The Political Culture of Rape in America: Further Thoughts on the St. Paul’s School Case

No, St. Paul’s is not America (as suggested in the title), nor is it of the one per cent, or the one-tenth of one per cent, but perhaps of the one-twentieth, a spectacular leap into the empyrean of elitist structure and values, in which restraint on asocial behavior is bad form and without resonance. F. Scott Fitzgerald had it right when he said, the rich are different from the rest of us. That remains, however, a simplification, because capitalism—the elephant in the room seldom mentioned—requires the stabilization and pacification of the lower social orders if it is to be secure and presumably productive. The rich may be different, but not unmindful of their prerogatives, chiefly, beyond the urge for profits, the social control of the underlying populace and, in choosing policies, including war and intervention, cultivating appropriate ideology and values to their ruler-ship transmitted downward to society as a whole.

No, this is not an indulgence in conspiracy theory on my part (like the charge of anti-Semitism whenever one criticizes Israel, the charge of conspiracy theory is the knee-jerk reaction to criticism of capitalism), but rather an indictment and a reminder, the first because there is a systemic sheltering-effect capitalism provides its patrons, the second, the need to pinpoint the locus of power in America, its chosen path of the militarization of expansion and capitalism, and its inordinate power in setting the ideological agenda (what I termed, transmission downward). St. Paul’s, as expected, is toughening its response to the case of alleged rape (I deliberately do not pass judgment on the case as currently known, but must say at the outset that the young lady bringing charges, particularly in contrast to the school administration’s stonewalling thus far, has shown courage, intelligence, poise under very difficult conditions of cross-examination. She was 15 at the time, now 16, a veritable Joan of Arc acting against the Establishment).

Why my interest in the case? America has been in the business of internal domination since at least the 18th century with respect to the indigenous peoples, and in the 19th, with more substantial urbanization and the large influx of immigrants, toward the latter years, from Eastern Europe, taking overt form as social control of the mass population, already suppression of bitter labor strikes, and xenophobic cries for immigration restriction, forcible assimilation, and 100% Americanism. In other words, we have by the opening of the 20th century, the US as we know it (if not in technology then certainly in terms of power), a societal context of hierarchical structure corresponding to and reflecting the concentration of wealth of advanced capitalist development. This was a potent start, a threshold point for the systemic formation of authoritarianism, because, under the pregnant label, “Manifest Destiny,” justifying imperialism and global market expansion, joined to Admiral Mahan’s paean to Sea Power (immediately implemented upon assuming the presidency by Theodore Roosevelt’s Battleship Navy), we see corporatism (e.g., Cassatt, Carnegie, Pullman, and Morgan, faces of business-financial giantism) and wealth concentration as well established preparatory ground for the militarization of capitalism, elite predominance in opinion formation, and a settled attitude from the top of anti-labor/anti-radical sentiment.

America had turned a corner steadily in the making over two centuries of heightened capitalism (the Civil War as confirmatory, wiping off the historical agenda pre-capitalist elements and thereby more greatly uniformitize the system, opening new areas for investment and exploitation whilst still keeping down the former slaves on racial-economic lines), unlike capitalist development elsewhere, having experienced centuries of feudalism and possessing a rich cultural heritage, thus blunting an unrestrained capitalist impulse, to become a purist version of capitalism unique in its historical-structural-ideological formation ready to take off the gloves in the world and keep order at home. Here the St. Paul’s School case is of course a speck on the total historical landscape, but it is from such specks—and they are all around us—that the true spirit and inner workings of the society are revealed. The corner turned has opened out to a superhighway of unlimited destination, anti-laborism having been converted decades ago, going back to the World War I era to Woodrow Wilson’s Palmer Raids of suspected subversives and the Siberian Intervention to destroy Lenin and Bolshevism, easily into anti-communism, the anti-labor bias always kept in mind, with the New Deal the exception, to tighten the screws on working people. Anti-communism has created a wondrous field of elite-deception, for in its name the cultural form of ethnic cleansing is an ongoing process, the society’s ideological boundaries ever shrinking (as in today’s bread-and-circuses put on by both major parties to stifle criticism of alternative social values and changes of political economy), so that whole areas of domestic- and foreign- policy making have become non-negotiable and off-limits.

