Hazing and Sexual Assault

October 21, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Random thoughts on the Sayreville hazing. (If you are not familiar with this case, see yesterday’s Times article here.)

1.  At least nobody is accusing the freshmen footballers of bringing the assaults on themselves by dressing provocatively – those tight, shiny spandex-like pants, their torsos sometimes bare in the locker room. Nor is anyone saying, “if you don’t want seniors shoving their fingers up your butt, avoid being on the football team” the way women are told that if they don’t want to be raped, they shouldn’t drink too much at frat parties.

 In fact, the freshmen did know that they were at risk in the locker room.

First came the shout: “Varsity’s coming in five minutes,” and they knew it was time to move. Some dressed outside the locker room, pulling on their shirts and tying their shoes. Some rushed to finish their showers, if they showered at all.

2.  Sexual assault is about power even when it’s also about sex. The seniors might even be confused by the charges of sexual assault since for them, there was nothing sexual about it.  They experienced no sexual gratification or even arousal.  What they wanted was to humiliate – always the goal in hazing – and for that purpose, genitals and anus are much more effective targets than any other part of the body. More than the punching or kicking, which also happened, groping a boy’s genitals and poking things up his anus demonstrate power. They say, “This is what we can do to you.  We can attack the most private parts of your body and self. ”

In date-rape and party-rape, the obvious sexual component allows men to ignore its enactment of power.  But for the victims, as for the Sayreville victims, the experience is much more about power and humiliation than about sexual pleasure.

3.  The law is a clumsy instrument for dealing with much of what goes on among teenagers. These boys may be charged with
aggravated sexual assault, aggravated criminal sexual contact, conspiracy to commit aggravated criminal sexual contact, criminal restraint, and hazing for engaging in an act of sexual penetration. [CNN]

These charges do not distinguish between the hazing offenses, which some of the victims shrugged off as trivial, and far more serious crimes. This “one size – the largest – fits all” approach also applies to the 10th-grade girl who has a topless selfie on her iPhone. She is violating kiddie-porn laws that make little distinction between her and someone who distributes thousands of such images, and these laws come with a hefty prison sentence. (See Hanna Rosin’s recent Atlantic article (here) on teen sexting.) What happens is almost entirely at the discretion of a district attorney. The broader the law, the greater the power of the DA.  As Justice Jackson said 75 years ago, “The prosecutor has more control over life, liberty, and reputation than any other person in America.”

4. Racial comparisons are inevitable, though I will evade them here save to note that in the press and in comments from ordinary people, those charged are usually referred to as “boys,” never as “thugs,” certainly not as “criminals.”

5.  While nobody blames the victims for their victimization (see #1 above), some people do blame them for the consequences – the cancellation of the football season and the possible legal punishments might happen to the offenders. In Jonathan Haidt’s schema of conservative moral thinking, these people invoke the principle of tribalism, or as Haidt calls it, loyalty.  The victims have gone against the group (the team, the school, the town).  They should have suffered silently, taking one for the team. In this case, taking one for the team also means taking it from the team.

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