Months before dozens of women accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct, before a jury found Bill Cosby guilty of sexual assault, before Brock Turner would be sent to jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman a Stanford University, a 16-year-old girl was taking on what she saw as institutionalized rape culture at her elite East Coast boarding school.
Her name is Chessy Prout.
In 2015, Prout took the witness stand to testify against Owen Labrie, a 19-year-old graduate of St. Paul's School in New Hampshire who she said had raped her on campus when she was 15 years old. Labrie had invited her to a "Senior Salute," a tradition in which male seniors competed with one another to have sex with as many younger girls as possible before graduation. Labrie was later convicted of three counts of misdemeanor sexual assault for penetrating a minor and a felony charge of using a computer to lure a minor but not of the more serious felony sexual-assault charges he faced.
Publicly, Prout remained an anonymous, faceless victim for months until she decided to reveal her identity — and reclaim her voice — on the Today Show in 2016.
In a new book, "I Have the Right To," Prout continues to reclaim her voice. The book, which she co-authored with Jenn Abelson, an investigative reporter on the Boston Globe's Spotlight Team, documents the painful aftermath of the crime, the backlash she and her family experienced in their legal battle and Prout's path to advocacy. It's a powerful narrative of the isolation, shame and self-doubt survivors of sexual violence experience and a defiant challenge to the institutions that failed to protect her and other young women and men from such violence.
In an interview with the Weekly, Prout and Abelson said the book aims to both hold such institutions accountable and chip away at the stigma associated with sexual violence.
"Sexual assault is a crime of power and control so it's so important to put the power and control back in the survivors' hands," Prout said.
The book is named for a social media campaign she launched to help others reclaim their own voices and find empowerment in pain. It was inspired by Prout's young sister's suggestion that "girls need a bill of rights." Prout's early rights included "I have the right to ... dress the way I want; to say 'no,' and be listened to."
The book explains why what happened at St. Paul's was so devastating for Prout, whose older sister and father attended the prestigious boarding school. Admission there was her dream, especially after Prout's family was uprooted from their home in Japan following a serious earthquake.
She quickly learned about St. Paul's darker side: intense social hierarchies with deep roots in the school's history as an all-male institution.
"I would quickly learn that boys at this school felt entitled to stake a claim to things that were not their own, including girls' bodies," she writes. "I struggled to make sense of it all at the time, because the behavior was so normalized, woven into the fabric of St. Paul's."
(In a statement after the book's release, St. Paul's said Prout "misrepresents" the school's culture. Earlier this year, the school settled a civil lawsuit filed by Prout's parents.)
Abelson reported on similar institutionalized behavior during an investigation into sexual misconduct in private schools that uncovered "pervasive sexism and entitlement that enabled male teachers and students to prey upon girls," she writes in an afterword in the book.
"School leaders turned a blind eye; fellow students shamed those who spoke out against this culture; and administrators, trustees, and alumni tried to silence victims. It was epidemic."
Writing the book was a journalistic investigation in and of itself, the co-authors said. Abelson — who took a three-month leave of absence from her job to move to Florida to write the book with Prout — said they relied on Prout's journal, text messages, Facebook messages, emails, legal documents and even college application essays as source documents. Many are quoted from directly in the book, including denigrating messages between Labrie and other male students.
As much as possible, they verified Prout's memories of conversations with those she had them with. Abelson said she would interview Prout about her experiences, transcribe their conversations and then "transplant them onto the page."
The result is a gut-wrenching description of the crime itself, the bullying Prout experienced at school, the difficulties of the legal proceedings and media exposure and her most innermost emotional struggles.
"I loathed acknowledging — in public — how the crime had changed me the things I tried to hide each day," she writes. "The ways I anxiously picked the skin off my fingers until they bled. How I bruised my legs when I punched myself to stop the panic attacks. I still dissociated, feeling evicted from my own body."
Prout said it was not until Emily Doe, the anonymous young woman sexually assaulted by Brock Turner, wrote her now-famous victim impact statement that she had heard anyone speak publicly about impact on survivors rather than perpetrators. (In Prout's case, St. Paul's students and alumni quickly came to Labrie's defense, including raising $100,000 for his legal fees.)
"That was so, so powerful," Prout said of Doe's statement, which went viral after it was released in 2016. "It's ridiculous how much sympathy a perpetrator can receive because they're being punished when nobody gives any thought to how the victim is feeling. Emily Doe forced people to recognize that."
Prout, too, forced a reckoning at St. Paul's that helped bring other misconduct to light. Last year, the school named 13 former faculty and staff members who investigators said were involved in substantiated reports of sexual misconduct decades ago. New lawsuits have been filed at the school, which is also under investigation by the state attorney general.
Prout, now 19 years old and headed to college in the fall, hopes her book will reach far beyond St. Paul's and be read in classrooms across the country.
When asked if she thinks the current high-profile #MeToo movement has changed the way we talk about and understand sexual violence, she was frank. Not yet, she said.
"A lot of times people talk about the sensational stories a lot more than the difficult stories, which are the issues that are happening in our communities," Prout said. "It's so easy to be a spectator and look at a celebrity and say ... 'I believe them or I think they're lying.'
"I think it really needs to be translated into people's personal lives — the stories that are happening in our communities, the things that are happening in our community to people we know,' she continued. "We should look deeply at that and challenge ourselves to do what we can to help support survivors in our communities."
Prout and Abelson will speak on Saturday, July 7, from 4-6 p.m. at the Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road. Angela Rose, the founder of national advocacy and prevention nonprofit Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment (PAVE), will join them.
The event is free. To register, go to paloalto.bibliocommons.com.