The rape trial of St. Paul’s School student Owen Labrie is a story of failure.
A young man in possession of an elite prep school education and an acceptance letter from Harvard fails to conquer his misogynistic sexual impulses.
A young girl mature and independent enough to live away from home fails to ask herself the right questions about an older, popular boy’s attention.
One of the nation’s most respected private high schools fails to identify, reveal and obliterate a tradition that exalts the male conquest of young female students.
A society that has seen too much of campus date rape fails to impress upon its young men and women that no, whether yelled or whispered, always means no.
There are other failures, too, depending on one’s perspective. Some have argued that the media, including this newspaper, failed to show proper respect for their audience or the victim. Others point to the parents of these young men and women for failing to properly instill values and morals, the result of lives lived within a culture of privilege. Still others find fault with the jury for failing to hold Labrie truly accountable for his actions.
It’s impossible to say whether any good will come of all of this failure. The drama of the courtroom is still fresh.
On Friday, Labrie was found guilty of statutory rape and using a computer to lure a minor but innocent of the most serious charge of aggravated felonious sexual assault. He faces a maximum of 11 years in prison, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he avoided spending even a single day behind bars. There are reasonable questions about the application of the felony computer charge on which Labrie was convicted and that carries a 3½- to 7-year sentence. But by the time the legal dust settles, Concord and the world outside will be riveted by other trials in other courtrooms. It’s easy to move on.
But don’t. Not yet. There is progress to be found amid the ruins.
Not too long ago, parenting roles were largely assigned by gender. Mothers were expected to handle primary domestic responsibilities and fathers to bring home the bacon. There was certainly overlap and improvisation, but that was the primary blueprint. Look at today’s parenting dynamics, and it’s clear that that blueprint has been shredded and consigned to oblivion where it belongs. Many dads are just as involved with diaper changes and laundry loads as moms, and many moms are ensconced in fulfilling and gainful careers. That is what gender progress achieved through respect looks like.
Now look at St. Paul’s and its anachronistic sex scandal: a tradition called the “senior salute,” in which a group of male upperclassmen compete against each other in the seduction of their youngest female classmates. There is a staggering disconnect between the games of these young men, adults already or on the brink, and the roles that await them as fathers and husbands. And that might be the greatest failure of all.
A world void of sexual assault may be out of reach for now, but an end to tacitly sanctioned games of conquest and the underlying culture of misogyny is not. It’s a small evolutionary step that should be set in motion long before high school, private or public, begins.