Preventing high school rape
Published in the Brookline
starts in early childhood
December 2, 1999
Brookline Police Chief Daniel O'Leary recently received a $150,000 Department
of Justice grant, which he applied for last spring after increased reports
of sexual assault and sexual harassment by Brookline High School students.
Combined with similar efforts of a special town task force, the grant
can help clarify to all students that sexual assaults, ranging from unwanted
touching in the hallways to violence to Saturday night date rape, are
both unacceptable and illegal.
But important as it is, improved policing won't solve the problem. The
use of power by boys and men against girls and women is so ingrained in
our culture that it won't be ended by a few workshops and arrests. Interventions
need to take place long before our kids get to high school. For those
interventions to be effective, we'll also have to evaluate our own assumptions
Sexual assault and sexual harassment don't exist in a vacuum. Within
the larger society, rape is not an aberration. Though repugnant, it's
a logical extension of common behaviors that are not only widely tolerated
but often extolled. As a result, assault and harassment cannot be understood,
and cannot be eradicated, without taking into account imbalances of power
and privilege within traditional male-female relationships. Too many young
people continue to act upon sex role expectations that many of their parents
struggled to eliminate a generation ago.
Feminism's greatest success may be the changed career expectations of
young middle-class women. When I attended Brooklyn College in the late
1960s, with job ads still segregated by sex, my hazy memory is that most
of the women majored in teaching or English--teaching if they thought
they'd have to work, English if they thought they'd soon be married. That
world is gone. Although poor and working-class women still mostly end
up in secretarial pools and other traditionally female workplaces, middle-class
women today expect to choose careers from among the full range of options,
and they expect to work at those careers married or not. The glass ceiling
persists, but women know it's illegitimate, and they fight to smash it.
Yet some expectations have changed less.
I'm reminded of a young college student of mine a few years ago who wrote
an excellent paper describing how she had changed her interests to adapt
to a succession of boyfriends: With the jock she went to football games,
with the scholar she studied at the library, with the film buff she saw
movies. She had never before considered that her relationships might become
more egalitarian--that a boyfriend might adapt to her as much as she adapted
to him. Ironically, rather than use her new insight to alter her relationships,
she wrote of her relief upon reading in the textbook that women routinely
adapt to their men. It's expected.
I'm reminded also of my daughter in a Brookline playground just last
spring, matter-of-factly informed by two five-year old boys that they
did not play with girls. She'd first encountered that response the year
before, when her best preschool friend stopped playing with her except
when they were alone, because he had learned what other boys expected.
She encounters it often now. Her defensive overreaction--"Boys drool,
girls rule!"--doesn't really mask the hurt.
My point should be clear: traditional sex role expectations remain strong.
With children learning about male privilege on the playground and in their
homes, with early learning reinforced by a culture that makes male power
and sexual aggression seem sexy, many high schoolers will consider harassment
and even rape normal and unremarkable. According to O'Leary's report to
the selectmen, many BHS women students were angry last year at one victim
for reporting her attacker--because she willingly went with him to a remote
location; others said the victim could not have been raped because she
wasn't beaten. That both girls and boys believe these myths after more
than twenty years of feminist critique is astonishing and disheartening.
Fortunately, the task force on high school rape and harassment is not
the only task force. There's also one on bullying and teasing in the younger
grades; parallel attention is given to values such as respect. That's
a start. But perhaps we need another task force, one focused explicitly
on sex roles and other assumptions learned long before high school, even
before kindergarten. That's a difficult place to intervene, a politically
touchy place, but that's where male power begins.
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