Sexual Assault at SSSAS
and What We Can Do
Sexual assault is not limited to the stories strewn on front pages or flashed across our television screens. It is not limited to Hollywood, and it is not limited to all-boys schools. Sexual assault exists within the SSSAS community, and the first step toward preventing it is acknowledgment.
The Kavanaugh hearings catapulted the topic of sexual assault, specifically within private schools, onto both local and national platforms. Despite the discussions about sexual assault prompted by the hearings, the human instinct to believe “...but not in my school” remains. Denial allows distance from any reality too disturbing or any culpability too unforgiving. And yet, the disassociation blockades avenues of support, consequences, and
Two alumnae, who will remain anonymous for privacy and safety reasons, were interviewed about their experiences as survivors of sexual assault perpetrated by fellow SSSAS students. And yet these individuals may not be outliers. As the Upper School counselor, Mrs. Harrison, states “If you are asking if in my 15 years at SSSAS have I ever had a community member speak with me about a sexual assault then absolutely. Sexual assault exists everywhere and no one is immune from it.”
Mrs. Harrison explains that most, but not all, survivors that approach her report that they were sexually assaulted outside of the SSSAS community-- “at camp, when they were younger, at a mall” and so on. Based on statistics that consistently demonstrate that many victims do not report their assaults, the incidents reported to the school may not be representative of the number of sexual assault survivors at SSSAS. Both of the survivors we interviewed claim they know several additional students within the community who were sexually assaulted by their peers and decided not to report or find support within SSSAS.
One of the most common responses to sexual violence is to not report, especially for young adults. According to Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, only 20% of female college students report the sexual violence they endured. Neither of the alumnae interviewed reported to the police. One alumna explains her reasoning:
“I made an executive decision to keep quiet because I couldn’t fathom sending a colleague that I sat next to in class to jail because of me, and I continued to suppress my experiences because if I admitted that it was assault I would be caught in the paranoia of not reporting it. To this day I know that because I did not report, the attacker has gone on to harm other students within the community. This guilt gnaws away at me every day. At the time I didn’t think I could handle being accused of lying and looking him in the eyes as I testified against him.”
The two alumnae communicated mixed emotions regarding how the school handled the news of their assaults, but both expressed frustration about the status quo among their peers.
One alumna explains, “the thing that was most disheartening was that most of the men got treated no differently [by their peers] even when we spoke up. Obviously, people were sympathetic to me and people closest to me made a change in their attitude about my assailant, but for the most part, people treated him the same.”
The Voice sent a survey to the entire student and faculty body in November. The 83 respondents (see figure 1) are comprised of 32.5% freshman, 16.9% sophomores, 15.7% juniors, 15.7% seniors, and 19.3% faculty. When asked if they believe sexual assault occurs within the SSSAS community, (see figure 2) 42.2% of respondents answered yes, 21.7% of respondents answered no, while 36.1% of respondents answered maybe.
Respondents who answered yes were also asked if they believed sexual assault happens to both genders. One senior stated “Yes, a lot of the time sexual assault that happens to boys is discounted.”
A faculty member wrote in this response, “I have not observed the sexual assault I say exists at SSSAS. With this number of people at our school, I would find it surprising that it is not happening at all. I'm counting interactions between our students at off-campus events, in addition to on-campus, in my answer.”
When asked how they would define sexual assault, one faculty member responded, “Any act of unwanted physical contact; verbal, psychological, or spiritual abuse involving mention of one's physical body, sexual identity, sexual orientation, or sexual practice.” A freshman also responded defining that sexual assault is “touching sexual body parts without consent. Sexual harassment is making repeated sexual moments to a person or about a person after they have told you to stop.”
The survey demonstrated that although many people within the community have different opinions on if sexual assault takes place within the SSSAS community, many members of our community have a similar understanding of what sexual assault is. Many of the respondents tended to agree that sexual assault is “unwanted physical contact,” “forceful,” or “rape.”
Unfortunately, most of the situations where sexual assault is committed are not as clear-cut as a definition suggests. Since power and control are the driving forces behind sexual violence, it is no surprise that factors that alter power dynamics, such as socioeconomic status, age, and race often coexist with sexual assault.
Mrs. Harrison elaborated on the confusion surrounding sexual assault saying, “Adolescence is a time where hormones and sexual curiosity are very present...figuring out how to have a respectful relationship and how to ask and give consent are very complicated topics, particularly for adolescents that are between 14-18 years old. So I think unfortunately sometimes signals can get crossed or misunderstood....this is difficult territory to navigate even for adults, but I think it is super-confusing for kids.”
As teenagers in high school and soon college, one of the most prevalent factors in the context of sexual violence in our lives is alcohol. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, at least half of sexual assaults that occur on college campuses involve alcohol. Alcohol is ingrained in the hookup culture of today’s youth, especially in high school and college, which can quickly lead to situations where consent is not given, individuals are taken advantage of, and fear of victim-blaming prevents survivors from coming forward.
Mrs. Harrison expressed,“if a person is intoxicated they don’t have the ability to give consent, which makes it assault by definition, legally, so there might be moments where a person feels guilty that they chose to drink and became incapacitated, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t assault.”
