Human Rights

When You're Forced to Cheer for the Man Who Raped You

The story of a high school cheerleader from Texas who was forced to cheer for her rapist has become a horrifying Rorschach test for how our culture views rape and rape victims.

The story of a high school cheerleader from Texas who was forced to cheer for her rapist has garnered no shortage of outrage – outrage at the victim’s school, the justice system and even the victim herself. As the case has hit national news outlets, it’s become a fascinating, and in many ways horrifying, Rorschach test for how our culture views rape and rape victims.

The Assault

In October 2008, H.S., as she has chosen to be identified, was a 16-year-old student at Silsbee High School attending a post-basketball game party in her hometown. At the party, three fellow students allegedly threw H.S. onto the floor and dragged her into a separate room, where, as she later testified, she was raped by Silsbee High football and basketball star Rakheem Bolton.

As some of the other party-goers tried to get into the room, two of the young men escaped out an open window. One of the men who fled the scene was Bolton, who left some clothing at the scene. (Bolton is said to have later threatened to shoot the house’s owners when they refused to return the clothes.)

Bolton and one of the other young men were arrested a few days later and charged with sexual assault of a child, a second-degree felony. But a county grand jury withdrew the charges, and the students were allowed to return to school and resume playing sports for Silsbee High. (Their return was temporary, as the charges were later reinstated.)

The Victim-Shaming Begins

While H.S.’s attackers were back in school, Silsbee High officials did something all too common in sexual assault cases: they put the onus on H.S. to avoid her assailants in the lunchroom and at school activities. At the same time, some of H.S.’s fellow students began yelling “slut” at H.S. and her younger sister, who eventually changed schools.

But H.S. rejected the inference that she had anything to be ashamed of, and with the support of her family, she tried to go about her normal school routine.

Presumably, H.S. saw her attackers at school on a regular basis. As a member of the Silsbee High cheerleading squad, she even attended – and cheered at – their sports games. Where H.S. drew the line, however, was chanting the name of her rapist. When the rest of the squad would cheer Bolton on, H.S. would stand back quietly. "I didn't want to have to say his name, and I didn't want to cheer for him," she said. "I didn't want to encourage anything he was doing."

H.S.’s silent protest of Bolton went without notice until a basketball game in February 2009. When Bolton began making free-throws, and the squad started cheering his name, H.S. stepped back, folded her arms and sat down. This time, she was pulled aside at halftime and told by the Silsbee district superintendent, his assistant and the school principal that she had to cheer for Bolton – or else she’d be sent home and kicked off the squad.

H.S. started crying, and some of the other students in the stands began mocking her. Her father stepped in to defend his daughter against the school officials. When that got them nowhere, the family left the game.

Off to Court

The incident at the basketball game led H.S.’s family to sue Silsbee ISD, accusing its leadership of discrimination for punishing their daughter while continuing to treat the students who assaulted her like star athletes. Their legal argument was that the school had stepped on H.S.’s First Amendment right to free expression – her right to refuse to cheer.

Despite a precedent set by the Supreme Court four decades earlier that neither students nor teachers "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech ... at the schoolhouse gate," the courts in H.S.’s case did not see things that way. In October 2009, a federal judge ruled that H.S.’s First Amendment rights had not been violated, because “her actions conveyed no specific message to onlookers, other than disapproval of Bolton.”

H.S.’s family appealed the decision, but this September the appeals court let the original ruling stand. "In her capacity as cheerleader, H.S. served as a mouthpiece through which [the district] could disseminate speech – namely, support for its athletic teams," said the three-judge panel. What’s more, her act “constituted substantial interference with the work of the school because, as a cheerleader, H.S. was at the basketball game for the purpose of cheering."

In other words: H.S. was a cheerleader, so it was her duty to shut up and cheer. Rapist be damned.

Meanwhile, Bolton pleaded guilty this fall to a much lesser misdemeanor assault charge. He will pay a $2,500 fine, do community service and take anger management classes.

The Fallout

As the H.S. case has gotten more and more national attention, it’s elicited all the overtly victim-blaming responses that have come to be expected in rape cases (“She’s either a liar or she was asking for it”), as well as some more subtly harmful reactions (“Why did she want to be a cheerleader anyway?”).

Feminist blogger Echidne of the Snakes concurs that there has been plenty of sexism in the public’s response to H.S., even in some (theoretically) progressive circles, like the comments section of this Think Progress post:

Though most comments argue that [H.S.] was poorly treated by the school (or at least by Bolton) not many ask the correlating questions:

Why is a student accused of rape allowed to play in the game? Why would any school put another student, one who argues that she has been raped, into that position: of seeing her rapist rewarded?

I am not writing about the actual court case. Whether H.S. had free speech rights or not is unclear. I am writing about the greater atrocity so very evident here: The rape culture.

What’s rape culture? Academically speaking, it’s a “complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women.” But Melissa McEwan at Shakesville lays out what it means in everyday life:

Rape culture is encouraging men to use the language of rape to establish dominance over one another ("I'll make you my bitch")….Rape culture is 1 in 6 women being sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. Rape culture is not even talking about the reality that many women are sexually assaulted multiple times in their lives. Rape culture is the way in which the constant threat of sexual assault affects women's daily movements….Rape culture is a judge blaming a child for her own rape….Rape culture is encouraging women to take self-defense as though that is the only solution required to preventing rape. Rape culture is admonishing women to "learn common sense" or "be more responsible" or "be aware of barroom risks" or "avoid these places" or "don't dress this way," and failing to admonish men to not rape.

H.S. was a victim not just of rape, but of a rape culture that enabled two men to sexually violate a fellow student in the middle of a school party, that led to a school principal asking a rape victim to stay away from her attackers (rather than the other way around), that allowed a panel of judges to let off an accused rapist on a misdemeanor charge, that caused two courthouses to think that a rape victim waived her First Amendment rights when she became a cheerleader, and that has empowered anonymous Internet commenters, and no doubt scores of people watching the nightly news, to suggest that a teenage rape victim has made too much of a fuss out of this case and should put the incident behind her.

H.S. has continued to push forward in the courts, saying the fight has been worth it to help pave the way for other rape victims who may want to take on the criminal justice system. But she acknowledges that it’s been a frustrating battle. "All I've wanted out of this all along is for somebody to say they've done wrong."

For his part, Bolton had this to say after his recent hearing: "I have no hard feelings toward the girl. It was a misunderstanding."

Lauren Kelley is an associate editor at AlterNet and a freelance writer and editor who has contributed to, the L Magazine and Time Out New York. She lives in Brooklyn.
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