Caitlin Flynn
September 03, 2016 6:00 am
NBC

People often wonder why the majority of sexual assault victims don’t come forward. And if they wait to press charges, many people are convinced the delay is damning evidence that they’re lying. Case in point — the high-profile St. Paul’s case, which went to trial last summer. The victim, who publicly identified herself as Chessy Prout in a Today show interview on August 30, waited almost one week before telling friends, family, and police about the assault.

Prout’s attacker, Owen Labrie, was convicted of sexual assault, but acquitted of the more serious rape charge. And despite the fact that waiting to speak up is extremely common for survivors, Owen Labrie’s defense attorney harped on it throughout the trial. Prout was on the witness stand for three days, and she recalled on the Today show that Labrie’s attorney asked her why she was so “hazy” in the days after her assault. “I looked at [him] in disbelief and said, ‘I was raped!'” Prout told Savannah Guthrie.

During Labrie’s trial last summer, Prout remained anonymous and news footage disguised her voice when playing audio of her testimony. Still, she faced intense backlash on the Internet — nauseating comments under online news stories slammed her and accused her of “crying rape” because she regretted having sex with Labrie.

People who had never met her called her a “liar” (and worse), and brought up the fact that she came from a wealthy family — despite the fact that her financial situation had absolutely nothing to do with the charges. Disturbing message boards popped up, revealing her name and her family’s home address. This makes it all the more admirable that she has chosen to publicly speak out, identifying her name and face.

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After all the online victim-blaming that occurred during the trial, why has Prout taken the courageous step of identifying her name and face to the world? Simply put, it’s because she wants to empower others and make sure no one goes through the painful aftermath of sexual assault on their own.

Prout’s campaign begins on social media with the hashtag #IHaveARightTo, and it’s already taken off in a major, positive way. She absolutely put herself in a vulnerable position by revealing her name, so it’s encouraging that the Twitter hashtags #ChessyProut and #IHaveARightTo have been so well-received.

In fact, there have been very few negative tweets and the vast majority of users have praised her courage and resilience. Former Texas Senator Wendy Davis immediately tweeted her support, while fathers of very young girls expressed their gratitude for the example 17-year-old Prout is setting for their children.

When Prout appeared on the Today show in an interview with Guthrie, it had been two years since the crime, and a year since Labrie’s conviction.

Now 17, Prout is remarkably well-spoken and poised  — and she has taken her trauma and chosen to use it for a noble cause. Prout said she was determined to return to St. Paul’s the following semester, but noted that friends turned their backs on her and the school failed to adequately address the issue of rape on campus.

Several months into the semester, she withdrew, moved home, and now attends a school in her family’s hometown.

Prout told Guthrie she was disappointed with the split verdict — Labrie was convicted of three counts of misdemeanor sexual assault and a felony charge for using a computer to lure a minor into sex. However, he was acquitted of three felony rape charges.“They said they didn’t believe he did it knowingly. That frustrated me a lot because he definitely did do it knowingly,” Prout explained. However, all she had to say about Labrie is that she hope he gets help and learns, because otherwise he’ll rape another young woman.

The only time Prout became emotional during the interview was when she discussed her little sister. She described hiding in her closet during panic attacks because she doesn’t want her sister to see her in distress. Prout says her sister will come into the closet to give her the “biggest hug,” and reassure her that everything will be okay.

A big reason Prout decided to launch #IHaveARightTo is her awareness that not everyone has the same support system she does.

Her family has been there for her every step of the way, and she says it’s been invaluable: “I just can’t imagine how scary it is for other people to have to do this alone,” she told Guthrie, “and I don’t want anybody else to be alone anymore.”

The campaign should also be praised for its inclusiveness. Prout specifically stated on Today that it’s for men and women, which is extremely important as male sexual assaults are often ignored or not taken seriously.

Furthermore, it’s not solely for victims — we can all help. The hashtag is a powerful reminder for everyone that, whether we’ve been victimized or not, we have the right to speak our minds without the fear of harassment. We have the right to not live in fear every time we dare venture outside on our own. We have a right to fully engage in life without feeling threatened or afraid.

For her campaign, Prout has partnered with PAVE (Promoting Awareness Victim Empowerment), an organization dedicated to providing support and resources for victims. In a brief statement written by Prout on the website, she emphasizes the right to say no, the right to spend time with a person and feel safe, and the right to honor her emotions during the long healing process.

Her ending statement is most powerful of all:

“But most importantly, #IHaveTheRightTo stand with you.”

Prout is extremely driven and motivated to ensure that no survivor is left standing alone, isolated, or ostracized. Joining the movement will only take a few minutes of your time — a photo (exposing your face is optional) or short video stating a right that’s important to you can easily be posted to social media accompanied by the hashtag. In fact, just using the hashtag #IHaveTheRightTo and expressing support will raise awareness to Prout’s amazing cause. And, of course, let’s tell all our friends, because getting more people involved will make the campaign even more powerful.

Prout says she’s been in talks with PAVE about working towards a women’s bill of rights, but the social media campaign is intentionally her first step. She wants to receive input from a variety of individuals, and not draw solely from her personal experience.

Prout is also eager to help fellow survivors feel empowered and say, “I have the right to my body, I have the right to say no.” Due to her courage, perseverance, and pursuit of justice, I imagine she’ll be busy working on the bill of rights in the very near future.

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