A hanger. A broomstick. A pool cue.
All of these items have been used in a series of sexual assaults in recent years in which the perpetrators allegedly targeted high school students playing sports.
Perpetrators have always had easy access to their alleged victims. It’s because they were teammates.
In the world of education, sexual assault is often seen or described as something that men do by overpowering women or girls. But as a sociologist who studies sexual violence and masculinity, I know there is another form of sexual assault in American schools that is just as harmful but seems to get far less attention, perhaps because that it is considered a ritual “hazing” or characterized as “horse games”.
It’s a form in which high school athletes — and sometimes college kids as well — assault other boys who are members of their team.
In peer-reviewed research published in Social Problems in 2021, I examine this question by looking closely at how a small American community responded to allegations that boys on the high school wrestling squad had sexually bullied d other boys on the team.
Prosecutors filed misdemeanor and felony charges against five defendants, which focused primarily on sexual assault and physical restraint. Some of the boys faced life imprisonment. However, a conviction would prove difficult, as the allegations were portrayed as boys walking around, and many in the community feared his reputation would be judged.
To review the case, I conducted in-depth interviews with a prosecutor and two defense attorneys; reviewed news reports of the incident; and listened to audio recordings of police interviews with 21 witnesses.
What I discovered was that the community – primarily boys’ school administrators, coaches and the boys themselves – were more concerned that what the abusers were doing was “gay” than it was. effect it had on the victims.
No one disputed the facts of the case, only whether or not the actions were criminal.
They also expressed concern about how it would affect the reputation of the community as a whole if what the boys were doing was seen as a homosexual act.
A defense attorney told me that if the defendants had been accused of sexually assaulting girls, “they would agree” to being called accused rapists. But the dynamic was different, the defense attorney said, when the boys were accused of sexually assaulting other boys – a charge they didn’t like because it involved sexual behavior with a other man.
So what made these criminal charges so egregious — at least for some members of the community — was the fact that they called into question the alleged heterosexuality of star high school athletes in the community.
Perpetrators, victims and male authority figures in the school community felt that boys’ masculinity itself was under threat.
Attacks mirror others
In the attacks I reviewed, groups of boys from the high school wrestling team targeted individuals in dark spaces with little adult supervision, such as locker rooms and bus rides. The attacks were quick. They usually lasted less than a minute. They usually involved several boys immobilizing the victim, restraining his arms and legs, covering his face, punching him on the genitals and trying to shove their bare fingers into his anus. The boys targeted, especially those who were repeatedly assaulted, were often younger and shorter than the attackers. The targeted boys reported different reactions during their interviews with police investigators. Some became fearful, restless and reluctant to stay on the team. But others called it annoying but not serious.
In this case, trainers and other school officials said they knew it was a regular horse game – as they called it – but they didn’t. that it was a sexual assault.
The attacks I have studied are by no means isolated. In many ways, they mirror other sexual assaults across the country that have implicated high school athletic teammates as both perpetrators and victims.
For example, at Plainfield Central High School in Plainfield, Illinois, college football players targeted two players for what the boys called a “Code Blue” in the locker room after practice in October 2019.
“When one of the plaintiffs tried to run away, the players grabbed him and pinned him to the ground,” reads an account describing a lawsuit filed in the case. “They then allegedly pushed a broomstick between the buttocks of the two students, resulting in penetration, according to the suit. The attack was so violent that the broomstick broke in two.
The lawsuit alleged that the school “had ‘long-standing issues’ with hazing, and coaches allegedly knew about the hazing ritual and failed to act to stop it,” according to the account.
It is common for abusers to view their assaults as something other than sexual.
For example, on the last day of practice in 2018, four junior college players at Damascus High School in Damascus, Maryland, knocked out locker room lights and attacked several teammates. The attackers pulled down a boy’s pants and rammed a broomstick through his underwear as he screamed. They did similar things to two other boys and stomped on another as he fended off the broomstick attack.
In court proceedings in 2019, a judge said the alleged attackers “did not seem to grasp the seriousness of the attacks” and appeared to view their attack “as a prank or some kind of team-building exercise”.
Scope of the problem unknown
As a researcher, I have struggled to determine how widespread the problem of teenage athletes who sexually abuse their peers in the same way as the abusers in the case I examined is.
Public Justice is a nonprofit legal defense organization that tracks lawsuits regarding bullying, harassment, and sexual assault in K-12 schools. In his January 2022 compilation of jury verdicts and settlements, which includes cases from the past 20 years, 21 of those 334 prosecutions involved groups of boys sexually harassing and assaulting other boys, mostly in sports settings. Yet civil and criminal proceedings do not really reveal the extent of the problem.
The Department of Education tracks sexual violence in K-12 schools, but not specifically cases involving athletes attacking their teammates. There is a federal government campaign to end bullying, but sports-related sexual assault is not part of what the campaign considers bullying.
There is another obstacle to getting an accurate picture of the prevalence of boy-to-boy sexual assault. Although victims of all genders may be reluctant to report that they have been sexually assaulted due to the stigma of being a rape victim, men and boys face a different type of stigma when disclosing. experiences of sexual victimization because men are expected to be strong and fight physical attacks. For this reason, male victims of sexual assault may be reluctant to report their experiences of victimization.
A focus on prevention
In the case I examined, the prosecution was largely unsuccessful. The defendants pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges, which were substantial reductions from the original felony charges. Defense attorneys had effectively described the assaults as funny, ordinary, and part and parcel of boys’ friendship.
Preventing sexual violence in high school sports requires a multi-pronged approach. I see three things that deserve priority status. First, federal agencies, such as the Department of Education, Department of Justice, and Centers for Disease Control, could collect better data on the extent and nature of the problem. Second, prevention efforts can influence men and boys to promote healthy forms of masculinity. Tony Porter’s advocacy with the NFL to prevent gender-based violence is a good model because it shows that prevention efforts are not just about women. Finally, the upcoming US National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence could prioritize sexual violence in sports as a key issue.[Over 150,000 readers rely on The Conversation’s newsletters to understand the world. Sign up today.]