When I speak of rape, let me be clear, its generic and specific form, the generic as in despoil, pillage, ravage, the specific, these taking sexual form on the individual level, male forcibly over female, both, most important, on the same continuum. Today we are increasingly conscious of the rape of the environment, less so when a population is subjected to war, intervention, and, customarily, malnutrition, occupation, humiliation, in sum, a subject people. Presently Israel in its treatment/rape of Gaza, which fits all the particulars of the generic definition, but of course, the US as a global posture of rape, seen most of all in Vietnam, but in countless places of covert action, promotion of regime change, punishment for choosing the wrong sort of government (Cuba, Venezuela, etc.) kept studiously under the radar screen, all indicative of national policy dependent on forcible entry and the willful disregard of human life. Individual rape, the same thing, a microcosm in the psychodynamics of cruelty and depersonalization, the latter, of the other, but ultimately of the self. One country rapes another when its own identity has been so suppressed (the US, at least in its professions of democracy) or so freed up (Nazi Germany), yet again the same continuum within the continuum, because the identity of each rests on force, fraud, depersonalization, the fantasizing then actualization of unlimited power to prove one’s supremacy over the other. Is individual rape any different—or even its threat? At work we see the same psychodynamics, including for both a conscious or unconscious sadism, the desire to inflict pain, in addition, a delight in cruelty.

I realize I am close to suggesting the instinctual foundation for domination, cruelty, and the rest (and therefore for rape), but my argument is the opposite: the societal context as the determinative factor in the form sexuality takes. Why the continuum? Because the individual is not unaware of the practices done in his name or the patina of legitimation done to protect them. I would argue that the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, as one example, had an incremental yet symbolic import for the social climate of toleration over sexual intrusiveness prevalent now on American college and university campuses and reach down in the high schools. We wink at financial criminality, we wink at skullduggery coming in all shapes and flavors—wars and the ethos of domination does that to a society, in which nihilism and cynicism come to the fore. What I take to be the perversion of sexuality as a ready extension of the former, a societal behavior pattern so deeply ingrained in the national psyche as to become not aberrant but self-justifying. Nor is the St. Paul’s School exempt from these character traits. Its purpose being as the training ground of the elite for (amoral) leadership. As I noted in my previous article, the Groton School at the turn of the 20th century, upper class to the hilt, where young FDR matriculated, was not like that, as I suppose St. Paul’s also was not. My observation is not an apology for elitism, but to say that pride in Christian stewardship was a different kettle of fish from today’s elite recruits and their directors. Groton’s was a minority view among the upper echelons of the elite, which is to point out that even in those circles, societal context still allowed room for deviation.

Not so today. This is what helps explain the St. Paul’s episode today, whether or not the senior successfully penetrated the freshman girl, whether or not he used force, for the School by its refusal to comment lent institutional support to the custom that allows for such acts to go on. Euphemistically termed the “senior salute,” along with the known practice of each senior class passing on to the next a key to a rooftop machinery room where the girls are taken, is license of encouragement for sexual relations, consensual or not, where in the case being tried in Concord, New Hampshire, the girl, then 15, the boy, 18, gave convincingly testimony, despite being badgered by expert defense counsel, that it was not. (Rev. Peabody, headmaster of Groton, had no “senior salute” to contend with, nor I suspect was there a need to.) The girl showed poise and courage on the stand; besides the School’s dodging the issue, almost as sad is that she feared at first to make complaint lest it antagonize fellow students, female as well as male, and administration. The young man, planning on attending Harvard, wants to study theology. More power to him, a paradigmatic career for the St. Paul’s graduate fitting nicely into the circles of power. (The chaplain at one renowned university I taught at had extensive CIA experience.)

