Columns

Doyle ’18: What we learned from the St. Paul’s trial

By
Opinions Columnist
Friday, November 6, 2015

About a week ago, a trial closely watched by many (myself included) came to an anticlimactic close. Owen Labrie, a former student at the prestigious St. Paul’s School of New Hampshire, was given a year in jail for the sexual assault of a young girl. At the time of the assault, he was 18, while she was only 15. Her young age became the deciding factor in the case. Labrie was convicted on exactly four accounts. Three were misdemeanors relating to the fact that the victim was under 16 years old. Under New Hampshire law, people under the age of 16 cannot legally consent to sexual activity regardless of their own will. The last was a felony for using a computer to seduce a child. Labrie’s attorneys argued, and likely were correct, that the spirit of this law is to prevent the disguise of older men as children on the Internet. Labrie will also have to register as a sex offender.

I’ll admit I was happy to see Labrie punished to some degree. Still, I can’t comfortably call this justice. The issue with these four charges is that they all but completely disregard the victim’s testimony. Not one charge takes into account the fact that the victim did not consent to sexual activity. Though she broke down on the witness stand as she described the graphic details of her rape, the verdict shows that the jury believes the incident was consensual. Yet not one piece of testimony exposed any reason why this young girl would willingly go through such a traumatic and lengthy trial over something that did not happen.

I learned a lot during the Labrie trial. I learned about a disturbing ritual — now hopefully fated to die out — of sexually exploiting girls at a prestigious boarding school. I learned that a 15-year-old girl can have emotional strength far beyond my own. But first and foremost, I learned that rape culture is still alive and well in the world we live in.

Time and time again, the story is told of the girl that cried rape. She has a consensual sexual encounter with the boy who was sure she was having a great time. Soon afterwards, she regrets the experience or becomes jealous when that innocent boy no longer gives her attention. Out to get the well-meaning boy, she accuses him of rape and goes through a time-intensive, life-changing and trauma-inducing process for the small possibility that she can get revenge. The story is ridiculous. It makes no sense. And yet the jury members proved it to be their default assumption.

This isn’t to say that no girl in history has ever lied about rape. Everyone lies sometimes. But there is no reason to believe that an accuser is lying without a convincing motive. No person wants to sit through a cross examination. An attorney I once met described the process as punching a witness in the face over and over again. When the young girl in the Labrie case mentioned that she tries to avoid lying whenever possible, the crossing attorney retorted, “Sometimes I guess you’re unsuccessful.” He went on to question her on her choice to shave her pubic hair — a topic no 15-year-old could ever enjoy discussing with a grown man.

A survey of students at 27 institutions of higher education conducted by the Association of American Universities found that 23 percent of undergraduate female students have been sexually assaulted since enrolling in college. The AAU survey — the largest of its kind — supports the oft-cited finding from a smaller 2007 study that one in five women experience a sexual assault while in college. Looking at this case, it is no surprise that most victims don’t come forward. What traumatized victims would want to face the high probability that they will not be believed for only a small chance of justice? Few are as brave as the 15-year-old girl in this case. And though we don’t know her name, we should admire her. She took a stand for all silent victims at such a young age, jeopardizing her mental health in the process.

This is a rare case in which what looks like a step toward justice is really a step backward. The denial of rape culture will continue if young girls are continually silenced. Take this moment to support loved ones considering reporting an assault, trust victims and educate your peers. Do this in hope that one day sexual assault will not be the campus crisis that it is today.

Allie Doyle ’18 can be reached at alexandra_doyle@brown.edu.