When I Tried to Talk to My Prep School About Rape Culture, They Wouldn't Listen


The first time I found myself in trouble at prep school, cross-legged in the office of the Exeter Dean of Residential Life, it wasn’t because of plagiarism or a drug bust or the “illegal visitation” of being caught in a boy’s dorm room during the wrong hours. It was because I’d written an op-ed for the Exonian suggesting that the school’s attempt to curb “grinding” at dances was actually a way of disguising the prevalence and acceptance of sexual assault.

I sat wrestling my thumbs in my lap; the AC hummed, ruffling my hair, while a campus safety car sped by on the road that divided the groomed lawn outside the window and the cluster of boys’ dorms beyond the asphalt. Hidden from view, a clock ticked, and the Dean kept his gaze down on the carpet. He’d run out of small talk. A minute stretched into forever, and then he folded the gray pages of the newspaper.

“Tell me a bit more about your piece,” he instructed.

I was in somewhat unfamiliar territory. An opinions editor who worked more for the yearbook than the newspaper on campus, I had less experience dealing with the administration than my peers at the Exonian who were accustomed to interviewing, dealing with, even just talking to them. But I believed in what I would tell him.

“Rape culture is a problem at Exeter too,” I said.

The Dean peered at me with palpable skepticism, confusion, and irritation.

My editorial had criticized a new “anti-grinding” policy the school had implemented, which I saw as a pathetic, defensive reaction against growing concerns and claims about sexual assault issues at Exeter. Over the 2013-2014 school year, my 11th-grade year, the newly founded Feminist Union on campus had hosted a series of campaigns and talks to discuss these issues. Many students saw these conversations as long overdue, but the group also faced substantial backlash, largely in the form of humiliating personal attacks.

In September 2014, after word had spread that there would be new rules about physical contact at school dances, the Exeter Deans had published a confusing, perhaps conflicting statement in the Exonian: “Just to be clear, we haven’t created any new policy. However, over the summer, after discussions with dormitory heads, health educators, student activities, and some students, it became clear that faculty chaperones and students have both been made to feel uncomfortable at dances due to various forms of grinding.”

Grinding was loosely defined as any form of dance that was just “too sexual,” a line left up to the discretion of dance faculty chaperones. But what the administration really was guarding against, I suspected, was the kind of headlines that had splashed all over the news that past summer, when Owen Labrie, a newly graduated alum of our nearby peer St. Paul’s School, was charged with rape of an underaged freshman girl.

This August, almost a year later, the trial has been underway; a New York Times article published Tuesday recounted specifics of the event and the trial, which have chilled many outsiders. For example:

Taking the stand on Tuesday, the girl seemed to sob as she identified Mr. Labrie in the courtroom. She was initially put off by his advances, she said, but when a mutual friend of theirs urged her to reconsider, she changed her mind about Mr. Labrie.
“Here’s a person who paid special attention to me,” she said. “How nice.”

I do not know Owen Labrie, and I did not attend St. Paul’s. But my efforts to question policies and culture at my own school this past school year have convinced me that my view of St. Paul’s is not through a distorted lens or a distant window, but through, more or less, a mirror.

That day in the Dean’s office was the latest in a long line of days that showed me, as a student, that “rape culture” systematically plagues not only college campuses, but high school campuses as well.

On that September afternoon, the Dean expressed his sympathy for Labrie, who, in his eyes, was a student-athlete with a promising future, successful by all conventional prep school standards (varsity athlete, campus and residential dorm leader, Ivy-bound). He seemed like a “good kid,” the Dean said, just “allegedly” accused of rape.

The Dean’s main concern was, he admitted, personal; he confessed the profile of Labrie, to a considerable extent, matched those of his soccer or hockey boys at Exeter—boys with girlfriends whom they treated well, as far as he was concerned. This was enough for him, a powerful administrative leader, to effectively annul or at least dismiss Labrie’s charge of rape.

