Change the Culture

The rape trial of Owen Labrie opened a stunningly clear window into the culture of St. Paul’s. It’s a culture that I feel I know well. I know it because I went to Phillips Exeter Academy, which is part of that same coterie of prep schools, and my daughter went to St. Paul’s. Growing up in that culture, this is what I learned about gender relations: first base, second base, third base, homerun. The object was to score, to push against resistance, to overcome by whatever means.

Owen Labrie is not an exceptional outlier. He exemplifies that culture. As much as St. Paul’s would like to do so, there is no way that it can now say to its alumni, “The problem here is fixed, Owen Labrie has been prosecuted and excluded and now everything is good.” This is pure fantasy.

And it is fantasy to think that we at Harvard Law School live in a different culture. There is no school along the line where anything different is taught. In every school we teach the same thing. We teach where the boundaries are. We spend all our time talking about whether it should be ‘unwelcomed conduct’ or ‘affirmative consent’, but it’s all about how far you can go without getting punished. And that approach serves only to affirm the culture.

There is no point at which we discuss what standard should a student aspire to. How would I like to see a young man relate to my daughter? How would I like to see my daughter relate to a young man? I would like them not to focus on punishment boundaries but on how they would like to feel on the morning after: will I feel good about my actions? Will my partner feel as good about our interactions as I do? If we, as an educational institution, were to teach relationship and respect, that would make so much more sense to me.

And, when there is a breach of respect, what should we do by way of punishment? I complement the prosecutrix in the Owen Labrie case. She was a brave young woman who spoke amazingly well, and challenged the St. Paul’s culture of “senior salute.” But was a criminal prosecution the appropriate choice here? Should a school that has failed to teach its students to respect each other, respond by singling out one of those students for a felony conviction and sex offender status? Should he bear the sole weight of the school’s failure to teach him any better?

To me the number one issue is what is the role of a school in teaching its students how to deal with each other with respect, in sexual situations as in all others? Should we teach by punishment or by aspiration? Gender relations require us to speak respectfully with our opposite number and to listen really carefully to make sure that we can see it from his or her point of view. Only when this happens, can we expect to change our culture from one of scoring to one of mutual respect.

A YouTube video featuring Professor Nesson discussing this topic can be found here:

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