Both of the alumnae we interviewed say the hook-up culture at SSSAS has occasionally led to sexual violence because of the presence of alcohol.“I know a lot of people who were assaulted in my grade alone….Definitely, things happened at parties where alcohol was involved,” one said.
By Helen Sweeney '19 and Chumani Chamberlain '21
Controversial 2018/2019 Issue
The other alumna delves more into hookup culture at SSSAS: “Rape culture on campus is very prevalent and has simmered down to be included in hookup culture. Many people see force in hookup culture in high school as normal, specifically pertaining to guys forcing a girl to please him sexually.”
Dean McGuire expands on the need for mutuality in hookup culture and relationships: “I am going to generalize here, and be heteronormative, but so often the hookup scene is run by the boys and it’s non-reciprocal...we need to be empowering females to not only demand that they are asked about consent but also that there should be a mutuality in their relationship.”
With the recent Brett Kavanaugh hearings and the #Metoo movement, today the conversation surrounding consent has been more prevalent than ever before. While consent is a hard topic to unpack and discuss, the importance of what consent is and how it is given is a constant work in progress within our society.
According to the New York Post, Chessy Prout was a victim of rape at the New England academy, St. Paul’s. Prout’s story opened a box of untold secrets and heinous sexual traditions that occurred within the school’s community. Although she was the only one to press charges, her testimony led to more victims telling their stories of sexual assault at the school. Since, Prout has released a memoir I Have the Right To: A High School Survivor’s Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope. Today, Chessy Prout is a voice for sexual assault victims and hopes her work can empower other young girls to continue the conversation surrounding consent.
As a community, it is important we evaluate the presence, or lack thereof, of conversation surrounding consent. Dean McGuire believes we should start teaching about consent “when kids are in elementary school; and as a parent you ought to be helping your child learn it's not just about good touching or bad touching…we are not going to minimize such and such touched me or pulled my hair because these are our bodies and we really have a right to say yes or no.”
Mrs. Harrison explained how the school community as a whole tries “to find ways to educate the students about consent and about what those lines look like and how they can get blurred, and about relationship violence through the One Love Foundation’s program. I know that the human health and sexuality curriculum addresses many of these issues as well.” As the Upper School’s counselor, Mrs. Harrison wants students to be educated on what consent is and to have an understanding that “we also try to educate you about who you can go to and talk to if you experience something you are concerned or worried about.”
Promoting Awareness Victim Empowerment, known as PAVE, is a national nonprofit organization that has two local offices in the DMV area. PAVE works to break the silence and prevent sexual assault through “social advocacy, education, and survivor support,” as PAVE’s website describes. Kyle Petty, who is the athletic coordinator and specialist for PAVE, educates athletes on sexual assault and consent while simultaneously teaching athletes to use their communication skills from their respective sports to help “dismantle the problem before it happens” as Petty describes.
Petty explained how PAVE’s main goals “are really to educate and [promote] victim empowerment...which really focuses on consent and what consent is.
Consent is enthusiastic, it's sober, it’s consensual, its freely given, it’s verbal. And that's something we really reiterate.”
Petty understands many high school students desire to combat sexual assault and rape culture, however many students do not know how. “If you hear a lude joke, if you hear someone make a comment that is not in a respectful manner, or taking rape or sexual assault lightly then step in and say something ‘I’m actually not okay with the fact you said that’.” Petty continues by stating, “I think when there are more conversations that happen those are little things that can amount to a larger thing.”
In order to truly eradicate the stigmas and misconceptions around consent and sexual assault, both women and men need to be included in the conversation for several particular reasons. Sexual assault is not solely committed against females. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old.
Additionally, since 91% of rape and sexual assault survivors are female, according to the National Sexual Resource Center, it is imperative to explore the roots of American male culture, especially at the high-school level. A nearby private school has a specific space where students who identify as male can come together and delve into these ideas.
At Georgetown Day School, there is a club called “Boys Leading Boys,” or BLB, dedicated to initiating discussions between male students about consent and sexual assault prevention. Jacob Greene, a co-president of the GDS chapter of B.L.B., expands on how to engage males in this discussion and why it is important to do so:
“A lot of guys have that, ‘I’m not doing anything wrong’ feeling. It’s a feeling most guys have probably encountered because society has taught boys to be proud and defensive about their male privilege. Often an underlying issue that makes guys defensive about engaging in these discussions is that they feel ashamed that they haven’t done their job as a “good man” and therefore, they get defensive to protect their masculinity. It’s crucial to break down these barriers for guys to get involved in these discussions.”
The only way to truly shift the culture is to bring these topics outside of the classroom, off the television screens, and off the pages of the newspapers. We acknowledge, we support, and we make changes. As an SSSAS alum and survivor says,
“The way we conquer and eradicate [sexual violence] is by speaking openly about it and by making it clear that it’s wrong- whether drunk or sober, conservatively clothed or revealingly clothed, male or female.”
If you or someone you know is a victim of sexual assault please understand you are not alone. You should not be ashamed or believe you are to blame. The resources below are available to help you.
Mrs. Harrison (Upper School Counselor): firstname.lastname@example.org
National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673 or https://www.rainn.org/
One Love Foundation: https://www.joinonelove.org/
If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please don’t hesitate to reach out to Helen Sweeney ‘19 or Chumani Chamberlain ‘21.