An interview with high school sexual assault survivor and activist Chessy Prout
In 2014, when Chessy Prout was 15 years old, she was sexually assaulted by a student at the elite prep school St. Paul’s. Her perpetrator, Owen Labrie, was a senior when Prout was a freshman, and was eventually convicted in 2015 of misdemeanor statutory rape and felony use of a computer. While she remained anonymous during the trial, Prout revealed her identity in 2016.
“I want everyone to know that I am not afraid or ashamed anymore, and I never should have been,” Prout told the “Today” show at the time.
Prout has been an activist and advocate ever since, launching the hashtag and movement #IHaveTheRightTo. This month, Prout published a memoir (co-authored with journalist Jenn Abelson): I Have The Right To: A High School Survivor’s Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope.
Prout recently spoke to the FBomb about her experiences during the now-infamous St. Paul’s School rape trial, rape culture and sexual assault in high school, and her crusade for change.
For those who are not familiar with your story, can you tell us a little about who you are and how you came to be a sexual assault advocate?
I’m a high school sexual assault survivor, an advocate, and now an author. I’ve been grappling with that title recently because in a lot of situations I have to give a short, one-line statement as to who I am, which is not fair. But when I was 15 years old and a student at St. Paul’s school, I was sexually assaulted by a senior as part of a ritual game that [had been] played for years called the “Senior Salute.”
Three days after the crime was committed, I reported it to my mother, who then reported it to my counselor, who was then mandated to report it to the police. That started the ball rolling. I just kept doing what I thought was the right thing, which meant going to the hospital and getting a rape kit done, talking to a detective and giving them my clothes, giving them as much information and screenshots of messages as I could. Then it became The State of New Hampshire v. Owen Labrie.
What was the process of going through that trial like?
Going through the trial was probably the hardest two weeks of my life. It not only wrecked me emotionally, but it also wrecked me physically. I would wake up in the morning, violently throw up, not be able to eat anything until dinner that night when I would shove a shit ton of food in my mouth out of exhaustion and hunger. Then I’d wake up the next morning and throw up again.
During the day I’d be constantly dry heaving over garbage cans. Even now it has become a side effect of my anxiety. [Sometimes] I just have to excuse myself and run to the toilet and throw up. And that is not normal.
I actually left St. Paul’s school in December of my sophomore year, so I was at my school in Florida [when the trial started]. The defense actually pushed the trial back from the summer; they kept delaying and, in doing so, chose my first day of my junior year of high school as the start date of the trial. I was pretty anonymous [at that time]. Nobody knew what was going on except for my teachers and some of my friends. Their response was to say, “Chessy, we know something is going on. We want to give you the space and time you need to tell us. But just know that we’re here for you.”
That was not the response I got from St. Paul’s School. The St. Paul’s administration assured me and my family that nobody would talk about it, nobody would know it’s me. They framed that as being “respectful” of my privacy, but basically just ignored the problem, hoping it would go away, and that my loyalty to the school rang true.
My mom and my older sister weren’t allowed to be in the courtroom because they were being held as witnesses, but my family and I were given a room in the courthouse where we could recoup and stay together. While we were there, we saw a room across the hall from us in which all of the current and past St. Paul’s students who were going to testify as witnesses were. All of those kids testified that day to the same definitions of things like “senior salute,” “scoring,” and “hooking up.” But having to be in [the courtroom] and hear everything for the first time — how [Labrie] had been targeting me since basically the winter or late fall, about the way [male students] spoke about me and other girls. They read a message [Labrie sent] saying that “I feign intimacy then stab girls in the back and throw their bodies in dumpsters.”
The fact that those types of things didn’t catch much traction in the media really frustrated me. Instead, people wanted to focus on how the anonymous 15-year-old victim was quivering in the courtroom, how she’s a naive, preppy girl. Nobody chose to fixate on the actions of these boys; they chose to fixate on the inaction of myself under trauma and duress.
When I I testified in court, I laid myself bare. I put as much of the blame on myself as I could just so I still wouldn’t hurt anybody else. At some point, though, I realized that this really was not my fault. It was purely the fault of the person who committed the crime, perpetrated it, manipulated me, stalked me, and targeted me for months beforehand and had really groomed me and other girls to think this stuff was our fault.
