Prep School Sexual Assault Trial Revealed Something Terrible About How We Treat Survivors


In August, a former student of the elite New Hampshire boarding school St. Paul's stood trial for several felonies, including the sexual assault of a 15-year-old student back when he was a senior. Owen Labrie, 20, was found  guilty of one felony count of computer use prohibited, one misdemeanor endangering welfare of a child and three misdemeanor sexual assault and was sentenced to a year of jail time on Thursday, ABC News reported.

Labrie was previously acquitted of the most serious charges against him, three counts of felony sexual assault, which could have resulted in up to 20 years in prison, in August, NBC News reported. This was considered a victory by many, especially Labrie's supporters in the St. Paul's community. Despite evidence against him — including, for example, Facebook and text messages indicating he had planned the incident — plenty of alumni defended Labrie and, by extension, the "senior salute" tradition, which required seniors at the school to compete to see how many underclassmen they can proposition and in which Labrie was reportedly participating. Others have expressed concern for the student's future, as his full scholarship to Harvard was put on hold.

Cheryl Senter/AP

And yet, comparatively little outrage seems to have been vocalized on behalf of Labrie's survivor, who, CBS  reported, said in her testimony that she told Labrie "no" twice during the incident, then felt "frozen" as he grew increasingly aggressive. Like so many survivors of sexual assault before her, she said she ultimately blamed herself, and even experienced denial — feelings that likely were only reiterated by her own community's support of her assailant and her treatment during the trial. 

Labrie's lawyer's defense, in fact, rested on destroying her credibility. The defense team targeted the survivor's behavior after the incident (that she waited days to report the assault, then appeared fine to others) as an indication of their own client's innocence, the Concord Monitor reported. This defense is highly damaging and reiterates myths about sexual assault survivors, public policy director for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence Amanda Grady Sexton told the Concord Monitor.

"When the focus of a criminal procedure shifts from the offender's conduct to the victim, the victim becomes the subject of inappropriate and irrelevant scrutiny in the court system and in the media," Sexton told the paper. "As a result, future victims will be less likely to report to police or engage in the criminal justice process at all."

Jim Cole/AP

In addition to victim-blaming, this defense ultimately rested on age-old, sexist stereotypes about women's sexuality — that "girls and women only sit in one of two places sexually: They are either virgin pure or they have no boundaries," Anne Penniston Grunsted wrote in Role Reboot in August. While Labrie was considered innocent until proven guilty, Grunsted added, the onus to have prevented the crime is inherently placed on the victim, and his crime "considered null until the victim proves she really meant it."

To this day, the survivor "still feel[s] numb" and experiences "vivid flashbacks," ABC reported she said at Labrie's sentencing hearing on Thursday.

"The defendant has stolen so much from my daughter and from my family and what he stole we will never get back," her father said at the time, according to ABC News.

While the survivor and her family may now feel some semblance of justice knowing Labrie will face recourse for his crimes, it's undeniable that the problem he represents is much bigger — and requires a remedy far more significant than a year in jail.