In The Female Persuasion (Random House, April 3), Meg Wolitzer writes her protagonist, Greer Kadetsky, into a moment of confusing sexual assault. After Darren Tinzler reaches out and twists Greer’s breast during a conversation at a frat party, Greer recounts: “It wasn’t rape…not even close. Already it was so much less important than what was apparently going on right now at other colleges: the rugby-playing roofie-givers, the police reports, the outrage. But over the next couple of weeks, half a dozen other female Ryland students had their own Darren Tinzler encounters.”
There are Darren’s repeat offenses, which are recounted, in detail, as different women compose a whisper network of their stories, much like the publishing industry’s Shitty Media Men list. There’s Zee, Greer’s best friend, who, as a 13-year-old in 2001, years before coming out as queer, listens to her peers append gay jokes to karaoke lyrics at her bat mitzvah (remember the “no homo” fad?). There’s the game a group of high-school boys play called Rate ‘Em, in which they rate their female peers based on their attractiveness. Greer scores a six. It’s a game that resembles today’s popular area-code rating system: a detailed guidebook of the rules resides on Urban Dictionary, but it is a scale in which the first digit is a score of the woman’s face, the second digit—a 0 is no, a 1 is yes, a 2 means “only under the manipulating influence of alcohol”—tells whether you’d have sex with her, and the third digit rates her body. Greer is three years older than I am—by my calculations, she was born in 1988 to my 1991—so Wolitzer’s novel had a way of prompting me to recall the early aughts in America through the age I was during each cultural moment.
After hearing the stories of #MeToo, I have what now feels like a whole repertoire of instances that occurred so quickly I could almost convince myself that they didn’t, and I know from personal experience that it is often easier to mask these stories rather than face what happened. As I recently tinkered with my Facebook privacy settings, for example, I found my blocked list. Lined up was a group of boys from my high school. It brought back a story that I tried not to think about because, as I told myself, it was so minor and inconsequential. During my senior year, a boy I’ll call Tyler, who was in my group of friends, started flirting with me over Facebook. After a few weeks of his messages, which were sweet and funny, I was at a small gathering at my friend’s house, watching TV next to Tyler, when his friend stood up, leaving us alone. Tyler then leaned over and kissed me. Everything with Tyler stayed above the waist; I had never done anything else. I had probably had a half a beer and I didn’t know how much Tyler had had. The following week, my younger sister, who was a freshman at our big public high school and must have heard rumors, or was harassed because of them, cried in humiliation, “He was hammered and you were sober!” I had not mentioned anything about Tyler to her. Soon after, boys started writing his name underneath photos of me on Facebook. I began avoiding them—eating lunch with my teachers, not going to social events where I thought they’d be, blocking them on social media—even though I still saw them at track practice each day, where they’d approach me and ask about him or call out his name when I ran by.
I recalled this series of events because it shares features with Chessy Prout’s story, which she recounts, in excruciating detail, in her new memoir, I Have the Right To (Simon & Schuster, March 6). Prout’s book exposes the impossibility of navigating the culture Wolitzer writes about as a young person, her story’s horror amplified by the fact that it is nonfiction. The memoir was co-written with Jenn Abelson, a journalist for The Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team and Pulitzer-Prize finalist; her past reporting has exposed sexual abuse at New England prep schools. It’s well worth a read. Prout was sexually assaulted by a popular senior named Owen Labrie as a freshman at St. Paul’s, a prestigious boarding school in Concord, N.H. Per custom, each year, senior students, both boys and girls, entered into a competition to “slay” as many underclassmen students as possible before graduation, which, according to court testimonies of the boys who participated, can mean anything from kissing to sex.
(Editor’s note: graphic descriptions of sexual violence follow.) Sensing an email she received from Labrie was part of the ritual, Prout initially rejected his invitation to climb a hidden staircase on campus leading to a view, in large part due to the fact that her older sister, Lucy, a senior at the school, had dated and broken up with him before Prout arrived. Once Labrie sent a friend of Prout’s to change her mind, she acquiesced. After seeing the view, they moved back inside, through a mechanical room, and he pushed her against a wall, pinning her arms above her head and then pushing her to the ground. As he tried to tug her underwear off, Prout mumbled, “No,” and pulled them back over herself. He then pulled the panel of her underwear to the side and stuck his fingers inside of her. After taking them out, he began to move downward, licking her stomach down to her vagina, trying a second time to pull off her underwear. As Prout again pulled them back over her hips, she laughed nervously and said, “No, no, no, let’s keep it up here.” After her plea, characteristic of many assault survivors, she froze, and she said that she next felt something pushing inside her—it wasn’t his hands, because she saw them on each side of her head. “He thrusted again,” Prout writes. “My whole body jerked backward. He was having trouble getting inside me and I could tell that he was angry. He paused and moved his mouth past my stomach and spit on my vagina.” Next, as she recalls, “I saw Owen’s hand move over my face to reach for something in his shorts pocket. He was back inside me. He moaned.” Semen was found on her underwear, as was Labrie’s DNA. In a Facebook message in the 24 hours after the event, when she asked if he used a condom, he said “yeah,” and then asked her if she was on the pill. When she said she wasn’t, he replied, “praise jesus i put it on like halfway through.”
This is where it gets tricky. While Labrie based his defense on the claim that he never had sex with Prout, he told friends that he had. In her memoir, Prout writes that though she told her friends she said no to him, she was still stunned when she went to get Plan B, and, when asked, told the nurse it had been consensual. When she went to get a rape kit performed at the hospital, redness and an abrasion were found inside her vagina.
