Saturday, June 3, 2023

The culture of sexual harassment in boys’ high school sports exposes shame and secrecy

A coat hanger. a broom. cue a pool.

All of these items were used in recent years in a series of sexual assaults in which perpetrators allegedly targeted high school boys playing the game.

Criminals always had easy access to their alleged victims. That’s because they were teammates.

In the world of academia, sexual assault is often viewed or portrayed as something that men do over women or girls. But as a sociologist who studies sexual violence and masculinity, I know that there is another form of sexual harassment taking place in America’s schools that is just as harmful, but which gets far less attention, perhaps. Because it is seen as ritualistic or is characterized by “horse racing.”

It is a form in which high school boy athletes – and sometimes middle school boys too – attack other boys who are members of their team.

In peer-reviewed research published in Social Problems in 2021, I examine the issue of how a small American community responded to allegations that boys on a high school wrestling team sexually assaulted other boys on the team.

Prosecutors filed misdemeanor and felony charges against the five defendants, which focused mostly on sexual assault and physical restraint. Some of the boys were facing life imprisonment. However, a conviction would prove difficult, as the allegations were portrayed as boys, and many members of the community expressed concern that its reputation was on trial.

reputation at stake

To investigate the case, I conducted in-depth interviews with a prosecutor and two defense attorneys; Investigated news accounts of the incident; and listened to audio recordings of police interviews with 21 witnesses.

What I found is that the community – mainly boys’ school administrators, coaches and the boys themselves – were more concerned about whether what perpetrators did was “gay” than about the effect it had on victims.

No one disputed the facts of the case, only whether the action was criminal or not.

He also expressed concern over how it would affect the reputation of the entire community if what the boys did was viewed as a homosexual act.

A defense lawyer told me that if the defendants were accused of sexually harassing the girls, “they would go along” would be referred to as the accused rapist. But the dynamics were different, defense attorneys said, when the boys were accused of sexually assaulting other boys — an allegation they were outraged because it reflected sexual behavior with another man.

Thus, what made these criminal charges so serious—at least for some members of the community—was the fact that they called into question the presumed heterosexuality of the community’s star high school athletes.

Perpetrators, victims and male officers in the school community felt that the boys’ masculinity was at risk.

Attacks mirror others

In the attacks I investigated, groups of boys on a high school wrestling team targeted individuals in dark places that had little adult supervision, such as locker rooms and bus rides. The attacks were swift. They usually lasted less than a minute. They usually had several boys knock the victim down, restrain her arms and legs, cover her face, punch her genitals and try to stick their bare fingers into her anus. The boys targeted, especially those who had been attacked multiple times, were often smaller and smaller than the attackers. The targeted boys reported different reactions in their interviews with police investigators. Some became frightened, agitated and reluctant to remain on the team. But others called it annoying but not a big deal.

In this case, the coaches and other school officials reported that they knew there was simple horse sport – as they named it – but that they did not know it involved sexual assault.

The attacks I studied are by no means isolated. In many ways, they mirror other sexual assaults across the country that have involved high school sports peers as perpetrators and victims.

For example, at Plainfield Central High School in Plainfield, Illinois, boys after practice in October 2019 targeted two players for referring to the boys as “code blue” in the locker room.

“When one of the plaintiffs tried to escape, the players caught hold of him and slammed him to the ground,” said a news account describing the lawsuit filed in the case. “He allegedly pushed a broom stick between the buttocks of both the students, which resulted in entry according to suit. The attack was so violent that the broom stick was broken in half.

The lawsuit alleges that the school had “long-standing problems” involving hedging, and that the coaches were reportedly aware of the hedging ritual and failed to take action to stop it,” the news account said. According to.

It is common for criminals to view their attacks as something other than sexual.

For example, on the last day of practice in 2018, four junior varsity players at Damascus High School in Damascus, Maryland, turned off the lights in the locker room and attacked several teammates. The attackers took off a boy’s pants and shouted and shoved the handle of a broom through his underwear. He did the same to two other boys and fed another one while fighting off the broomstick attack.

In court proceedings in 2019, a judge said the alleged attackers “did not understand the gravity of the attacks” and were viewing their attack “as a prank or some sort of team-building exercise”.

problem scope unknown

As a researcher, I have found it difficult to gauge how prevalent the problem is of teenage athletes who sexually assault their peers in the same way that I investigated.

Public Justice is a non-profit legal advocacy organization that tracks lawsuits involving sexual bullying, harassment and assault in K-12 schools. In its January 2022 compilation of jury decisions and settlements, which includes cases from the past 20 years, 21 of these 334 trials reported boys’ groups sexually assaulting and assaulting other boys, mostly in sports settings. Yet civil and criminal proceedings do not really reveal the scope of the problem.

The Department of Education monitors sexual violence in K-12 schools, but not specifically in cases involving athletes who attack their peers. There is a federal government campaign to stop bullying, but sports-related sexual assaults are outside what the campaign considers bullying.

There is another obstacle to getting an accurate picture of the prevalence of boy-boy sexual assault. Although victims of all genders are reluctant to report that they have been sexually assaulted because of the stigma of being rape victims, men and boys face a different type of stigma in disclosing experiences of sexual assault as men. Is expected to be strong and fight off physical attacks. For this reason, men who have been victims of sexual assault may be reluctant to report their experiences of being victimized.

focus on prevention

In the case I investigated, the prosecution was largely unsuccessful. The defendants pleaded guilty to minor misdemeanor charges, which were significantly less than the original felony charges. Defense lawyers had effectively portrayed the attacks as funny, normal and a normal part of the friendship between the boys.

Preventing sexual violence in high school sports requires a multidisciplinary approach. I see three things that deserve priority status. First, federal agencies, such as the Department of Education, the Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control, can better collect data on the scope and nature of the problem. Second, prevention efforts can help men and boys promote healthier forms of masculinity. Tony Porter’s advocacy with the NFL to prevent gender-based violence serves as a good model because it shows that prevention efforts are not just women’s issues. Finally, the upcoming US National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence may prioritize sexual violence in sports as a key issue.

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