Last Wednesday afternoon, I sat down at my kitchen table to do some homework. Like any normal, procrastinating college student, I headed straight for Facebook, momentarily disregarding the mountain of work silently pleading with me to get busy. After logging on, my initial intention of posting stupid pictures with cryptic captions was immediately sidelined, as I came across a trending article in my newsfeed that nearly twenty friends had reposted. My spidey senses started tingling when I realized it was from Jezebel. I clicked away, and my heart sank as I read the opening statement of the article, as follows:
“A 16-year-old student says she was forced to withdraw from her prestigious Catholic prep school after texting a topless photo to two of the school’s star athletes, who shared it with the entire lacrosse team but received no punishment. Instead of using the incident as a teachable moment for both male and female students about trust and social media, the administration sent a clear message: girls are ungodly creatures who tempt boys into sin.”
I was immediately appalled, and knew right away that I wanted to write a blog post about this. As a graduate of a Catholic high school myself, I felt an instant connection to this story. To boot, the subject of the article, Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax, VA, is my alma mater.
Oh, the plot thickens! In all seriousness though, the school got a lot of heat, and frankly, it’s totally understandable. However, I want to step away from the parallel of girls being biblically-proclaimed wily temptresses, and come at this controversy from a more religiously-neutral standpoint than Jezebel.
Instead of solely relying on Jezebel, I decided to speak with a few current Paul VI students, in order to avoid the possible slant of a second-hand source. These students all gave me essentially the same story that was in the article. A 16-year old, Alexis*, sent a topless photo on a dare to two of her guy friends, Jason* and Peter*, and they forwarded the picture to the whole lacrosse team. Alexis got expelled; the guys didn’t get so much as a detention. In a school where I served detentions for wearing oversized earrings, it seems absurd that these young men weren’t remotely punished for distributing pornographic content to the rest of their teammates.
What was even more interesting was that the students felt no sympathy for the young woman. “It’s her fault,” one source said. “She should have known better—if you send a topless picture to a bunch of teenage guys, of course it’s going to get around.” Indeed, Alexis forfeited her privacy the moment she sent that picture to Jason and Peter. However, this notion of “boys will be boys” that was reflected in my source’s statement is exactly what grinds my gears, and establishes the problem at hand. This is where the school’s administration went wrong.
Paul VI clearly labeled the young lady’s actions as harassment. The following is an excerpt of the account from Jezebel: “…Alexis, her parents, a handful of teachers, McGroarty and the principal, Virginia Colwell, had a meeting in which Alexis was asked if she knew what pornography was and whether she felt she had ‘harassed’ Jason and Peter. Alexis said she found the questions complicated and was criticized for not answering them correctly, including one about ‘what justice’ she felt the boys should receive; Alexis and her parents assumed the administration was referring to Jason and Peter’s punishment, but they actually ‘wanted to know what I should do to make them feel better if they were distraught,’ Alexis said.”
So, in sending a sexy message to her male friends upon request, Alexis “harassed” Jason, Peter, and the rest of the lacrosse team that received the forwarded message. Yet the boys who willingly shared and distributed the “pornographic material” are victimized? Something doesn’t jive.
Was giving the young woman the ultimate sentence of expulsion from a private, religious school out of line? I’d argue no—that’s their prerogative as a private institution. But in letting those boys off scot-free, the administration catalyzed a gross double standard that is directly reflective of a gender inequality: women are supposed to be the keepers of virtue, yet men cannot be expected to be held to the same standard. In all honesty, it doesn’t matter that the young woman was the instigator. All parties were equal participants, and Alexis sent the picture under the assumption that the two boys would keep it to themselves. Granted, while putting blind faith in anyone like that is, well, naïve, letting these boys off the hook sends the signal that men don’t need to be challenged to respect women. Instead, the administration turned a series of poor judgment calls into a witch hunt under the banner of the following logic: “What would you expect? They’re teenage boys, after all.”
In a school whose motto echoes the words of Frances de Sales, “grow in grace and wisdom,” I’m concerned that the administration failed to challenge ALL of its students to live up to this seemingly high expectation. These young men didn’t lose respect for Alexis because she sent them a topless picture—the reality is that they didn’t respect her in the first place, as evidenced by their egging her on to send them the photos. This sort of behavior is construed as acceptable when it’s continually met with the “boys will be boys” logic, of which the Paul VI sexting scandal is a textbook example.
If justice had really been done, Alexis, Jason, and Peter would have all been held equally accountable for their participation in this sort of behavior. We can’t punish Alexis for “tempting” the boys without holding Jason and Peter accountable for failing to control their urges. Frankly, it’s degrading to men to assume that they’re unable to control themselves, and therefore they can’t be held equally responsible. The assumption that “that’s what boys do” is not only disrespectful to women, but it belittles men’s capacity for respect and self-control, too.
In a private, religious institution that instills many positive traits in its students—among them mutual respect and love for all—Paul VI failed to see this incident as a two-way street. On these grounds, I’m disappointed not just as a feminist, but as an alumna.
Names marked with an asterisk (*) have been changed, per Jezebel.