Rape Case Raises Troubling Issues At St. Paul's School, Sociologist Says

Originally published on August 24, 2015 1:21 am
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Saint Paul's is the elite boarding school in New Hampshire that educated Secretary of State John Kerry and many other prominent alumni. And that school is now at the center of a rape trial. More than a year ago, as Owen Labrie was finishing his senior year, he took part in a school ritual known as the Senior Salute. Older students are supposed to sexually proposition younger ones. Labrie chose a 15-year-old girl and then allegedly raped her. He has pled not guilty and says their encounter was consensual. This past week, his accuser took the stand to make her case. Michael Kimmel is the director of the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University. And in a couple of weeks, he will address the faculty at St. Paul's School. He joins us on the line from Chicago. Thanks so much for being with us.

MICHAEL KIMMEL: Nice to be with you, Rachel.

MARTIN: What's your message to the faculty when you visit St. Paul's next month? Do you know what you're going to say?

KIMMEL: Well, yeah. What I'm going to talk about, of course, is two things. The specifics of the case, I think, are going to be adjudicated in court. But they raise some very troubling issues about the culture of the school. And so if those are true, that there was this ritual that people knew about that they were participating in, then that raises some other kinds of issues that I think we need to talk about and how certain ideas about masculinity get these guys into these kinds of competitions with one another about scoring with girls.

MARTIN: Do you think that kind of competition happens more often at prep schools like this? Is there something about these schools?

KIMMEL: No. I'm not so sure that it has anything to do with the school. I think it has a great shock value that it's one of our most elite private schools in the country that has educated some of most famous and wealthy Americans in our history. But some years ago, there was a public school in California where there was a group of boys called Spur Posse. And they kept score with how many girls that they had had sex with by using the numbers of the jerseys of the San Antonio Spurs. And so that was clearly a competition. So when a guy said, oh, I made it to Manu Ginobili or I made it to Tim Duncan, the guys knew what their number on their jersey was. And they knew then how many girls they had had sex with. And so this reveals, I think, the first issue that I find really troubling in this case if these allegations about this ritual are true, which is that the girls were really a currency by which boys were competing with each other.

MARTIN: So what is a school like Saint Paul's to do in order to create a more equal culture or a culture that doesn't, as you say, use these girls as currency, at least in this kind of ritual?

KIMMEL: Well, this has to be a coordinated effort among all of the different interested parties. That includes students and faculty and administrators and parents and, most crucially, alumni - because remember, this was an all-boys school. So you have a large number of guys who are the benefactors of the school, who contribute the most money to the school, who remember when it was an all-male school. And they don't want that tradition to be tampered with. And so they have to be brought in to this as well it seems to me. So that requires a kind of concerted effort because this culture of entitlement that these young males may feel to girls' bodies, to do what they want with these girls, they may feel that. But they do so within a bubble. And the first part of that bubble is there's a code of silence among the boys. If this was a tradition, as is alleged, it is scandalous that this is just coming to the fore now. People have known about this. And they have looked the other way.

MARTIN: And you're saying this isn't just specific to elite institutions that can create this kind of cultural bubble.

KIMMEL: No, I don't think it's specific to these elite schools. But I do think, you know, there are certain structural features of the elite private school. It's residential. It's away from cities. It's away from the scrutiny of parents. That may make it more of a bubble, so to speak.

MARTIN: Michael Kimmel is the director of the Center of the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University. He's also the author of the book, "Guy Land." Michael, thanks so much for talking with us.

KIMMEL: My pleasure, Rachel, nice to be with you.

MARTIN: We should add, in a letter to parents, Saint Paul rector Michael Hirschfeld called the allegations disturbing and said he is determined to learn if they represent a broader issue. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.