Democratization goes only so far in the prep-school setting. Diversity, why not? Coming from a poor background? Why not? The signs of going-along can be detected early, and the years ahead are a winnowing cum indoctrination process which if all else fails ensures the student a dead-end career if not booted out first. Orthodoxy is now the air we all breathe, for the privileged, no adjustment needed, for the rest, a growing surrender to the rules of the game, some—not realizing they are readily absorbed into and constitute no threat to the system—seeking limited salvation in sexual liberation (making their capture by the system that much easier). But widespread apathy and ignorance about policy, both resulting from lack of opportunity and the bludgeoning of political consciousness, make society’s task of internal pacification that much easier. Notwithstanding the nation’s wealth, this seems a one-way path to oblivion—or should we call it fascism?

I emphasize systemic causation, without wishing to ignore individual responsibility, because even the question of sexuality as a liberating force, is unconvincing, hardly in the same ball park as historical ethnic cleansing, racism, ethnocentrism and xenophobia, a tightly coalesced, hierarchical power structure, wealth concentration, war, intervention, globalization tailored to US’s financial-industrial-political-ideological advantage, war, economic boycotts, all of the foregoing reduce sexuality to a safety-valve, a paltry matter in light of the present organization of American capitalist development (to which each and every one of the items just listed played an important part in the process). But if we look briefly at gender freedom and sexual liberation (I say more in the previous article), we might see that they work on behalf of rather than oppose internal capitalist stabilization, one more diversion to be swallowed up and neutralized by capitalism under the façade of toleration. E.g., gay marriage and a transgender identity are gradually becoming recognized as integral human rights despite attacks on them still prevalent, the denial of these and the wider notion of human rights to embrace race, dissent, etc. intuitively understood to constitute a defense of law and order, homogeneity, and specifically now, prohibition of immigration. America’s masses largely remain humanistically ignorant if not outright malicious, a spacious in-group fearful of the outsider. From that background of abuse, one would expect gays and others mistreated by society, to fight back, yet the record is less clear, still solipsistic; victims of discrimination and repression have still to learn that respect for human rights increasingly hangs on a slender thread, not that suppression has not always been the central experience of American radicalism (into which gay rights has been lumped as a category of disapproval). It behooves the victim not to become self-satisfied: human rights cannot be conditional in a democratic society.

Likewise, sexual liberation, though perhaps more so, must not be seen as a cure-all for the problems of capitalism, as appears currently in some quarters, and understandably so, given society’s condition of malaise, the large unemployment rate, and the disconnection of policy making from the people. This merely gives authoritarianism a soft landing (as witness the Trump campaign). Between what I am calling gender freedom and sexual liberation, we see a perhaps enforced separation and consequent removal of potentially system-breaking signs of unassimilable practice, given the at least latent proto-fascism of American society. Capitalism provides a wondrous instrument of assimilation (aka, brainwashing), but better, authority reasons, better not let it go too far lest labor loses the disciplining force needed to maximize production and keep profits rolling in. Patriotism and profits alike are dependent on the cohesion of the social order. We are witnessing a general dumbing down, where sexual liberation looks good to its practitioners, assisted by surround-sound media constant stimuli of consumerism, both sexual and material, and Veblen’s pecuniary culture of predation and exploitation brought up to date.

Even when rape is not rape it is becoming a characteristic response of human encounter. Marx saw this very early, although not in quite the generalized meaning employed here. He rooted the behavior in capitalism, and more specifically, capitalism’s commodity structure, the core of the system, in which exchange value trumps if not dislodges use value, and the modal thought is, “What’s in it for me?” We treat human beings as instruments of our own satisfaction, feeling of dominance, even amusement (as when St. Paul’s boys brag about who can “score” the most with female classmates usually younger and fearful of bucking the school’s mores and customs, a term I had not heard since the 1950’s though still current). Marx’s Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 treats alienation, but the mind-set equally describes rape, as the violation of the human person, while the aggressor, building defenses against introspection, is also being dehumanized (itself a convenient way of covering up from oneself the inhumanity of the act).

