Chessy Prout on Consent, Rape Culture, and #IHaveTheRightTo

Chessy Prout, sexual assault survivor and advocate, discusses her debut and the #IHaveTheRightTo movement with journalist and coauthor Jenn Abelson.

Chessy Prout bravely appeared on the Today show in 2016 to advocate for sexual assault survivors and to break her silence on the sexual assault she experienced as a freshman at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire and the tumultuous trial that made national headlines.

Prout has since continued to be a stellar advocate for survivors’ rights, starting the #IHaveTheRightTo movement and writing a memoir for YA readers with coauthor Jenn Abelson, an investigative reporter for the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team. SLJ’s starred review called I Have the Right To: A High School Survivor's Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope (S. & S./Margaret K. McElderry Bks., Mar. 2018; Gr 8 Up) “an outstanding examination of rape culture, injustice, and privilege.”

Prout and Abelson were recently touring in Tokyo, where Prout was raised, giving talks and providing safe spaces for women to engage in a dialogue about their own experiences with sexual assault. Below is their chat about the making of the book and what the future may hold.

Jenn Abelson: We did several speaking events with your dad at Deutsche Bank, where he works, and in Tokyo and Hong Kong. Your dad has been at your side since day one. How critical has family support been through this journey?

Chessy Prout: I don’t think I would be able to come this far without my family and friends. I cannot do this alone; having my family support me while I’m still trying to figure things out has been really great. I’m wondering, Jenn, how did you see the events in Japan, and how did you think they were going to play out?

JA: I was moved by the experience. Japan hasn’t had its #MeToo moment; I knew you would be supported at Sacred Heart [Prout’s former school], but I didn’t know how you would be received at some of the other events. It was really touching when we did the event at Deutsche Bank to see people so interested in talking and learning about this, [and] parents wanting to teach their kids. When we were at the office and women there were sharing their own stories of sexual violence, it was incredible to hear them say it out loud and tell [one an]other because we were in a safe space.

I feel like so many kids struggle with talking to their parents—and not every survivor has a family like yours. What’s your advice to those living in silence?

CP: I think a lot of times kids feel the need to shield their parents from their problems, and that leads to a lack of understanding, on the part of adults, of the social and cultural dynamics that kids face nowadays. I think [for teens] keeping an open dialogue with your parents, including small things like letting them get to know your friends, is really important. Otherwise, there’s this kind of wall that exists where kids may think they are on their own—and have to deal with issues on their own.

JA: We’ve visited a lot of schools together as part of our book tour, and one of my favorite stops was to a high school in Chicago, where the school librarian was so inspired by our talk that she was going straight to the curriculum director to ask for consent education to be added. Could you reflect on that?

CP: To have someone working in a school care about this topic is so great. Everyone should care. The more people speak out, the more schools will feel the pressure and need to change.

It was great to have that support at that school in Chicago; the warmth and care they had for their students was obvious. They also had so many social workers and counselors present there as well. That’s a resource that needs to be readily available to kids everywhere.

JA: Libraries can be such a sanctuary for survivors. They can be empowering places for teens to learn how to question institutions and engage in advocacy. How have libraries and books have been healing for you in your journey?

CP: I won’t even begin to talk about the dynamic at the library at St. Paul’s—what an unsafe place that was for me. Boys would harass girls who were trying to study or hang out with their friends. But back in Naples, FL, I was able to find a great sanctuary there. The librarian there was so open and willing to have me there to study and find quiet. Books to me have always been a creative escape, a reminder that the world is much bigger.

Now being able to say that I wrote a book is pretty insane. It’s my story, but having it written down and out there for readers to connect with is mind-blowing to me.

JA: This book isn’t just for girls and their mothers but [also] for boys and their fathers, educators, health professionals—essentially anyone and everyone. Why is it so important to bring men into the conversation as part of the solution?

CP: Sexual assault…is one of the most underreported crimes in the United States. The stats say one in four girls and one in six boys will be assaulted before the age of 18. People of all genders need these conversations, as anyone can be at risk. We need to talk about respect, consent, and how to find one’s sexuality in a healthy and productive way.

What has the response been like at your team at the Boston Globe and [for] your friends and family?

JA: I think they are mindblown as well. I think they are so proud of me, which makes me feel great; this is such an important story to tell, for young survivors to have a voice, to be empowered. I’ve gotten incredible feedback and my family has been supportive. My colleagues are wonderful and gracious, and when I have to bow out to go book-related events, they are incredibly supportive.

Working on the Spotlight team, I’m so grateful for this opportunity, and we’ve paid a lot of attention to this issue, so there is this real culture of wanting to expose wrongdoing and hold institutions accountable. Some of the most meaningful messages have been from people I don’t know, from girls who sent me messages on Instagram and Twitter [thanking me] because they didn’t have the words to understand what had happened to them, till they read this book—your story. And they are so grateful to you and your bravery, and I will always be, too.

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Della Farrell

Della Farrell is an Assistant Editor at School Library Journal and Editor of Series Made Simple

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