Something you probably shouldn’t do when you are freshly home from dropping your beloved 18 year-old daughter off at college is spend a dappled late summer afternoon watching a documentary about campus sexual assault. I’d tell you I don’t know what got into me, but I do: This morning I watched the Today show interview with Chessy Prout, a seventeen year old girl who today revealed her identity as the victim of Owen Labrie, the predatory prep school athlete/scholar who assaulted her when she was a ninth grader at St. Paul’s School, my alma mater.
Ms. Prout is luminous, inside and out. She radiates goodness, wholesomeness, health. I recall reading in a lurid media account early this year that her attacker once referred to her as an “angel,” and you can see why. She is golden-haired, blue-eyed, dewy; the kind of beautiful girl who attracts male attention without trying, without meaning to, simply by being. We had a few girls like her in my class at St. Paul’s. There is a tyranny to this kind of beauty: you don’t ask for sexual attention, but you get it nonetheless, and guys and girls alike assume that’s what you want. People think maybe girls are thrilled to be so magnetic, and I imagine for some that’s true. But often, it’s intrusive and sometimes, frightening. My own daughter Mia has this quality. Her brother noticed it when he came up from his home in Austin last April for her senior talk at her high school. “She’s charismatic, she’s smart and she’s beautiful,” he commented, clearly concerned. “College guys are going to be all over her.” That phrasing is troubling, isn’t it? I fear I haven’t taught her enough about cruelty, that there are bad people even in predominantly good, safe places, that an invitation to a study group should be viewed warily if the only person who shows up besides you is the guy who invited you to join, that you must never allow yourself to be separated from your flock at a party, because that’s what the wolves want.
In her Today show interview, Chessy Prout embodies authenticity, moral courage, and determination – all with natural grace. Talk about intestinal fortitude. Who among us could tolerate seeing one of our teenage daughters give such an interview on national television? “I want everyone to know that I am not afraid or ashamed anymore, and I never should have been. I feel ready to stand up and own what happened to me and make sure other people, other girls and boys, don’t need to be ashamed, either. ” Amen to that. I watched her respond to the interviewer’s questions, flanked supportively by her parents and older sister, and I marveled at the hell she and her family have been through. Yet they all speak with integrity and compassionate resolve. Great good can come of great ill; the expansive resilience of love never fails to amaze me. I wonder: if this had happened to one of our daughters, could John and I could show such composure and generosity, facing the institution on whose watch such harm had come to our child? I’m not so sure.
Listening to Ms. Prout is what led me to finally hunker down and watch “The Hunting Ground.” If you’ve not heard of it, the documentary exposes campus-wide negligence in dealing with the epidemic of college sexual assault. The film tracks two rape survivors, Annie E. Clark and Andrea Pino, who inadvertently became leaders in the growing student movement leveraging Title IX in order to hold college administrators accountable for the ways the system protects predators and fails victims. I say “inadvertently” because, like Chessy Prout and her family, these women, and the legion of other victims the film profiles, did nothing to invite this fight. They did not “bring it on themselves.” They didn’t ask to be raped by “wearing the wrong thing” or “going to the wrong party”, by “drinking too much” or trusting too much or freezing with shock and fear so they couldn’t fend off their (much bigger and stronger) attackers. These women all refuse to back down, to slink away with their tails between their legs as if they somehow deserved to be raped, and subsequently to be patronized, shamed or diminished by their respective school or college communities.
Societally, our systems for addressing sexual crimes are utterly broken. When your school’s reputation or football team’s record matters more than the well-being of the young people whom it is YOUR CHARTER, your raison d’etre, to educate and foster, I just don’t know what to say to you. I urge you to watch Chessy Prout’s interview, and also to take in “The Hunting Ground.” I dare you to come away from either without feeling deeply sad for these young people and somehow complicit in the culture of silence that looks away. Survivors of sexual assault deserve to be treated with the same serious concern as victims of any other crime: burglary, say, or arson. Can you imagine a detective investigating the theft of your car asking, “well, should you really have parked it there? Don’t you think you were maybe asking for it to be hot-wired?” or “Do you think maybe if your car hadn’t been red, it might not have been stolen?” Weren’t you sending the wrong signal to car thieves by parking your car at night, by parking your car at all? What you could have done differently, to thwart the thief? Maybe your car alarm wasn’t loud enough, or it didn’t sound for long enough. Whatever. It’s your fault. Or how about this response from your dean of students or Board of Trustees: We know your car was stolen and yeah, that auto thief is a creeper, but it wasn’t our fault, so you need to be quiet and go away, because grand theft auto complaints aren’t good for our brand. And besides, the guy who stole your car? He’s our quarterback. Our alumni love him. Here’s another thing you might hear: Are you sure your car was stolen? Because we’re not convinced.
And yet, such belittling of victims and their needs happens all the time in colleges, companies, schools. I have to hope, thanks to the courage and leadership of women like Chessy Prout, Annie E. Clark, Andrea Pino, and Brock Turner’s victim at Stanford, that we are on the cusp of a new understanding about sexual assault, a person’s right to feel safe in their own body, and an institution’s obligation to treat sexual assault with the same seriousness afforded any other crime. Teachers and administrators, college presidents and prep school headmasters, take notice: looking the other way and protecting the status quo – these strategies are failings of the past. Victims are finding their voices, and their songs of pain and wrong will soon drown out the lawyers, the parsers, the board members and distracted faculty, the morally timid. Each of the young women named above has my gratitude, along with countless other victims of sexual crimes who’ve had the courage to speak out. As a woman, a sexual harassment survivor, a teacher, and a mother of two daughters and one son, I say to you:
Thank you, sisters. Keep the faith. We’re with you.
To share your story or express solidarity with Chessy Prout and other victims of sexual assault, tweet #Ihavetherightto