The past eight months have seen new cases of sexual misconduct take over the headlines on an almost weekly basis. Twin bombshells detailing decades of serial predation by Harvey Weinstein launched a movement in October, the message of which reminds us that every woman-identifying person experiences discrimination, and often violence, based on their gender. Survivors are maybe, finally, beginning to be believed, though. We’ve come to this tipping point thanks to tenacity on the part of countless others who publicly tell their stories, in the face of unrelenting scrutiny and skepticism. Chessy Prout is one.
In May 2014, Owen Labrie — an 18-year-old student at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire — invited Prout, then a 15-year-old freshman, to climb to the top of a campus building and enjoy an off-limits views. Labrie was participating in the boarding school’s “Senior Salute” tradition, whereby upperclassmen (typically boys) try to hook up with as many underclassmen as possible before graduation. Assured by a mutual friend that Labrie only wanted to spend time with her, Prout agreed. But a platonic hangout was not his intention.
In her new book, I Have the Right To: A High School Survivor’s Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope — co-authored with Boston Globe investigative reporter, Jenn Abelson, and published in March — Prout details the series of events that would land her on the witness stand roughly one year later. The now-19-year-old writes that Labrie pinned her against a wall, scrambling to underdress her as she struggled to keep her underwear on. Although she repeatedly told him “no,” he didn’t listen. Over the next couple of days, Prout told her family and the authorities what had happened: “A boy had sex with me and I didn’t want it,” as she put it to her mother.
I Have a Right To documents, in painful detail, how the assault changed Prout’s life. Classmates she’d previously called friends took Labrie’s side, isolating and bullying her until she left the school — which itself took an adversarial position. She found herself seized with debilitating panic attacks on a regular basis. And as the case went to trial, Prout became a target of internet trolls, who leaked her name online and created hate sites dedicated to trashing her and her family. When she finally testified in court, recounting her experience over the course of multiple days, she won only a partial victory: In August 2015, a 12-person jury convicted Labrie on misdemeanor counts of soliciting sex with a minor online and on misdemeanor sexual assault charges, as well as the misdemeanor crime of endangering the welfare of a child, but acquitted him on felony sexual assault charges.
Prout became a public survivor in 2016, telling her story on the Today Show. At the same time, she launched a survivors’ rights campaign — #IHaveTheRightTo, now a nonprofit organization — and took up consent education with PAVE, an advocacy organization for survivors of sexual trauma. Now, she wants help survivors understand what she didn’t in the spring of 2014: “I felt like it was all my fault,” she writes in the book. “It would take me years to accept what now seems obvious: rape is not a punishment for poor judgment.”
Refinery29 caught up with Prout to talk about the changing reality of becoming a public survivor in the #MeToo era, her continued activism, and her thoughts on campus sexual assault policy as she prepares to head off to Barnard College in New York City this fall. (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
I loved your book. I thought it was really moving, and it takes a lot of strength to write down all those experiences and share them in public, which I know you’re not a stranger to. What made you decide to write the book, and what do you want it to do?
The idea kind of came up when we [Prout, her parents, and their lawyer, Steven Kelly] were doing a presentation in front of law students at Yale Law and Quinnipiac Law in October of 2016. I would be saying things that had become everyday life for me — the private investigator coming to my town, all these different things that the school had been doing — and people were gasping, audibly gasping. It’s a reality that too many people aren’t privy to and are lucky enough to never see, but for survivors who want to come forward and want to seek justice, this is often the reaction, the backlash that we’re met with. So I really wanted to help shine a light on that and let other people know that, yes, this is a reality for over 30% of people in our country [editor’s note: According to RAINN, only about one in three cases of sexual assault are reported to the police], and that if we’re not talking about it, it doesn’t mean that it’s not happening.
On the subject of boarding school, and St. Paul’s specifically: if you don’t mind talking about this, how has the reception of your book been there?
What’s been really interesting is, through the book tour, through all of this touring that I’ve been doing, I have been visiting certain areas of the country that are boarding school areas. I actually went back to Concord, New Hampshire with Congresswoman [Annie] Kuster of New Hampshire and did a presentation at the local bookstore [where students] used to go get coffee when we were studying during the school year at St. Paul’s. That was a huge moment of reclaiming a town, for me, because Concord—the last time I had been there was for meetings with attorneys and the trial, two years ago.
