by Patricia Teffenhart, NJCASA Executive Director
Over the past few weeks, as more details of what transpired at Sayreville War Memorial High School have been made public, the discourse around it has created opportunity for there to be a thoughtful redirection to not dilute the sexual assaults that took place – to not weaken their severity (for the victims, or the perpetrators) – by referring to the acts as anything other than sexual assault.
In New Jersey, penetration against another person’s will is defined as sexual assault. It’s not “hazing of a sexual nature” when it happens between students on a college campus. It’s not “hazing of a sexual nature” when it happens within the context of domestic violence. And, it’s not “hazing of a sexual nature” when it happens between members of a football team. The dominant headlines about this story referring to the assaults as hazing call into question why there is such a level of discomfort referring to these crimes with accuracy.
Is it because the victims were young men, rather than women? Is it because we have at a subconscious (or even worse, conscious) level come to accept a world where these acts are an acceptable part of “sports culture?” Is it because the instances in which these cases rise to this level of public attention are still so infrequent that we haven’t found a comfortable way to speak about the issue of sexual violence?
Today we have the power, as we engage in conversations about what happened in Sayreville, to give weight to these crimes by using the words that appropriately describe them.
As a society, we still hold tight to gender roles, especially the importance of masculinity. This makes it difficult to have meaningful conversations about the acts that are alleged to have taken place at Sayreville War Memorial High School, particularly in relation to a sport like football, where gender norms play an incredible role in the perpetuation of male stereotypes. It can be difficult for people to grasp the fact that these alleged sexual assaults, occurring between males, was not about homosexuality. But sexual assault is never about sex. It’s about power, control, and domination.
Today we have the power, as we engage in conversations about what happened in Sayreville, to give weight to these crimes by using the words that appropriately describe them. We have the power to support these young survivors by recognizing the real pain and trauma they’ve experienced. We also have the power to shift the sports culture to one in which crimes like these will not be tolerated because the sanctity of our children’s bodies should always come before the sanctity of football.