The wrong thing on trial

"In New Hampshire, people who engage in sexual activity with children under the age of consent (age 16) can be convicted of sexual assault. . . . It does not matter whether the victim consented to or pursued the intimate relationship." (Ava Mince-Didier "New Hampshire State Statutory Rape Laws")

What, then, is the issue in the St. Paul’s School rape case of a 15-year-old freshman girl by an 18-year-old senior boy? What does it matter whether she initially agreed to accompany him and then changed her mind? Is it even essential to know whether he actually had intercourse with her? The whole situation – starting with the caveman-like tradition of "senior salute" – brings up so many teenage social issues, that it’s unlikely anyone will ever arrive at clear picture of either the girl’s or the boy’s motivation and actions. But despite the disappointment of his presumably derailed college plans, it’s the girl we need to care about.

In the female adolescent world where notice, let alone attention, from a respected graduating senior is still (despite all the hard work of the Women’s Movement) an important proof of worth, how many girls would say "no" to what seems to have started innocently? Yet, she apparently did and was then "goaded" by a friend until she accepted the invitation from a highly respected senior boy. What do people call girls who say "no" these days? Is it still "frigid"? Or a tease? Or something even uglier? And after their encounter, what about those apparently light-hearted emails? Might she have feared he would describe her as a failure, spread stories about her all over campus? So maybe in the emails she played happy with the experience. In the female adolescent world reputation is all. Can you imagine her going to the school nurse crying, "One of the most wonderful boys on campus invited me out, but then he went too far and I didn’t know how to say no, and he raped me"?

But worse than being the accuser of rape – and all that entails in our society – or the person, at the brink of a successful college career, standing trial for rape, is the culture that permitted it to happen. Oh yes, we all know that our society glorifies sexuality and salivates around sexual violence, but what can we do about it? Kids can’t be raised in a vacuum or a cloister. They see this kind of behavior everywhere.

But we can do something about it, and places like St. Paul’s should be the places to do it. St Paul’s prides itself on nurturing and training young people to be leaders in our world through achievement in learning and the opportunity and maturity that learning bestows. And over and above the academics of the school, its affiliation with the Episcopal Church hopefully promotes, in whatever individual spiritual traditions its students bring, generosity and compassion, the ability to listen, to hear and respect.

In his Convocation remarks at the beginning of spring term of 2015, Rector Michael Hirschfeld spoke of privilege. He said he was very aware of his own privilege – of being American, white, male – and that privilege is a "cosmic circumstance" or, I guess, the circumstances of our birth, not something we are responsible for or can do anything about. He called it "a part of our air." Presumably sweet, clean air, so we take it for granted and don’t notice it – unless, of course, it’s polluted or we suddenly are deprived of it. His message was that those at St Paul’s have this privilege and that it is their responsibility to use it "as a force for good and positive change."

Previously in those remarks he made an almost-passing mention of the use of the words "slay" and "slayer" in reference to heterosexual relationships spoken in chapel by both a boy and a girl. He said that though the words disturbed him – and presumably other adults present – no one to his knowledge addressed their use or what they stood for in the school culture. No one stepped forward to teach that senior salute is not a privilege, nor is "slaying."

Why? Did the air of the privilege, of being a white male in an affluent and hedonistic (to the point of violence) society make this OK "air" to him? Or, at least, OK enough not to pursue, to make inquiries? What was he thinking – or not thinking? What about the three reverends he mentions who "recognize Christian privilege"? Where was Christianity here? Or the administration and faculty who might have intervened, taught that this not the way leaders behave? Statutory rape could – it seems to me – be easy to slap on a senior accused of sexual assault, but that’s not the real point, the bottom line. What should be on trial here is a school that allowed such a practice to grow within its culture of privilege.

Katharine Gregg is a writer and former educator. She lives in Mason.