If you were sexually assaulted by a member of your school sporting team, would you want to cheer for them when they played? Would you expect your school to uphold your rights over those of your attacker? If the school failed to uphold your rights, would you then expect the courts to find in your favour if you sued?
The answers to these questions should be obvious, but this is not an exercise in rhetorical questioning.
A high school cheerleader in the US, who is known only as HS to protect her identity, faced this situation. HS was completely failed by her coach, school, and the Supreme Court.
In 2008, HS was assaulted at a post-game party by Rakheem Bolton, a school football star and member of the basketball team, fellow football player Christian Rountree and another juvenile male.
Two juries refused to indict Bolton and Rountree. A third jury indicted them, and Bolton plead guilty to a lesser charge of misdemeanour assault.
Processing the rape kit for DNA evidence was delayed for more than a year. During the delay and lengthy court proceedings, Bolton was allowed to remain at the school and continue to play on the basketball squad.
During a basketball game, when Bolton was taking free-throws, HS refused to cheer for Bolton.
“As a team, I cheered for them as a whole. When he stepped up to the free throw line, it didn’t feel right for me to have to cheer for him after what he did to me,” she said in an October 2010 US ABC news article.
The school allowed her attacker to remain on the basketball team and instead kicked HS out of the cheer squad. They put perpetrator first and victim last. By kicking her off the team, the school, in effect, showed it views refusing to cheer your attacker as a greater crime than rape.
When HS sued, a federal appeals court upheld the school’s actions. The court also ordered HS to pay the school’s legal costs of US$45,000 for bringing a “frivolous” lawsuit against the school.
The court ruled that as a cheerleader she was a “mouthpiece” for the school and had no constitutional right to control her own speech.
Rape is not “frivolous”.
Rape is drastically underreported. Few cases that are reported are prosecuted and the conviction rates of prosecutions are woeful. In Australia, it is estimated that one in three women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime.
HS’s case shows the ways in which our institutions fail women — it is not an isolated case.
At two separate schools in the US, teachers have used students who have reported being sexually harassed or raped as “bait” to catch their attackers.
At Sparkman Middle School in Madison County, a 14-year-old student reported being sexually harassed by Christopher Cundiff, a fellow student. There had been multiple complaints against Cundiff for sexually harassing many girls at the school.
Instead of taking disciplinary action against Cundiff, June Ann Simpson, a teacher at the school, coerced the 14-year-old complainant to meet Cundiff in a bathroom, under the premise that Simpson would follow them and catch Cundiff in the act.
Simpson did not follow, and the young girl was raped.
A similar case occurred in Upper St Clair High School, Pennsylvania.
In each of these cases, schools have endangered young women’s mental and physical wellbeing.
Sexism is a part of the school system, where those that are meant to protect young women can instead put their wellbeing behind those that have assaulted them.
Sexism is a part of our society, where women face high rates of sexual assault, are made to feel they have to look, dress and behave in certain ways, and are paid significantly less, on average, than men.
Sexism is a part of our legal system, wherein victims are often blamed and conviction rates are appalling.
Sexism is a part of the police force, as shown by Canadian constable Michael Sanguinetti, whose comment that women could avoid rape if they dressed less like “sluts” sparked the SlutWalk protests across the world.
Sexism is institutionalised. It is embedded in the very institutions that are supposed to protect women. So how can we fight against it?
Legal protections are important, but they can only go so far. To overcome sexism in society we have to change the opinions of everyday people, police, educators, lawyers, journalists, judges and parliamentarians — we have to change society.
We need to open up debate and challenge the sexist ideas that “she asked for it” because of the way she spoke, because she was drunk or because of what she was wearing.
The recent SlutWalk protests are an example of how to do this. We need to campaign publically, because yes means yes, and no means no, whatever we wear, wherever we go.
[Resistance is a socialist youth organisation that campaigns for women’s rights. To join Resistance, email email@example.com, or check out our website at http://www.resistance.org.au for Resistance’s office location in your city.]