Sexuality does not have to be cruel, self-centered, and inhumane. While under capitalism the cultural-structural tendency is tending that, this is symptomatic of the need for power where everything about one points to money-grubbing, confirmation of one’s belonging, and the testing of competitive relations, a surfeit of which places ego-fulfilling sexuality as a prime outlet for stored-up aggression. It does not have to be that way, but so long as reactionary ideas tear at the soul of the American people, making for hierarchy, invidious class distinctions, a callousness to one’s fellows, sexuality will take on increasingly puerile forms incapable of genuine love relations. The permissiveness adopted by authority where rape is concerned is for radicals rightly so a dirty word indicating complicity with this practice, but it is also, seldom broached, a rejection and violation of the linkage between freedom and responsibility vital to the social respect and the guarantee of legal and political rights of all human beings.

Rape is the negation of democracy. Yet the St. Paul’s School, typical of elite culture, answers to no-one but itself. The advantage of wealth and privilege is to wrap oneself and one’s class in a frozen time-warp which has not changed for half-a-century. Yet so tenacious has been the control of upper groups that ordinarily progressive social forces (I grant sexual liberation that encomium) become perverted through the broader cultural restraints, e.g., a propensity for war, extreme wealth-concentration, that fortify aggression in the popular mind. Yet, sexual liberation cannot be made a litmus test for radicalism. Confessedly, I remain a proponent of single-sex education (disclosure, my wife is Radcliffe ’57) because as late as the decade of the ‘fifties male and female students could be themselves, free from pressures to preen and impress, dress as they cared, focus on their work, and as a result, not turn every date into a “score” but treat the individual as a whole person. This may romanticize the age (older people often do), but the possibility of finding love was greater then than now. Does this demean women and infringe on their freedom? Freedom of action was still an individual matter, but at least then the pressures making for early sexualization were appreciably lower and identity more valued and realizable. I doubt whether the boys’ culture at St. Paul’s could have made headway in that cultural setting.

I mentioned in the previous article the writings of Kreiger, Pappenheim, Marcuse, and Marx, all quite different, Marcuse alone—the influence of Freud—being concerned with sexuality. But if revolution is not on the horizon, neither at perhaps the other end is libido the starting point for realizing societal transformation, as though an energy field promising a nonalienated existence. Alienation is key to capitalism, and unless overcome transmogrifies sexuality into a destructive force. As historical causation goes, sexuality is not a game-changer. St. Paul’s, our speck in the universe of American capitalism, one-sided male-gratification begins early, the teens; one has no proof but perhaps inadvertently the object is accustomation of the boys to the experience of domination via sexual mores. This is in keeping with upper-class expectations, but also thinking ahead it ideally conduces to the hierarchical structuring of advanced capitalism. The boys are not there for their health; they are custodians of subsequent class privilege. To accord dignity to others, whether in sexual or other relations (i.e., studied contempt for the poor), violates the gentleman’s code, for it is anathema to the dynamics of power. Mutuality signifies lowering the bars, a step toward socialism.

Marx was unconcerned about sexual liberation or gratification. Society, in its democratization, came first: the improvement of living standards, an equitable productive system, conditions, wages, and hours very much to the point, and stripping bare the layers of false consciousness, grounded beyond obvious capitalist control and power in commodity fetishism. Absent these changes, sexuality converts into self-indulgence and is an ersatz escape from society. As it is, the doors are closed practically worldwide to working people. One more diversion from the need for confrontation is routinely expected, as meanwhile sexuality in its myriad forms is the surrogate for a societal humanization that never comes about. The issue of sexuality brings to the foreground the need for prior transformation if it is not to be encased in a politicized form; humanize society before or as integral to the process of the democratization of sex—else there follows the perversion of the love-relationship. Capitalism handily, as it grows in sophistication, absorbs both gender freedom and sexual liberation, adding insult to injury by commercializing them, all well and good, a process of narcotization, for diverting attention from unemployment data, wealth concentration, the rise of ethnocentrism and xenophobia–all in a day’s work for a ruling class of combined political, financial commercial, and military membership feeling their oats yet also running scared that America is becoming dislodged from its unilateral hegemonic global status. Thank you St. Paul’s for indirect encouragement to write about institutionalized elitism and arrogance.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at