Try to think about the last time you volunteered a piece of deeply personal information completely unprompted—particularly if it's bad news. No one wants to be a Debbie Downer or a buzzkill, and so often as humans we sublimate even the most minor ill-feelings for the sake of seeming "okay." The same social convention goes for far too many rape victims—but the longterm effects of keeping in feelings about their experiences can be far more insidious.
This year continues to be a revolutionary one for rape culture and the people working to stop it. While we still see rapists given mere slaps on the wrists for their crimes, a vocal few continue to emerge, helping reframe the narrative and transform victims into survivors. On Tuesday, we saw one more young woman join this important force for good, and her name is Chessy Prout.
Since 2014, a high-profile rape trial has shrouded St. Paul’s School, a prestigious boarding high school in New Hampshire, in controversy. Almost exactly one year ago, Owen Labrie, 20, who was a senior at the time of the assault, was found not guilty of felony sexual assault charges but guilty of the lesser crime of having sex with a girl below the age of consent. He was sentenced to one year of jail time. Labrie’s victim, a freshman, remained anonymous—that is, until the school petitioned the court this summer to reveal her name in the midst of a lawsuit it felt was smearing its good name. This compelled Prout, now 17, to come forward on her owns terms. She appeared on the TODAY show Tuesday morning to share her story, find her voice, and provide a voice to others still existing in shame.
"I want everyone to know that I am not afraid or ashamed anymore, and I never should have been,” Prout told TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie in the interview. "It's been two years now since the whole ordeal, and 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.”
Prout is right that she should never have felt ashamed in the first place. But it's no coincidence she felt this way—it’s institutional. Our criminal justice system is still largely inept at dealing with sexual assault victims, and the systematic revictimization of these (mostly) women helps deepen the silence. Prout is fortunate to have found the strength to reveal her identity despite a system that automatically assumed she would feel shame and turn inward after her assault. But imagine how different her experience, and the experience of others, could have been if the conversation started with victims being told it’s okay to hide out but it’s equally okay to speak out?
Jane Piper is among the brave women who decided to put her name to her rape. She was attacked by a random man in a parking lot after grocery shopping in 2003, but she wouldn’t see justice for more than 10 years, when her attacker was caught and sentenced. She spoke out in court at the 2014 sentencing hearing where she faced her attacker, and has continued to talk about what happened to her since the hearing. But, as she told me Tuesday, she only wishes someone had asked sooner about what really happened that day and how it made her feel.
Piper will never forget the first thing a rape victim advocate in Los Angeles said to her after reporting her rape: She told her the attack wasn’t her fault. “I never felt shame for what happened to me,” she said, but the mere suggestion that shame and rape are one and the same stuck with her, just as Prout initially felt following her rape as a 15-year-old high school student.
Piper said she obviously recognizes how important confidentiality is for rape victims and that it’s the survivor’s prerogative whether she wants to remain silent or share her story. But, she said, “It doesn’t hurt to say, when it happens, ‘there’s nothing wrong with what happened to you’, and to say that some people feel empowered by talking about what happened to them.”
She added: “All the therapy I went through was nothing compared to meeting other women who went through what I went through or meeting people who listened to what happened to me."
Surely so many victims just want to be heard. That was the case with Prout, who expected Labrie to simply apologize for his actions, and instead found herself in the middle of a vicious legal battle and her school showing “no recognition that I had gone through something like this.” The same goes for Ari Mostov, a young woman who was left with no choice but to leave her university after she realized the institution's fundamental lack of empathy and understanding of rape trauma.
Mostov was a film student at University of Southern California in 2013 when she says she was raped. She reported it to campus police, and subsequently issued a complaint after determining it had been mishandled, and justice for her assailant was never served. The traumatic ordeal, along with other similar ones reported by fellow students at the school, resulted in a Title IX complaint and federal investigation. In the complaint, she shared that campus police determined she wasn't technically raped because the assailant had not orgasmed. It’s the kind of experience that could make someone never want to speak about it again. But the sheer ignorance compelled her to reveal her identity to the world, alongside other survivors, in the 2015 documentary It Happened Here.
“[The film] gave me both an outlet for me to heal and a chance to show what's really happening at our schools,” Mostov told me over email on Tuesday. “To be believed by the filmmakers and the audience adds validation that you still matter.”
She sees herself and other vocal survivors as “soldiers for a war against rape culture”: and Prout joined those ranks on Tuesday when she took control of her story on a national platform.
“When you actually see that young woman, when you see her face, you think, ‘this could be anybody,’ This could be my daughter, this could be my friend,” Brian Pinero, vice president of victim services at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, told me via phone on Tuesday. “On a platform like [TODAY], it forces us to think about the judgements that we pass before we hear the [victim’s] story completely. It forces us to look into their eyes, and at the strength that they have, and see not only did this happen to this person—that this could happen to anyone we know in our lives.”
Pinero, who has worked with survivors in some capacity for his entire career, is always encouraging of those who express interest in sharing their stories. But that’s not to say going public is for everyone—especially when the trauma is too fresh. He’ll ask survivors questions like, what is your plan in telling your story? What’s the plan afterwards? What does your support system look like? Who is going to be there to look out for your best interests, and stand with you so you’re not alone? It’s ultimately the survivor’s decision to go public or not, but these are crucial considerations, according to Pinero, before making that irreversible leap. “The biggest thing that they struggle with is being believed and not being questioned. If they’ve been brave enough to share, still people find fault with it.”
In the coming days, Prout will likely continue to face doubt from her detractors that question her version of events—that Labrie pursued her as part of “Senior Salute,” a tradition in which seniors try to hook up with as many underclass women as possible in their last week of school, which in this case ended in nonconsensual sex. By coming forward about her own rape, however, she is effectively, as Piper put it, extending “an invitation for [other survivors] to talk about it.” An invitation that is sent far too infrequently.
“I think it’s because nobody really asks us,” Piper said. “We’re expected to be silent.” Conventionally, silence is the rule and sharing is the exception. But there are some signs of that changing.
Mostov pointed out that when she typed “Chessy Prout” into Google, the first thing the search engine suggested was "Chessy Prout Liar." “I think this speaks to the high stakes of being public with your story,” she said. “Anonymity has its advantages … the moment you take off that veil of tepid security, you face a world determined to destroy you.”
Try as people might to destroy these survivors, being vocal about their experiences could ultimately help to keep other survivors from destroying themselves. Now that she's gone public, Prout announced she's working with the nonprofit Promoting Awareness Victim Empowerment on a new project called #IHaveTheRightTo, which seeks to end shame and stigma for sexual assault victims.
And as important as it is for survivors to see role models of strength, it’s necessary for them to see that breaking down is okay, too. Prout spoke on Tuesday with tears in her eyes of her panic attacks, during which, she said, she hides in her closet and hits her legs, as her little sister comforts her. Sharing these trials provides yet another invitation for survivors to open up about their own struggles.
“We have this idea as a society that we have to be strong all the time, and if you’re not an emotional warrior every moment, there’s something wrong with you—that mental illness is some sort of fault,” Piper said. But being overcome by emotion, she added, is simply being human. And that’s why asking a survivor about their rape experience is, in the end, an act of humanity. They may choose not to answer, but in all likelihood, they’ll appreciate you asked.
Marisa Kabas is a Sex + Life reporter based in New York City. She loves baseball, bunnies and bagels.