The St Paul’s high school rape case verdict came in last Friday – and most headlines trumpet that 18-year-old accused rapist Owen Labrie got off easy, acquitted of the three most serious charges, including felony rape. But there are many good lessons from this trial, worth applauding, and myths that we need to debunk as we raise responsible sons and daughters and send them off to high school and college safely.
1. Despite recent publicity about the dangers of rape on college campuses, most rapists begin raping in high school. According to renowned researcher David Lisak, Ph.D., from the University of Massachusetts Boston, a “study of college rapists found that the most powerful predictor of committing rape during college was a history of having committed rape during high school.” In the St Paul’s case, Owen Labrie was a high school senior, his victim a 15-year-old freshman. Many serial rapists, whom Lisak’s research shows are responsible for 90% of rapes, report that they started “experimenting” with sexual assault while still in high school. The most dangerous time in a woman’s life, in terms of sexual and relationship violence, occurs between the ages of 18 to 24, no matter where we live or go to school. We parents, and our teenagers, should find no solace in the misconception that rape is a problem confined to colleges.
2. Most rapists know their victims; the vast majority of rapists do not wear ski masks, jump out of dark bushes, or carry a knife or gun to subdue their victims. Owen Labrie dated his victim’s older sister, and went to school with both girls. Lisak’s finding show that most rapists are cold-blooded predators, premediating their attacks. Rapists
- are extremely adept at identifying “likely” victims, and testing prospective victims’ boundaries;
- plan and premeditate their attacks, using sophisticated strategies to groom their victims for attack, and to isolate them physically;
- use “instrumental” not gratuitous violence; they exhibit strong impulse control and use only as much violence as is needed to terrify and coerce their victims into submission;
- use psychological weapons – power, control, manipulation, and threats – backed up by physical force, and almost never resort to weapons such as knives or guns;
- use alcohol deliberately to render victims more vulnerable to attack, or completely unconscious.”
3. The St Paul’s victim was unusual – and especially brave – because she told her parents. Many victims report that telling their parents they’ve been raped is so excruciating that they cannot do so at all, or they tell only one parent and swear him or her to secrecy, or they delay telling their parents for months or even years. However, in order to get help, a rape victim is far better off telling his or her parents, or other caring, responsible adults, than staying silent. So: when you educate your children about the risks of sexual assault, tell them you won’t judge them or grill them or view them any differently if they ever become victims. Tell them it isn’t their fault if they are attacked. Tell them you understand and will help without anger or judgment. If you wait until an assault actually takes place, you and your child may be so overwhelmed that you won’t be able to have these types of invaluable conversations. So do it now.
4. Most rapists are not caught, most are never prosecuted, and only 3% of rapists spend a day in jail. “Between 64% and 96% percent of all rapes are never reported to criminal justice authorities…only a small minority of reported cases, especially nonstranger assaults, ever result in the successful prosecution of the offender…the vast majority of rapists are never brought to justice.” So despite the fact that Owen Labrie was acquitted of three charges, this trial is an important victory for rape victims, because he was caught, accused, and prosecuted.
5. Rape happens in every community. An elite school like St Paul’s, filled with smart, wealthy children and tuition topping $50,000 a year, is no protection against sexual assault. Rape happens in every school. In every neighborhood. In every corner of our country, even the most bucolic and privileged.
6. Public identification of rapists and punishment are the most critical components to rape prevention. This is one reason to find justification and gratification in the jury’s punishment that Labrie has to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. If Owen Labrie is indeed one of the 6.4% of men who commit 90% of rapes, perhaps now – as a registered sex offender and convicted sex abuser – this trial means he may be prevented from becoming a serial rapist. Especially if, wherever he goes, people know he is a rapist, and thus can intervene if they notice him targeting a potential victim. Bystanders play an essential role in preventing or allowing rape. They need to understand the facts that most rapists know their victims, and that like predators, rapists intentionally target the most vulnerable potential victims.
7. Rape is not a life sentence. Being ashamed is. Many victims, especially those who are immediately believed when they report being raped, recover physically and psychologically. The most empowering lesson from the St Paul’s rape trial is that this victim told people she’d been raped, was believed by the people she told, fought for herself against her rapist, her school, and a criminal justice system skewed towards protecting rapists. By doing so, she became her own advocate and improved her chances of healing from the assault and assisting other victims as well.