Was the “grooming” you experienced a normalized part of your school’s culture?
There was absolutely a rape culture. It was known and broadcast to freshmen girls. When they came to school, they were told they could not hook up with anybody before parents’ weekend in October or November because that would brand you as a slut, as easy. They said the boys wouldn’t get any backlash from that, only girls would.
Before parents’ weekend, though, one of my sister’s roommates was pressuring me into meeting up with this boy. Eventually she cracked and said, “Well, I need to get him off my back, so, Chessy, you go meet with him, you go hook up with him, he’s a nice guy.” I felt extremely pressured to do so. Luckily, he was a nice guy and we met two nights in a week and I eventually said, “I can’t do anything like this, this is so impersonal. I don’t know anything about you, you don’t know anything about me.”
That was my first two months of school: older girls coming up to me and saying “so-and-so thinks you’re interesting or cute and I want to set you guys up.” And I’d be like, “well, that person has never spoken to me before, no.” This sort of impersonal ways of dealing out different girls was really disgusting and nobody saw it for what it was, which was literally pimping out young girls to these older boys for social points. That was [older girls’] currency. I think it was a systemic part of the culture; the older girls had done it to them, so it was kind of like a rite of passage. Looking back, hindsight is 20/20, but while you’re in it it’s sort of an elusive, enticing world. “Oh, these people like me but they won’t talk to me? That’s kind of sweet.” And it’s like, no that’s extremely not right and disgusting.
For me, I think the grooming actually started earlier, when I was 12 years old and visited my sister at St. Paul’s. Her guy friends, who came out to dinner with us, wanted to sit in the back seat [of the car to dinner] with me, sandwiched me in the backseat, and put their arms around me. They said they would protect me if I went to St. Paul’s, that they would walk me places, or tell my sister that she could date their younger brothers if they could date me. My sister kind of laughed it all off, but said, “Don’t stand up to them, don’t anger them, they’re just joking.” So that was normalized from when I was very, very young — the fear of standing up to the boys.
Was the culture of St. Paul’s different from other educational settings you’d been in?
Before St. Paul’s I had gone to two years of middle school in Naples, Florida, at this very small private school. Before that I had gone to an all-girls Catholic school in Japan [where I grew up]. [St. Paul’s] was absolutely different. In middle school in Florida, there was the social hierarchy of which girls wear the most Juicy Velour or who has Juicy necklaces or Tory Burch sandals, but that didn’t define kids. Kids were still able to make friends regardless of what clothes they wore and where they lived.
At St. Paul’s, everything was face value. The way you looked on the outside determined which groups you were allowed into. I’m blond, I was tan after living in Florida, and I was kind of lumped into this group of blond girls who did not have the same sort of viewpoints as I did. They obviously had not grown up overseas — I had a different appreciation for the world and didn’t really match who I looked like on the outside.
How do you think that school culture affected your experiences related to this case?
I think a lot of it came down to privilege leading to the ability to manipulate. The ability to invite somebody to your Park Avenue apartment in New York for a long weekend, or throw parties in New York on the weekend, or let people borrow your clothes if you had a ton of nice clothes. Eventually that would mean you owe them something.
I tried to hurt myself in my freshman year of high school. I struggled with depression and anxiety a lot, especially after surviving the earthquake [in Japan in 2011]. I suffered from PTSD. So I was having a hard time the first couple of months of school and drank nail polish remover. When I was in the health center recovering, before I came home for my health leave, the boys all stopped by the health center and left notes like, “We love you Chessy, we support you, we want to take care of you.” I was so grateful.
After my sexual assault, I thought that might be the response I would get because [I was] a hurt classmate, somebody who had gone through something really tough, just like before, and I had been supported before. But I realized that [the boys] showed so much sympathy before because I was weak then, I was vulnerable, I could be controlled. Now, when I stood up for myself, stood up to the culture, stood up to the boys, they weren’t happy about that.
Do you think adjudicating the case through the legal system was ultimately the right way to seek justice?
