There have been tears, apologies, skepticism, uncomfortable laughter, condemnation of a sex-infused competition among male students and a distressingly detailed account of what one young woman says was rape, but the accused says was a consensual, limited encounter. And that’s only three days into the rape trial that has drawn national attention to the elite St. Paul’s School and the sexual culture among students there.
The trial has been characterized by dueling interpretations of what are nearly the same facts. Both the prosecution and the defense agree that 19-year-old Owen Labrie, then a graduating senior at St. Paul’s, had reached out to the 15-year-old freshman as part of the “senior salute” — a campus rite in which older students reach out to underclassmen for a romantic encounter. They met in the remote, upper reaches of a classroom building and began to kiss.
But then, the young woman testified on Tuesday, Labrie took things too far, groping her chest and removing her underwear.
“I said, ‘No, no, no, keep it up here,’” she said as she gestured above her waist, according to the New York Times. “I tried to be as polite as possible.”
When he allegedly raped her, the girl said, she felt pain but didn’t know what to do. “I wanted to not cause a conflict,” she said, according to the Times. “… I felt like I was frozen.”
Labrie has repeatedly told police that he and the girl did not have sex, though they did remove some of their clothes. He pleaded not guilty to several felonies, including sexual assault and use of a computer to lure the girl to him.
On Thursday, his attorney also questioned whether the girl gave any indication that she was upset by the encounter.
“You didn’t tell him to stop?” defense attorney J.W. Carney Jr. asked during his cross-examination Thursday, according to the Boston Globe.
“I didn’t,” she replied.
Carney also read aloud lighthearted text messages between the girl and Labrie exchanged after the alleged attack as evidence that she was alright with the encounter. When the girl said that she was trying to hide how upset she was, he asked whether that meant her messages were dishonest.
The girl told Carney: “I try not to lie as much as possible,” according to the Associated Press.
“Sometimes I guess you’re not successful,” he said.
In his opening statement on Tuesday, Carney framed the case as a conflict between two confused teenagers.
“If I had to describe this case for you, it’s about two high school kids and the experience they have growing up,” he said “Including the confusion, the impressions, the retroactive view in hindsight about what happened.”
But the prosecutor, deputy county attorney Catherine J. Ruffle, saw it differently.
“This case is about Owen Labrie sexually assaulting a 15 year old girl,” she said. “It’s about how he thought about this for months. It’s about how he made a plan and executed the plan in an isolated secluded mechanical room”
Much of the prosecution’s case involves the sexual culture at St. Paul’s, a private boarding school with a vast, green campus, Gothic classroom buildings, scores of prestigious alumni and an endowment that rivals those of many colleges.
“There are many traditions at St. Paul’s,” Ruffle said during her opening statement. “One of the traditions that you’re going to learn about is passed down from year to year by the students.”
Prosecutors said that the “salute” is less of a rite and more of a competition to sleep with younger students, and that Labrie had been vying to “be number one in sexual scoring,” as he told police. Ruffle said that Labrie and his friends routinely referred to “slaying” girls.
Shamus Khan, an alumnus who now teaches sociology at Columbia University, described his alma mater’s sexual culture in his book “Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School.” He wrote that female students’ reputations are often staked on sex — though sex is technically prohibited on campus. Much attention is paid to an annual dance called “screw,” when senior girls set up dates for the newcomers in their dorms.
“The students take this dance incredibly seriously,” Khan wrote, “as the sexual desirability of girls is determined by their value on the ‘screw’ marketplace.”
According to Khan, sex for girls at St. Paul’s was much more complicated and circumscribed than it was for their male peers: “Girls were expected to perform sexual acts on boys, encouraged to exploit their own sexuality, present their sexuality as a ‘gift'” he wrote.
During her testimony, the accuser often said that she worried about the impression she was making.
“I didn’t want to come off as an inexperienced little girl,” she said, according to the New York Times. “I didn’t want him to laugh at me. I didn’t want to offend him.”
That same concern also led her stay silent about the alleged attack throughout the weekend, the Times reported.
“I thought, I’m at St. Paul’s right now, this is graduation weekend, I cannot be dramatic about this,” she said.
During his cross-examination, Carney asked whether it was “fair to say” that Labrie could not have known she was uncomfortable with their encounter, she responded sharply, according to the Boston Globe.
“That is not fair to say,” she said. “I am very sure about that.”
By the time the accuser stepped off the stand Thursday, she was sobbing, according to the New York Times. She could be heard telling prosecutors, “I’m so sorry.”
Testimony will resume on Monday.