank conversations about rape culture, high school educators miss an important opportunity to address the root of this violent epidemic.

Instead of ignoring the problem, educators would do well to teach students healthy sexual norms, like the fact that consent should be clear and unambiguous at every stage of a sexual encounter. This information should be built into mandatory high school health curriculum. College freshman orientation shouldn’t be the first time students become familiar with the term ‘enthusiastic consent.’ I hope my school and others like it react to stories like the Labrie case not by continuing to ignore it and the larger problem, but by examining how we can act more preemptively and more closely examine the roots of campus sexual assault.

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