I viewed it as being the right thing for me. I was so, so lucky that the detective who interviewed me while I was laying in a hospital bed had just gotten back from a conference where they had worked on how to talk to and interview survivors of sexual assault. That was pretty serendipitous. She connected us with a wonderful attorney and advocate named Laura Dunn, who, when the trial came around, basically held my hand. She was the first survivor advocate that I ever met in person and she really helped shape the way that I was able to stand up and fight and feel like a survivor after I testified and listened to these boys spew lies, be caught in their lies, and then not face any retribution.
It’s been a really tough journey and it’s not the right journey for everybody, although I wish it was because perpetrators who commit these crimes need to be held accountable. It really sucks that all of that accountability falls on the victim’s shoulders.
How do you wish the media had covered your trial better?
I wish that the first reaction [to sexual assault cases] would [always] be to wonder if the victim’s OK — to think about the different ways that this impacts our education, the rest of our lives. That they’d discuss what PTSD looks like, what personal effects of this crime look like for the family, like financial change. For example, my dad lost his job, my mom and my sister moved to a different country, and my older sister lost her whole community. [I wish the media would] take into consideration what the victim is going through and who the victim is.
A lot of the articles [also] would get facts wrong, like reporting on a jail sentence vs. prison sentence. That was really frustrating to me because there’s a huge difference between jail and prison — it’s the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony. I would get really upset when reporters got that wrong.
You decided to reveal your identity after remaining anonymous throughout the trial. How did you come to that decision?
The summer before my senior year, I was figuring out how I would explain the education gap that was on my high school resume. I missed two months of school my sophomore year when I left St. Paul’s and moved back to Florida, and I had to decide if I would tell schools that I was applying to that this had happened to me — that I’ve gone through a criminal trial, that this is who I am — or if I would just ignore it. It felt unfair to me to ignore it because this was a part of my life, it’s part of who I am. It’s not all of who I am, but it’s certainly going to shape how I live my life in the future.
Then, St. Paul’s challenged my anonymity in a court filing. That’s when I told my parents I was ready to come forward. I didn’t want [St. Paul’s] to hold anything over my head anymore. I wanted to take away their leverage, so I had some meetings with media companies, all of whom were offering different venues for me to come forward and share my story and use my own voice and not just be the faceless, nameless victim anymore. Meeting with the “Today” show was an amazing and eye-opening experience. The producers there were behind me 100 percent, and wanted to help me launch a social movement to help spread this message of awareness of consent and sexual assault in high schools. Within a week, I had partnered with the group PAVE and we created the hashtag #IHaveTheRightTo.
You’ve been doing a lot of advocacy work over the past couple years and just published a memoir. Can you tell me about the work you’re doing and why you wrote the book?
I speak at high schools, at summits, in classrooms, I’ve spoken to a group of 2,000 people and I’ve also spoken to a group of seven people. Especially through the book tour and promoting my book “I Have The Right To,” I’ve been able to speak to groups of so many different types of people, it’s been incredible.
On this tour, I’ve been surprised by the amount of teachers who say, “Thank you for coming in and doing this, we need consent education here. They won’t let us talk about it.” Talking about this stuff is not widely supported by administrations, which is why I feel like a lot of the groups and consent and sexual assault awareness groups are grassroots. They’re coming from kids and students who are forcing their school boards, their districts, to realize that this needs to come into high schools.
I [wrote this book because I] wanted to show the humanity behind the word “victim,” the word “survivor,” even. When people would meet me, and I spoke to them candidly, they would say, “I did not expect you to use swear words” or “I did not expect you to be so angry about this,” and I would be like “Well, hell yeah, I’m angry.” I think when I went to St. Paul’s in the first place people underestimated me. They thought they could control me, manipulate me, and push me down into silence. But I don’t think they knew my background enough. I don’t think they knew how it felt to survive an earthquake, what it felt like to move with your family to the United States for the first time when you’re 12. I was ready to stand up and fight. Through this I wanted to show how I struggled with depression and anxiety and how that shouldn’t taint my credibility as a witness or survivor or victim in the case and I wanted to normalize the ideas of talking about mental health, about talking about sexual assault in different areas because too often people aren’t comfortable talking about these things. And I want to make it comfortable.
More articles by Category: Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Activism and advocacy, Campus rape, High school, Criminal justice, Rape, Sexualized violence