Mimesis Law
15 October 2019

Redefining Rape: Prosecuting Teens For Sex We Don’t Like

Nov. 10, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Owen Labrie was a decorated high school student on his way to an Ivy League college. He now finds himself a registered sex offender. He has gone from acceptance at Harvard to being convicted of sexual assault and looking forward to a year in jail.

His crime? Ill-advised teenage sexual activity. Not rape. This prosecution is another example of why the criminal justice system simply isn’t an appropriate way to deal with high school kids.

St. Paul’s School is an elite New England prep school, boasting alumni such as John Kerry and former FBI director Robert Mueller. At almost $60,000 a year, it is certainly not the normal high school. But no matter how expensive or prestigious St. Paul’s is, it has one thing in common with every high school in America; it is full of teenagers.

This case started with a silly tradition called the “senior salute.” Graduating boys at the school attempt to get younger students to engage in “romantic encounters” with them before they graduate.

Labrie asked a freshman girl at the school to join him for a senior salute. There was a flirty exchange between the two for a few days before he convinced her to join him. He took her to the roof of a building at St. Paul’s to enjoy “the nicest view” on campus. Something happened between the two, though the trial presented widely different stories. The victim claimed she was raped. Labrie claimed there was no sex between them, though they were “physically intimate.” Labrie claimed all of the activity was consensual.

The trial revealed a culture at St. Paul’s of teenage boys speaking in crude terms and engaging in manipulation to get high school girls into bed with them. The behavior is not something to promote and should be addressed, but it should be addressed for what it is. Teenagers make stupid decisions because they have not yet learned how to make good ones. In fact, that is the most important part of growing up.

Most people would agree the social studies and algebra learned in high school probably serve little purpose in your future life. The social interaction and decision-making opportunities are the real lessons. And without a doubt, most teenagers make serious mistakes as they grow up. How we deal with those mistakes is becoming much more important. Prosecuting them for every dumb mistake is not the answer.

Owen Labrie sounds like he could be a bit of a jackass. He and his friends seemed to be obsessed with “slaying” (sleeping with) girls and “using every trick in the book” to get them in bed. He wooed high school girls by sending romantic emails and telling them what they wanted to hear. He bragged to his friends that he would dump the girls once he was done with them.

But in addition to being a jackass, he was also a kid with a good future. He was popular at the elite boarding school and had been accepted to Harvard to study divinity. He was a prefect at the school, which meant he was responsible for helping younger kids. He was the captain of the soccer team.

It is important to note Labrie is not, according to the jury, a rapist. He was found not guilty of the charges involving rape. The jury believe the victim consented to the sexual activity, whatever it was. He was found guilty of the felony charge of using a computer to entice her and misdemeanor sexual assault charges related to the girl’s age. So the jury found there was consensual sex, but the girl, a high school freshman, was too young to consent. As Labrie’s attorney, J.W. Carney, Jr., described the verdict:

One teenager was found guilty of having consensual sex with another teenager.

The entire situation demonstrates the criminal justice system’s inability to deal with youth.

In the kind of argument only a prosecutor can make, Labrie’s good deeds became as sinister as his stupid ones. Catherine Ruffle, a deputy county attorney, said Labrie’s status as a prefect and a soccer team captain warranted him more punishment, not less. Ruffle wanted him sentenced to prison, because she claims intelligence and charisma are traits that are not uncommon in sexual predators.

Judge Larry M. Smukler of the Merrimack Superior Court sentenced Labrie based on his belief there was no consent, as well as his belief Labrie lied. Instead of sentencing him for what he did, the judge punished him for going to trial and punished him for what the judge thought he did. Even though the jury found there was consent, the judge insisted there was not. He based his opinion on the victim’s description of the effect this had on her. In fact, he stated at the sentencing hearing that one of the primary factors in his sentence was that this was a day for justice for the victim.

At the end of the day, this prosecution did not serve anyone’s best interests. Rather, it demonstrates our increasingly unclear definitions of rape and our inadequate attempts to deal with teenagers trying to navigate adolescence. The victim’s father claimed this prosecution served the greater good:

 “My little girl stood up to this entitled young man,” her father said. “She stood up to the entitled culture at St. Paul’s School. She stood up to the rape culture that exists in our society and allows ‘boys to be boys.’ ”

A better description of what happened is found in the New Yorker’s coverage of the sentence:

We are in the midst of a significant cultural shift, in which we are redescribing sex that we vehemently dislike as rape, and sexual attitudes that we strongly disapprove of as examples of rape culture.

The idea of sex we don’t like as rape is an important one, especially when applied to teenage sex. As this case showed, the criminal justice system is not very good at dealing in grey areas, especially when young people are involved. The jury found there was no rape, but there was sexual activity between two high school kids, one of whom was too young for sex. The prosecutor argued the stellar history of Labrie made him a sexual predator. The victim’s father held this up as a battle against “rape culture.” The judge topped it all off by sentencing the kid for stuff he was not found guilty of.

In reality, this was sex we don’t like. A popular and privileged high school kid took advantage of that popularity and privilege to have sex with another student. Both parties made a series of bad decisions.

What a waste. The opportunity to actually explain to kids what it means to think about your actions and make good decisions is being handed off to the criminal justice system. Until we become wiser about dealing with teenagers, how can we expect them to become wiser?

4 Comments on this post.

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  • Jay
    10 November 2015 at 7:01 pm - Reply

    I’m surprised you guys haven’t done any coverage of the ALI group working to redo the MPC definitions of rape and consent so they will match what’s happening in colleges and high schools. Heck, I’m surprised no one is really covering it. There was a series of stories in August because that Harvard professor talked about it, but no one has looked into it. That, I think, is the scariest thing I’ve heard so far.

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