I’ve had this influx of people, students writing to me and telling me their own stories of their boarding schools. It’s been kind of an intense reaction and a lot of that has been in private, even students from St. Paul’s School writing to me and telling me things about their experiences at the school. It’s been a bit overwhelming to know that this does happen everywhere, no place is immune to the issue of sexual assault.
You mention in your book that media attention tends to focus on college campuses, and I think that’s true, but we also know that sexual violence is an issue that comes up as early as kindergarten. But you are heading off to college in the fall, so I’m wondering what you think the most important ingredients are for an effective and supportive policy surrounding sexual misconduct, on college campuses specifically, but also informed by your experiences: What’s missing and what works?
I think what we’ve gained in the last year is the survivor’s perspective, which has been really great to see. With the rise of the #MeToo movement, allowing survivors and victims to share their stories on social media; to be able to speak out, whether for the first time or publicly for the first time. I think that’s something that’s really valuable in the fight against sexual assault. Because you’ve gotta know what the problem is before you can fix it, and acknowledge what the problem is before you can even start to try to fix it. Too many of these schools won’t acknowledge that they have a problem, so there won’t be real change until places acknowledge that there is a rape culture, rape culture exists, and they’ve got to acknowledge survivors to be able to change that.
A lot of schools operate differently, and some clearly do better than others, but do you get the sense, maybe from touring schools and looking into them, that colleges are starting to pay more meaningful attention? That students are beginning to be heard in an impactful way?
I have kind of a pessimistic view on that. Because I’ve even spoken to some schools, or I’ve toured some schools, that will talk about how they have positive educational things put in place, like during freshman orientation [they] talk about consent and sexual assault. But the follow-through isn’t always there: the follow-through in the Title IX office and especially the cultural follow-through from the students. Victims are still being bullied into silence, and it’s the victims who are being forced to leave their educational institutions because it’s way too difficult to continue an education while your rapist lives on campus with you still. So I think that there does need to be a shift in that sense, where people learn and students learn to support survivors in their community, and learn to put the blame and shame where it belongs.
That’s probably a good place to bring up the work that you’re doing, and have been doing for the last couple of years. I’d love to hear more about your #IHaveTheRightTo campaign, what you’ve been up to in your gap year, and what specifically you’re hoping to do once you get to campus.
The whole reason why I came forward in the first place was to become a beacon for survivors in my community, for them to be able to know that I’m a safe person and space to come to if they want to talk. This year, I was able to go into different high schools and middle schools and Congress and bookstores for the book tour. But I was working with PAVE, Promoting [Awareness,] Victim Empowerment, to go into high schools and teach their consent curriculum to 10th grade health classes. And we also went in and taught workshops to football teams, both a JV and Varsity football team in Arlington, Virginia, and it’s really really exciting to see these boys raise their hands when we ask them questions like, What would you do if somebody disclosed to you that they’d been sexually assaulted, and the immediate responses are, Tell them ‘I believe you.’ Or say, ‘I’m here for you if you want help.’ That is really great to see.
But the [cultural shift] is not all it is. I mean, people who bullied me at St. Paul’s now march in Women’s Marches. So you can support something on a grand scale, but until you translate it to your personal life and to your own communities, it’s not going to make that big of a difference.
One feature of your book that really struck me was the way that you grapple with the expectations placed on girls; at one point, you mention “walking a tightrope between the norms St. Paul’s foisted on [you] and what [you] really wanted.” It’s a culture in which it’s on girls not to upset the boys or the status quo, and it’s on girls to protect themselves and to not seem like “bitches.” That’s often the way it goes, and while reading, I kept thinking about how people who identify as women spend so much time trying to seem or not seem whatever way won’t provoke men, whatever way keeps them safe. I’d love to hear what you think about that approach and what needs to happen to break that cycle.
