The rape trial of Owen Labrie, a Harvard-bound student from St. Paul’s School in Concord, has come to its conclusion with Labrie being found not guilty of the most serious of the charges. This verdict might surprise many people who were following the trial, which garnered major media attention because of the eliteness of the prep school and the strange sexual score-keeping that apparently went on. Labrie’s testimony—he claimed to have not had intercourse with the victim, after experiencing “divine inspiration” at the last moment—contradicted the physical evidence of his semen in her underwear.
Still, the verdict shouldn’t be too surprising. Whether or not Labrie actually forced himself on the girl, the defense was able to successfully tap into two major rape myths that are widespread despite having little to no real world evidence to support them: That women reclassify consensual sex as “rape” in order to preserve their reputations and that rape victims always act traumatized and freak out at the mere sight of their rapist after the fact.
Erik Ortiz at NBC News reports:
Defense lawyer Jay Carney said that the alleged victim never indicated she felt violated in subsequent emails and messages with Labrie following their encounter.
“She had to make a decision whether it was her reputation that was going to go in the toilet or Owen’s,” Carney said Thursday. “She took the easier choice.”
It’s amazing that people so readily swallow the claim that it’s “easier” to be known as a rape victim than as someone who had sex consensually. It’s doubly so when you consider that the accuser in this case was called to the stand to talk about embarrassing details for a packed courtroom, which resulted in her breaking down and crying. That doesn’t happen, in the 21st century, to consensual sex-havers, even if they do sometimes get called names on the internet.
On top of it, accusing someone of rape doesn’t even prevent people from assuming you’re a consensual sex-haver, as evidenced by this mixed verdict. But so ingrained is the belief that women are born capricious and deceitful that even basic common-sense objections like these are rarely considered in any depth at all.
The defense tried to impugn the accuser further by pointing out that she was pleasant to Labrie after the encounter. This played off the assumption that real rape victims act like Hollywood tells us that traumatized people do, by shaking and crying and freaking out. Unlike the claim that it’s “easier” to accuse someone of rape than to just forget a regretted sexual experience, this one feels a little more logical. We all like to imagine we’d immediately be out for revenge and refusing to speak to the person who did this to us. We assume this is a “natural” reaction to being hurt.
But it’s also completely wrong. As RAINN’s page on rape trauma explains, while some victims do immediately label what happened to them as “rape” and try to bring attention to what happened, it’s also incredibly normal for rape victims to downplay what happened to them, even to the point of being friendly to their attacker. If you see how rape victims are actually treated in the real world—accused of lying, questioned about why they didn’t fight back more, second-guessed at every turn—you might react the same way.
No one wants to be a rape victim. It’s not nuts for victims to think that if they just smile and play nice with their attacker, no one will ever find out and it will all be like it never happened. Many start to only realize weeks or months after the attack that it doesn’t work that way, and then start deciding to make a formal accusation.
Regardless of whether Labrie is guilty, it should trouble us all that the defense was able to win by invoking myths about rape survivors that simply aren’t true. Clearly we have a lot more public education to do about the realities of rape, so defense attorneys are less able to lean on misguided assumptions about rape, rather than having to win their case based on, you know, facts.
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about liberal politics, the religious right and reproductive health care. She’s a prolific Twitter villain who can be followed @amandamarcotte.