Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Bullying, sexual assault and intent

The reporting of the trial against the Wayne County (Tennessee) School District by two families whose sons had been sexually assaulted by fellow team members on the middle school basketball team has raised some interesting questions about what constitutes bullying versus sexual assault.

An article I linked to the other day when I posted about the outcome of the trial is entitled "Horseplay or sexual assault" and is indicative of the belief that the two are somehow inherently separate. Of course, the term horseplay is quite deficient in describing the events that occurred in the basketball team's locker room at Waynesboro Middle School. Bullying is somewhat more appropriate. But the debate over whether what happened was bullying or sexual assault sets up a problematic hierarchy.

Both bullying and sexual assault (and sexual harassment) in schools are potential Title IX violations. Thus this discussion is not about the ability to file a complaint or lawsuit. Rather I wanted to explore the meanings behind these categories; the meanings as I see them and as they have been constructed by the people (including the media) in this case.

Obviously turning out the lights in the locker room and engaging in physical attacks of a sexual nature, or holding someone down and threatening to sodomize him with a marker extends far beyond horseplay.

The boys will be boys mantra has never really held much weight for me, and this case certainly has not altered my thoughts on that excuse. The charges against the perpetrators in this case were dropped by a juvenile court judge even though they all pleaded no contest. Various investigations found no "punishable offenses." Curious, but moving on...

At the federal trial last week the plaintiffs asked why some of the incidents in which sex acts were simulated were not dealt with. These all happened prior to what has been referred to as the marker incident. The answer from the former school principal was that there was a verbal reprimand, but that he didn't think these simulated sex acts were sexual assault.
So were they?
Were they just bullying?
Was it sexual bullying?
The article quoted Vanderbilt University professor Maury Nation, who is a bullying expert. Nation validated the severity of the marker incident but categorized it as chronic or serious bullying and not sexual assault because "this isn’t sexual behavior, per se, as much as power and dominance behavior. That is, the goal is to intimidate. I don’t think any of the kids were doing this for sexual gratification as much as the humiliation and embarrassment it was having to the victim.”
First, we have no idea about the level of sexual arousal.
But more importantly, sexual assault is itself about power and dominance and intimidation. Not all bullying is sexual in nature, but all sexual assault has a bullying component if we define bullying as behavior meant to exert power and control over another.
If the bullying involves simulated or actual sex acts as the means for exerting that control, then why isn't it sexual assault? And I am not speaking about the legal definitions, here; I am talking about the cultural constructions of these terms and behaviors.
Why did these boys choose to exert dominance via sex acts?
The inability to answer this question means we cannot ignore the sexual nature of these acts. The way they intimidated was sexual in nature, regardless of whether they received sexual pleasure from it. Nation's views--as presented in the article--seem to assume that all sex acts produce pleasure and that there is no sexual pleasure derived from exerting power and control over others. These, in my mind, are false assumptions.
Again, I don't want to suggest that bullying is not as bad as sexual assault. I do want to suggest that not calling the acts that occurred in Waynesboro Middle School sexual assault downplays the severity of the incidents and attempts to curtail discussions of behavior among boys and within sport culture. And it fails to acknowledge the motivations behind sexual assault.

I plan on one more post about this in which I talk about sport culture and sexual assault more generally.