Metro

Yvonne Abraham

St. Paul’s trial reminds us that, in many ways, it’s still 1950

Prosecutor Joseph Cherniske watched as former St. Paul’s School student Owen Labrie examines phone text and Facebook message copies during Labrie’s trial at Merrimack Superior Court in Concord, N.H.
Charles Krupa/Associated Press
Prosecutor Joseph Cherniske watched as former St. Paul’s School student Owen Labrie examines phone text and Facebook message copies during Labrie’s trial at Merrimack Superior Court in Concord, N.H.

Whether Owen Labrie is found guilty or not, the picture coming into focus in the New Hampshire courtroom where he stands trial for rape is a parent’s nightmare.

It’s especially dismal for parents of younger kids. Some of us hoped they would be growing up in a more enlightened world when it comes to sex — one where our daughters are more empowered, and our sons more respectful of their rights.

But this trial reminds us that, in many ways, it’s still 1950. That, despite our strenuous efforts to teach our kids otherwise, boys still feel entitled to sex, and it’s still on girls to hold them back.

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If St. Paul’s School is any indication — and there’s no reason to think it isn’t, since the elite prep school’s graduates go on to run the world — our more open sexual culture has changed the basics very little. There, it appears, senior boys see far less powerful and more vulnerable freshman girls as marks, as sexual conquests to be tallied on an actual scoreboard. And girls can risk their social standing if they don’t play along.

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It seems a very mixed up place, St. Paul’s. But let’s face it, it could be any place and any school. The business of coming of age sexually has never been more complicated than now.

If we assume the worst is true, and that Labrie’s accuser is telling the truth, her testimony has been a study in powerlessness. She was a 15-year-old freshman who didn’t want to go off with this popular senior, until one of his allies convinced her to change her mind (“You’re a [expletive] god,” a grateful Labrie told his pal, afterward). Alone with Labrie, then 18, she grew uncomfortable as the hook-up progressed. She said no more than once, but he continued, raping her, prosecutors say.

We have drummed into our kids that both parties need to give clear, unequivocal consent to sex. They have been told that no means no. As a school prefect, Labrie got extra lessons on that. And yet, he appears to have boasted about overcoming the girl’s reluctance, using “every trick in the book,” according to a
Facebook message. So much for training.

And the victim? In age-old fashion, she initially blamed herself for what happened, because she hadn’t physically fought off Labrie, according to her testimony. She was even nice to him via text and e-mail afterward, because, she says, she hadn’t yet come to terms with what had happened, and she worried being any other way would make her a pariah. She said she didn’t want to come off as “bitchy.”

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Labrie’s defense attorney J.W. Carney capitalized on her inconsistencies during his cross-examination, using the retrograde argument that her consenting to some of what went on that night meant consenting to all of it.

Labrie maintains the girl gave clear consent to the whole encounter, which he claims stopped short of intercourse, even though his DNA was found on her underwear and he’d boasted about having sex with her to friends afterward (he now says he was lying to impress). His attorneys have argued that her sweet notes to Labrie after that night meant the girl was happy about what had happened between them, and only later changed her mind. The nice notes went both ways.

“When a boy actually takes your virginity, I hope it’s golden,” Labrie wrote to the girl after the alleged rape.

If Labrie raped her, that message from him appears a sinister and brilliant attempt to cover his tracks. If he didn’t, it would mean the girl is putting herself through the hell of a rape trial in the service of a lie. Both scenarios are profoundly disturbing.

It is all unbelievably murky, as disputes over consent always are. Which makes it easy for a guilty person to hide, or for an innocent one to be convicted.

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That murkiness is magnified when you’re dealing with teenagers’ developing brains and raging hormones.

There is a reason the age of consent is 16. Given the misery in that courtroom, you have to wonder if it should be higher.

There’s a 1950 solution for you.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com