I reminded the Dean of our first day of pre-Orientation on campus just two weeks earlier, when I’d sat with about a hundred fellow seniors who would, like me, be Exeter residential dorm leaders. We were introduced that day to what was quickly dubbed “the grinding rule.” The scene felt dizzying and counterproductive—a focus on symptoms rather than causes—and I’d begun my Exonian column by describing it:

Last week during a proctor training session, the deans informed dorm leaders that faculty chaperones at school dances would begin enforcing the “grinding rules.” The room’s response was a collage of reactions–sighing, groaning, “What?,” “Why?” and laughter.
“Now how am I going to get all my prep girls?” a senior seated near me complained, using cruder language, as he laughed to his friends. How disconcerting is it that a dorm proctor of 40 boys on our campus harbors that unacceptable mindset?

That senior boy sitting next to me evinced a carbon-copy mindset of St. Paul’s “Senior Salute,” in which seniors aim to “hook up” (defined leniently, from kissing to sex) with as many underclassmen as possible during the final week of graduation—the mindset to which Labrie’s series of actions encompassing his alleged assault is being attributed.

The meeting with the Dean that day ended with his encouraging advice that I help “start a group who wants to talk about these things.” He had forgotten, apparently, that our Feminist Union existed.

This past year at Exeter—my senior year—I watched many friends and peers fight to hold similar conversations with their deans, with their dorms, with their teams. It has grown alarmingly clear that many attempts to push substantial change are being curbed and set aside.

According to the August 18 New York Times report, St. Paul’s is also putting walls up. Their only statement: “Allegations about our culture are not emblematic of our school or our values, our rules, or the people that represent our student body, alumni, faculty and staff.”

It’s feeble-minded to think that a sincere mission for elite education precludes the existence of rape culture. This, in fact, is the crucial mistake. The principles central to prep schools are lofty and well-intentioned; they also rest upon privilege and power, which are inextricable from the mindset of a tradition like Senior Salute, a rite that serves as both stimulus and byproduct of rape culture, and either way, reinforces its practices. Even our educational methods—the “Harkness” skills, honed in 12-person discussion-based classes—put a premium on forceful assertion, but in some cases, also just on the loudest voice. Students at Exeter develop an independence and self-righteousness that can be productive and freeing, but also entitled and dangerous. What I’m saying is not that elite institutions are breeding assault intentionally, but that the side effects of elitism can nudge some prep school students closer to violent ground.

Exeter is home to over 1,000 teenagers, some of whom hook up and have sex. The school’s heterocentric visitations policy states that faculty permission is necessary to visit a dorm room of a student of the opposite gender within allotted hours; as you might expect, that rule is broken 10 times more than a plate is in the dining hall. Garnering over 50 percent student body participation, a 2014 school-wide survey conducted by the Exonian’s web board asked students, “Does Exeter have a ‘hook-up’ culture?” to which about 80 percent of participants answered, “Yes.”

With, on one hand, a policy that also states that the dorm room doors must be opened during such visits—essentially ruling out sex as an option during visitations—and on the other, a jack-o-lantern of free, accessible condoms in the health center lounge, students often accuse Exeter of implicitly encouraging “illegal” visitations, or sex in a hush-hush way. In the case of a dorm room experience that even begins to skew uncomfortable, the strict visitations policy encourages students to stay rather than eject themselves; leaving—even if the interaction progresses towards violence—might attract negative faculty attention and thus punishment, two things that high-achieving teenagers will go to great lengths to avoid.

But even more troubling is the fact that—as my meeting with the Dean proved—many adults filling key leadership roles take issue with both the term “rape culture” and the idea that such a thing could exist in the first place. In student dorm leader meetings throughout the year, in which sexual assault continually surfaced as a pressing problem, many adults considered the term “too harsh,” or spoke about it patronizingly. A culture that forgives and facilitates rape, they implied, did not exist.

For example, in my all-girls dorm of 40 ninth through twelfth-graders, fellow senior residential leaders and I asked about bringing up sexual assault at the beginning-of-the-year dorm meeting, but were discouraged, as “not to scare younger girls about something that probably wouldn’t even happen.”

A friend in another girls’ dorm revealed that her seniors had gotten in trouble with their faculty for bringing up sex talks to their underclassmen; a third girls’ dorm was able to get faculty support for such talks, but reported that there was an alarming emphasis on past sexual assault reports and how they’d been “mishandled.” Friends in multiple boys’ dorms admitted they rarely, if barely, touched the topic of sexual assault at all.

