The trial of Owen Labrie, a former student of St. Paul’s Preparatory School — in which he was found guilty of five misdemeanors including endangering the welfare of a child, but was acquitted of the more serious felony charge of aggravated sexual assault — is raising flags about rape culture in American schools, though it’s not the first controversial rape case this year, and sadly probably won’t be the last.
First, the basics. Age of consent is the age when, under the law, a person can voluntarily agree to sexual intercourse. In the U.S., that age varies from state to state, between 16 and 18 years old, as does procedures for trying defendants accused of sexual assault and/or sexual contact with a minor. Under California State law penal code 261, “An offender commits Rape by engaging in sexual intercourse with another person who is not the offender’s spouse.” The law goes on to list lack of consent as: incapability to give consent because of mental or developmental disability; use of force; intoxication; or the victim being unconscious. Under Article 264 in the same penal code, punishment for rape of a victim under 14 years old is between 9 – 13 years in jail. If the victim is older than 14 years old, the offender can be imprisoned between 7 – 11 years. A sexual act with a child younger than 10 years old can result in a sentencing of 15 or 25 years to life. That case would have to be brought to court within 10 years of the offense in California. In Alabama, the statute of limitation for rape, or the maximum amount of time parties have to initiate legal proceedings against an allegation, is only 3 years. In states including Kentucky, the statute for limitation of misdemeanor sexual abuse is 1 year. These crimes include a number of sexual acts that are all against the victim’s consent.
Amidst this muddle, it’s worth nothing that American colleges and universities have their own definitions of consent, which vary from school to school. Recently, the focus has been on defining — in clear and concise language — what is consensual versus what is not. Many schools have turned to a model of “affirmative consent.” At Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California, the definition of consent is “clear, knowing and voluntary,” eschewing the traditional “no means no” model for a more active one: “yes means yes.” In an interview with National Public Radio (NPR), Mary Spellman, dean of students for Claremont McKenna, describes the challenge of clearly defining consent: “If consent were easy to put into words, we’d have a sentence, and we wouldn’t have a page and a half of definition.” For Spellman, the focus is on active participation.
Antioch College based in Ohio requires that its students not only receive explicit verbal permission before engaging in sexual acts, but that consent must be periodically given at “each new level of sexual activity,” according to Spellman. The only exception to explicit verbal consent is the use of predetermined hand signals. The school’s policy can be traced back to the 1990s when it was championed by the “Womyn of Antioch,” a group of former students troubled by the administration’s approach towards handling sexual offenses on campus. The positive here is clear — schools are attempting to be successful where the legal system has failed, notably by clearly defining consent in order to create a safer environment for students of all genders and orientations. However, work — and a lot of it — remains to be done in terms of educating students before they reach college.
While there is no evidence of a causal relationship between sex education and rates of sexual assault, 5 out of the 6 states with the highest rape rates also have no requirement for sex education. In fact, only 22 out of the 50 states in America require public schools to teach sex education. There are currently two primary models used in those schools that do have sex education: comprehensive- and abstinence-based. The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SEICUS) was founded in 1964 by Dr. Mary S. Calderone, the Medical Director for Planned Parenthood Federation at the time. SEICUS was concerned with the lack of accurate sexual education resources available to the public, based on Dr. Calderone’s observation that children will one day grow up to be adults and need to be educated on their bodies and how to use them in a healthy way.
Indeed, “rape culture” — a term that first appeared in the 1970s, and which is widely used to describe pervasive normalization of sexual aggression and violence — is particularly present on modern-day college and university campuses. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 80% of student rapes and sexual assaults go unreported to the police. That is 13% higher than it is for non-students. Students are also more likely than non-student victims to say that the incident was not important enough to report.
Given the extent of rape culture on U.S. campuses today — for every highly publicized Labrie case, there are countless more flying under the radar — it’s little wonder that we are seeing a reinvigoration of the debate over what constitutes consent, albeit one far too often focused on semantics. But as legal and juridical attempts flounder, the solution looks to lie in public education. After all, rape is a public health issue and should be treated with the same gravity as any other nationwide crisis.