I’ll start with this little anecdote from the other day. Jenn Abelson and I went to the Congressional Writers Caucus, they held a meeting to talk about I Have the Right To. Representative Annie Kuster was one of the hosts, as well as Mark Takano from California. He told us the most interesting story to open this discussion. He talked about how, after college, he traveled around Europe with a female friend of his, and he didn’t understand why she always wanted to be around him, why she never wanted to be alone when they walked around in public. And he finally asked her, and she said, Look you don’t know how men treat us in public. Being a woman is innately dangerous. He said, I was so surprised, I was flabbergasted, I had no idea that women felt like this. I think that’s the way it is for a lot of boys and men: No one can really know what another person’s experience is like without being them, so I think having the sympathy to be open to femininity and masculinity not as two separate things, but as things that intertwine, I think it works kind of the same way for men, too. So I, in my personal life, try to break that stigma in my relationships, friendships, in my family.
My dad is a great example: He is a kind, sensitive, athletic, sporty, strong man and he always cries when that Bruno Mars song comes on, “Just the Way You Are.” When we [Prout and her sisters] were younger, we used to laugh at him when he would cry at that song. We would laugh because he was our dad and he was crying at music. And nowadays, we realize how problematic that was. We have to allow men to be vulnerable, be emotional, but they also have to allow us to be strong without calling us names. Shifting that role, I think, is really important. But again, we’re not equal in this country, so that’s a huge issue, too.
Since October, we have seen the beginnings of what I will tentatively call change in the way that survivors of sexual violence are treated when they come forward. Do you ever think about whether or not your case may have gone differently if it had been decided in 2018, and do you have a little bit more hope for a cultural shift than you maybe did back then?
Something that I’ve learned over the last four years is that I can never look back and wonder, “What if?” I’ve done that way too often, and it’s led me to lock myself in my room for hours and cry. So I don’t ever think about what my case would’ve been like if it had happened in this year, but I can tell you that—with the amount of survivors that I’ve worked with over this year—not much has really changed when it comes to these cases on college campuses or in high schools. I’ve seen the suffering firsthand of people still having to live in their schools, towns, with their abusers walking free. So I think, again, the cultural change has been great, but there needs to be some sort of shift in how survivors are treated through the criminal justice system, through the Title IX processes. In New Hampshire they tried to have that legislative shift with the introduction of Marsy’s Law, as a constitutional amendment, and I don’t think it passed. [Editor’s note: Marsy’s Law, an amendment designed to boost crime victims’ voices in court processes, died in the New Hampshire House in April.] It would’ve allowed victims close to equal rights to defendants. And that’s something I think is supremely messed up in our country, that defendants have more rights than victims do in the process. There’s a lot that still needs to be done.
In your book, you call out some of the really salient examples of the press mishandling your case. There’s the infuriatingly common “Golden Boy” narrative that kind of makes the victim into a nobody and prizes the student athlete, who is also a rapist; I remember reading that Vanity Fair article and it was also infuriating; and then just things like reporters using words like “date” to describe what was most certainly not a date for you. One thing I think about, covering these cases, is how becoming a public survivor in and of itself can skew the concept of consent, just because you have to place your story in someone else’s hands and trust that they won’t manipulate it. I imagine that is very scary, especially when you’ve already been publicly misunderstood. I’m wondering what we can do better.
Speaking to the survivors in the first place is a great first step. Because our being protected, in some states, having that anonymity can be a double-edged sword: We have zero representation, we’ve got zero choice to speak out and defend ourselves. But we’re also “protected.” [Editor’s note: The court system tried to protect Prout’s name in accordance with rape shield laws that keep survivors’ identities out of the press, but it leaked to the media.] There are so many things that were careless, one of them being the difference between jail and prison is a big one. People using that flippantly is frustrating, too, because this isn’t just a news story to us, to our families, to our friends. This is our lives. This is something that is so extremely difficult.
With that in mind, if you could share what message with survivors and survivors’ families, what would that be?
You’re not in it alone, there are so many people out there who are fighting and working to make this better for people, to help you get through this. You can seek out help with advocates in your communities, because families shouldn’t have to go through this alone.
Prout and Abelson will be at the Art Center Auditorium in Palo Alto, California between 4pm and 5pm on July 7 for a book talk on surviving and preventing sexual assault.