On campus at Exeter this spring, there was a May showing of the college campus sexual assault documentary The Hunting Ground. It was only open to seniors enrolled in specific gender-studies classes, so I had to email for special permission to attend the small gathering. During the Q&A that followed it, a dorm mate and I approached a second Dean to note some new concerns with sexual assault; she told us to contact her privately, then subsequently bumped our meeting to a later date, then asserted surprise when we explained our frustration with dorm issues regarding sexual assault education and prevention. She “wasn’t aware” of this conflict, she said.

Exeter’s sexual health curriculum is currently composed of a spring trimester class that meets twice a week during freshman or sophomore year. But, of course, condoms and videos of live birth aren’t equivalent to serious conversations regarding sexual assault. A new class is being added the spring of 2016, required for seniors before they head off to college—but in the middle, there’s very little. There’s an annual assembly in which the Academy hires an outside performance group to light-heartedly speak on physical intimacy, a display that garners mostly laughs, especially from the very groups of individuals who are the same ones attempting to humiliate and patronize students like Feminist Union leaders, as well as the students involved in awareness campaigns. The few instances in which more serious approaches are taken by the school are telling, and troubling. An assembly speaker visited last fall to address cyberbullying, but she instead spent the entire lecture clarifying the legal implications for an accused party; little to no emphasis was placed on the morals of online harassment, whose sexual component is often primary.

This behavior is unacceptable.

Sexual assault is a problem long before college—a fact that many secondary school administrators are still reluctant and stubborn to admit. My critique is not meant to demonize any specific person or any specific administration, but rather to say that the refusal to even acknowledge these issues feels like a slap in the face.

At a residential boarding school where over three-quarters of students admit the prevalence of a hook up culture and a quarter of them report feeling uncomfortable or pressured to participate, sexual assault is still either being handled poorly or not at all. 73 percent of young women on campus consider themselves at a disadvantage based on their gender; only 12 percent of men viewed women as such. This is a problem that transcends individual people and administrators; it transcends both Exeter and St. Paul’s.

That Dean and I grew to have much more cordial exchanges, but few, if any, substantial shifts in policy have developed out of my meeting or those initiated by others. And while policy alone is unfathomably far from a solution to culture, there needs to be some sort of visible, longterm cooperation between the two. It’s not at the discretion of a new clause or a school administration to alter culture overnight. But the administration of these schools are the gatekeepers of the student body and last far beyond the four-year stints we spend there. By sweeping aside our concerns and considering our complaints as irrelevant voices past graduation, the institutions let rape culture perpetuate. They reinforce the pattern of waiting for the next set of students to speak out, only to graduate them onwards before lasting change is instilled.

After spending four years in rural New Hampshire, tucked away in brick buildings nestled near groomed green lawns, I graduated this June. But given this summer’s reemerging headlines about St. Paul’s, I am haunted this August with vivid memories of the continuous attempts fellow students and I made to push for change—change beyond gender-biased, shame-heavy policies that currently ask girls to change out of low-cut tank tops at dances, but leave shirtless boys alone.

It should not require national media coverage for campus sexual assault to be taken seriously, but we are finding ourselves well past that tragic point. It should be obvious by now that this common rape culture—addressing symptoms rather than causes, dismissing victims, and stifling conversations—is present and prevalent in the schools that don’t make headlines as well as the ones that do.

Rape culture hurts everyone. The first step in fighting it is the institutional acknowledgment of a problem. St. Paul’s statement is proof of their failure to do so, and Exeter’s actions this year, like in those of the past, say the same.

You can read a response from the Phillips Exeter Academy administration here.

Zoha Qamar is an eighteen-year-old trying to reconcile world news and current events through her eyes as a Muslim-American woman in the 21st century. Born and raised in California before four years of East Coast culture shock at boarding school in New Hampshire, she since splits her time fairly between In n Out and Shake Shack. Most notably, Zoha, also a cereal connoisseur, proudly advocates for any and all campaigns in support of breakfast-for-dinner. At the moment, she is most likely chugging coffee and trying remember where she put her calculator for engineering school.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

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