GUEST OPINION: We Were Wrong

By on July 26, 2017

A brother speaks to the sexual dynamics his sister endured in Jackson Hole.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – The rape/sexual assault culture that exists among youth in Jackson Hole, which Sarah Ross discussed last week (“Reporter’s Notebook: The Space to Speak,” July 19), is an all too familiar story. It is one that I heard from Ross—who happens to be my older sister—during her high school experience, and then one I lived and saw during my time in Jackson. Before I talk about my experience, I think it is important I admit that as a male growing up in Jackson, I am responsible for reinforcing the culture of emotional, social and physical violence that exists in our schools. This is something that no male in Jackson can deny.

My sister went to Jackson Hole High School from 2007 to 2011, and I attended Jackson Hole Community School from 2011 to 2015. Our time in the high school system was separated by three months. Nevertheless, I remember as a freshman being told that the trauma my sister described was in the past, that it was non-existent

In my health class, we had the important discussion of unequal relationships as an abstract view. We talked about the culture of “freshman slaying.” However, these conversations did not translate into real world changes. Instead, each discussion was in the past tense, and it told us that what we were seeing in school wasn’t wrong—it was the previous years, grades and students who had been in the wrong.

Yet, this was not recent history, it was happening in classrooms, parties, sport practices, and homes. The reality of the matter is that the boys in school were still actively or passively taking part in this abusive culture. Instantly, I saw that my sister and I were treated different in high school. There was no pressure for me to drink, party or have sex. Instead, I was celebrated for academic and athletic achievements. Meanwhile, my peers who were girls were not given any respect, from sports to the classroom, and the expectation that younger girls would hang out with older guys made it so their experience was so much more violent than that of my male friends and me.

When I was about 16, I finally started to socialize more, attending parties and going on dates. Looking back on it now, it was clear that at this point girls and boys were on very unequal ground. The girls had already been sexualized and given labels for the entirety of high school. This gave a disproportional amount of power to the boys. It meant that even though I always thought I engaged in safe, consensual and non-threatening behavior, I was still supporting and perpetuating the worst parts of this system just by being a boy in this culture. My behavior could have terrible social consequences for girls and inflict emotional damage on them.

But as a straight white male, my sexual and social behavior never hurt my social standing, or reputation in athletics, academics and beyond.

Even if we had tried to have safe relationships, there was so much damage that had been done in the social scene. I remember entire rooms of people at parties chanting people’s names when they would go into bedrooms, or playing strip games that would target girls. This weird, macho, celebratory system was not limited to parties, though. At school dances, guys would high five while they were dancing with different girls (something I regrettably participated in).

On social media it was worse. There were apps like ask.fm and the Twitter page Wyoming Confessions. Girls were called “sluts” or “prudes” from people around the state or by anonymous folks, and were exposed for their behavior, true or not.

I can vividly remember sexist jokes being made by coaches, teachers, and other adults about girls’ ability to ski, drive in the snow, play sports, etc. As a boy, I grew up being told Jackson Hole was my playground. This idea translated into a culture of entitlement that spanned from the law to relationships to what we said to and about girls.

This, of course, is not a problem unique to Jackson Hole. I am in college and have the same conversations with my friends from Pittsburgh, Chicago, New York and beyond. However, like all things in Jackson, these is extreme. It is so extreme that no boy can escape it or act like they didn’t participate in reinforcing the culture (something that I continually told myself during and after high school).

I always knew that there was a problem in Jackson Hole. Now I realize that I was part of the problem, not above it. As a man who grew up here, I think it is critical that we speak up for the injustices we reinforced, participated in and introduced to women that we grew up with.

“I am learning to name the patterns and feelings that went unacknowledged for so long,” my sister wrote. “In high school, it felt impossible to talk about any of this, but pain, shame, and confusion all thrive on the unspoken, the hidden. It’s time to break the silence.”

Boys and men in Jackson Hole must listen and acknowledge the patterns of emotional and physical abuse that exist around them, despite the fact that they were told they’re not doing anything wrong.

No matter how easy it is to cast blame, it is critical to acknowledge that we are responsible for the pain, shame, and confusion of the unspoken. It is time to break the silence and tell people we were wrong. PJH

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