Oprah's new "sex scandal"

Seven students from the talk show host's South African school are suspended for sexual harassment. Cue media frenzy.

Published April 1, 2009 8:00PM (EDT)

Wednesday morning, everyone from the NY Daily News to E! Online to CNN was spreading the word of a "second sex scandal" at Oprah's South African school. As you may remember, in 2007 the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls dismissed a dorm matron charged with sexually abusing pupils. It's reasonable to call what happened two years ago a "sex scandal" (not to mention a heartbreaking shame), but the most recent incident hardly deserves the media frenzy.

Last week, the Leadership Academy suspended seven girls for sexual misconduct. The allegations include harassment and, the Daily News reports, "Other girls were caught fondling each other or trying to get other girls to join them in lesbian liasons [sic]." Now, the last thing I want to do is diminish how damaging sexual harassment can be to teenage girls. And while I don't think the school has any business shutting down the consensual lesbian encounters that have taken place at every girls school since the beginning of time, no one should feel coerced to participate in them, either.

But it seems sensational to label student-on-student sexual harassment a "sex scandal" and imply that there's something horribly wrong with Winfrey's school because of it. Let's be realistic for a second: Can you think of any American high school where sexual harassment doesn't take place? It certainly happened at mine -- and it often flew under the radar of the school administration. "Indiscretions resulting in disciplinary action are common in schools all over the world," said Winfrey in a pitch-perfect statement to the media. "Unfortunately, because of my name these common infractions place the Academy in the media spotlight."

If anything, the Leadership Academy should be celebrated for recognizing the sexual harassment problem and punishing the students responsible for it. We can only hope more American high schools will do the same.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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