The Hubris of Owen Labrie

Sex, lies and lessons to be learned

Posted Apr 07, 2016

That St. Paul’s School graduate Owen Labrie was convicted of misdemeanor counts of sexual assault and endangering the welfare of a child, as well as a felony charge of computer-related seduction, was evidence enough of a troubling trend among young people, especially boys. It is not turbo-charged testosterone fueling sexual gratification, for that is nothing new. Rather, the trend appears related to coercion and aggression. But maybe those are not so new either.

Except.

Except that decades of work have gone into enlightening youth about responsible, respectful relationships. Work that heretofore was deemed to be largely successful. Alas, the case of Owen Labrie stuck a pin in that celebratory balloon … twice.

The first time was the original incident itself, a part of an “underground” tradition – at least according to the administration, which professed surprise about a campus culture that apparently had long ago run amok. The “Senior Salute” has been described, somewhat righteously, as encouraging 12th grade males to engage in sexual behavior "with as many younger females as possible," including those below the age of consent.

In Labrie’s case, the victim was a 15-year-old freshman. And while Labrie’s accounts in court differed from the girl’s, and from what he told his friends, in the end the jury – armed with physical evidence – believed her.

Strike one.

Commenting on the incident in her Boston Globe column, “St. Paul’s Trial Reminds Us That, in Many Ways, It’s Still 1950,” Yvonne Abraham bemoans the false promise of generational change. Speaking for parents of younger children, she says, “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.” Abraham continues, “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.”

Perhaps the training model was wrong all along. But more on that later.

The second dissolution of our perceived progress came just last month, when Labrie – who was spared a year’s imprisonment pending appeal by an arguably lenient judge – unwittingly revealed to a reporter that he had violated his probation agreement (one of more than a dozen times) by traveling out of Vermont after hours, so to speak, to visit his girlfriend at Harvard. For this, as during the trial that preceded it, Labrie seemed to exhibit little, if any, remorse – other than for getting caught.

Strike two.

In totality, the offense, the parole violations and the cavalier comportment of Labrie – including passed-up plea deals, untimely smirking, unflattering social media messages and implausible deniability – led the reporter in question, Susan Zalkind, to say Labrie appears pathological because of his arrogance.

OK. That may be the case. But what does this sordid tale teach us about prevention?

Back-to-back articles (March 19th and 26th respectively) in The New York Times, “When Did Porn Become Sex Ed?”, and The Boston Globe, “Does Social Media Increase Sexual Pressures on Teen Girls?”, point to an unattractive gender imbalance (male versus female), a growing norm of coercion and conquest among boys and men, and a resignation to disregard and discomfort among girls and women. Is it any wonder that sexual assaults on college campuses have become rampant or that those institutions are spending millions of dollars to field misconduct complaints?

There must be a better way. Actually, there are two.

Sex Education: Formal sex education remains a cornerstone in shaping not only understanding of the biological, social and emotional forces facing young adults, but also the values-driven ecosystems within which personal decisions are made and acted upon. Yet according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in most U.S. states fewer than half of high schools and only a fifth of middle schools teach all 16 topics the CDC recommends as essential components of sexual health education. Citing a 2014 report of school health profiles, Stephanie Zaza, M.D., M.P.H., and director of CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health, warns, “Lack of effective sex education can have very real, very serious health consequences.” She continues, “Young people who have multiple sex partners, don’t use condoms, and use drugs or alcohol before sex are at higher risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. School-based sex education is a critical opportunity to provide the skills and information they need to protect themselves."

Parental Communication: Studies of parental involvement in guiding our children as they develop a sense of themselves (including romantically and sexually) reliably demonstrate the efficacy of such efforts, regardless of the degree of difficulty – or the country in which such dialogue takes place. For example, Amy T. Schalet, author of “Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens and the Culture of Sex,” discussed with The New York Times her comparisons between Dutch and American approaches to love and sex. She is quoted as explaining, “Young Dutch men expect to combine sex and love. In interviews, they generally credited their fathers with teaching them that their partners must be equally up for any sexual activity, [and] that the women could (and should) enjoy themselves as much as men …” It may be the case that, at least in this country, we have naturally occurring discomfort in talking with young people about sex. Yet it is an incredibly important part of a parent’s role. Parents, in fact, are best positioned to ground dialogue in family values and expectations for behavior.

Of course, Owen Labrie is not alone in epitomizing the hubris of entitled young men serving as poor role models for those who follow them (think Ethan Couch). Nor is St. Paul’s School the only prestigious institution of learning where such miscreant behavior has taken place (think Milton Academy). Nevertheless, there are valuable lessons to be learned – and shared with our youth – about what occurred in Concord, New Hampshire, during the waning days of school in 2014. Chief among them: there were no winners.

And now Owen Labrie is seeking a new trial.

Strike three?