Dishonor and Humiliation Cloaks a Culture of Sexual Assault in Boys High School Athletics Programs throughout the United States

An article published by The Conversation details how throughout American high school athletic programs, instances of harmful sexual assault are often underplayed as teenage shenanigans. The author, Jamie L. Small, an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Dayton, touches upon the fact that  sexual assault is generally viewed as an act of power by men on women or girls. However, in high school – and sometime middle school – sports, boy athletes are known to assault other boys on their team as a type of “hazing” or “horseplay”.

Small’s peer-reviewed research, titled, “Jocks Gone Wild”: Masculinity, Sexual Bullying, and the Legal Normalization of Boys’ Victimization, examines the response of a small American community and its response to allegations of sexual bullying by boys on a high school wrestling team. In this specific case, local prosecutors filed felony and misdemeanor charges focused mostly on sexual assault and physical restraint against five defendants. Since the allegations were depicted as simply boys being boys, a conviction would prove to be difficult. Added to the underplayed severity of the allegations, the greater community exhibited concerns that its reputation was also being put on trial.

A Matter of Perception

As part of her investigation, Small listened to recordings of police interviews with 21 witnesses, interviewed a prosecutor and two defense attorneys, and examined news accounts of the incident. She discovered that the community of coaches, they boys themselves, and the boys’ school administrators expressed greater concerns whether what the perpetrators did was “gay” then the effect the abuse had on the victims. The facts were never disputed, but whether or not the actions were criminal was called into question. Those interviewed also expressed concern about how the reputation of the community would be impacted if what the boys did was seen as homosexual behavior.

According to one of the defense attorney’s interviewed, had the defendants been accused of sexually assaulting girls instead of boys, “they’d go along with” being described to as accused rapists. Because of the implied sexual behavior associated with boys sexually assaulting other boys, the defendants resented the accusation. Everyone involved in the community including male authority figures, victims, and perpetrators felt like the masculinity of the boys were being threatened.

The prosecution was mostly unsuccessful in the case examined by Small. Defendants charged with serious felonies faced sentences of up to life in prison, but pleaded guilty to substantially reduced minor misdemeanor charges. The defense was able to effectively portray the assaults as funny and ordinary rough housing that is a normal part of friendships among boys. Unfortunately, this how sexual assaults across the nation are often depicted in high school sports, despite the fact that these types of attacks often mirror one another.

A Disturbing Pattern of Abuse

During her research, Jamie Small found a disturbing pattern involving high school boys abusing one another under the guise of a prank or team-building exercises. Attackers seldom understand the seriousness of the attacks and view their assaults as something other than sexual. 

Regardless of the type of sport the athletes are team members of, the attacks generally play out in the same manner. Typically, senior members of the team target junior members in dark spaces with little adult supervision such as on bus rides or in locker rooms. Attacks are rapid, and usually involve several boys pinning down the victim. The boy being attacked is then subjected to blows to the genitals and anal penetration, either with digits or a foreign object.

Many schools have longstanding issues involving hazing, and authority figures such as coaches and school administrators may be aware of the rituals but fail to act to stop the attacks. The problem is only exacerbated by victims not wanting to come forward due to the stigma of being a rape victim. The strongly held believe by many athletes that men are expected to be strong and fight off physical attacks also contributes to a victims reluctance to report an experience of victimization. This in turn leads to these types of sexual assault being woefully underreported.

The Necessity of Systematic Changes

Jamie Small points out that this problem is so widespread among high school athletics programs that there needs to be major systematic changes in order to reduce the sheer number of team member on team member sexual assaults. The Department of Education, the Department of Justice, and the Centers for Disease Control needs to collect better data regarding the nature and scope of the issue. Prevention efforts also need to be made to engage both boys and men in promoting healthier forms of masculinity. In order to enact these changes, there needs to be a cultural shift among youth athletics programs. This is going to take time, resources, and a willingness for participants to enact the necessary measures to make a positive impact to put an end to this type of abuse.

If you or a loved one is the victim of sexual abuse under the guise of hazing or team building, the team of athlete abuse attorneys at Estey & Bomberger can help. To learn more or to schedule a completely confidential and free consultation, contact us today.