Labrie was found guilty of three charges of misdemeanor sexual assault, another for endangering the welfare of a child, and a felony for using a computer to solicit sex from a minor. As Jeannie Suk Gersen, a professor at Harvard Law School, wrote in The New Yorker, the three convictions of misdemeanor sexual assault “did not require proof of non-consent but were based instead on the fact that the girl was under the age of sixteen.” So, she notes, “Even if the girl had sworn that the sex was fully consensual, Labrie still would have been guilty of these charges.” It is the same situation with the felony for soliciting sex through technology—her consent was not relevant to the ruling. He had to register as a sex offender, and Harvard, where Labrie was planning to attend, rescinded his acceptance. He was sentenced to a year in jail, and while he was appealing his conviction, he was given a curfew, but because he broke his parole more than a dozen times, he was put into jail.
Part of what happened in Prout’s ruling has to do with our changing landscape. Of this change, Gersen notes, “We are in the midst of a significant cultural shift in which we are redescribing sex that we vehemently dislike as rape.” Gersen’s statement sounds Cat-Person-esque to me, a sad situation of regret in which sex was not forced but not consented to either. It isn’t what sounds like happened in Prout’s case. Gersen continues on to define this shift in legalistic terms:
For centuries, the legal definition of rape was intercourse accomplished by force and without consent. Many states have done away with the force criterion, and no longer require proof that the victim physically resisted the assailant or failed to do so because of reasonable fear of injury. With force absent from rape definitions, there has been increasing pressure on how to define consent.
As a 26-year-old, my definition of rape, a definition that has been taught to me by the numerous mandatory training programs I’ve attended in orientations for college and graduate school, is that rape is nonconsensual penetration. It is a definition also provided by the first sites that pop up when I type “rape definition” into my browser—Miriam-Webster, Dictionary.com, the Department of Justice, and Wikipedia—imperfect but arguably the four most popular sources for a layperson without a law degree. The ambiguous shift Gerson speaks of is, in large part, what leads to the kind of gaslighting that Prout endured: a case in which she understands that what happened to her was rape but the jury disagrees. As one law-enforcement official involved with the case told a Vanity Fair reporter, “She did say no. She held on to her underpants with both hands. She didn’t know how hard to press. Compliance began to look like consent.” As New Hampshire state-superior-court judge Larry Smukler noted at the sentencing hearing, just because Labrie was acquitted of the forcible-rape charge by the jury “does not mean the victim consented to the sexual penetration, and indeed it is clear from the impact of this crime that she did not.”
Such ambiguity is the reason why I struggled over what to call the crime in this article. All nonfiction articles I have found call the crime assault and not rape, unless they say that Labrie was accused of rape, for example. The journalistic reluctance to call what happened rape is, of course, understandable for credibility’s sake because Labrie was acquitted of that charge, but it also demands a consideration of how the language used to frame the case influences both the public’s perception of events and our cultural understanding of what constitutes rape. I also imagine these rhetorical choices influence rape survivors’ decisions to come forward: to trust our judicial system to prosecute violent crimes. If these crimes aren’t prosecuted, it sends the message that consent is still not part of our legal definition of rape, and these crimes, of course, will continue to happen. If a jury in Concord, N.H., didn’t see Prout’s story as reliable, with all of her tags of privilege—her whiteness, her straightness, her family’s wealth and status, her education, her conventional beauty, the fact that there was no alcohol involved: all cultural signifiers of credibility—then what does that mean for survivors who don’t have the innumerable advantages these identifiers afford?
To be clear, though I’m not calling what happened to Prout rape throughout this article because Labrie was acquitted of that charge, if the abrasion in her vagina came from him, I do find the fact that he was acquitted of the charge troubling. Based on the nonconsensual penetration definition of rape, Prout resisted, both verbally (“No, no, no”) and physically (by trying to maintain her underwear as a barrier between her and Labrie). Prout herself maintains in her memoir that it was rape. It is also important to note that my perspective comes from researching the case through its news coverage, both on television and on the Internet, reading Prout’s memoir and attending her event, and court documents and video testimonies available online. I have not interviewed Prout nor Labrie—anyone involved in the trial, for that matter—to hear their versions of events.
Critical to understanding a culture in which crimes such as these occur, the case brought details of the Senior Salute out into the open. A deeply engrained ritual, there are lists: Prout’s name had been capitalized, a reason for which, as Prout’s story suggests, was the boys’ desire to get payback after Prout’s sister broke up with Labrie. There are also online messages in which the boys mapped out their strategies. In one Facebook message, for example, Malcolm Salovaara, Labrie’s friend, called Labrie’s techniques, in all caps, “THE LEBREAZEY SLEAZY METHOD.” As Labrie wrote of the method in another message thread,
then stab them in the back
THROW EM IN THE DUMPSTER
i lie in bed with them
and pretend like i’m in love
After encouraging Labrie to “break the slaying records,” Salovaara, two months before Prout’s assault, asked, “You slayin both Prouts in one night?” Labrie, who, two days after Prout’s assault, at his graduation, would be bestowed St. Paul’s Rector’s Award—given by the headmaster for the student who “enhanced our lives and improved the community”—responded,
that’s the plan
now that i’m in to schools
imma do absolutely whatever
And one month before her assault, in a conversation discussing girls as young as 12 years old—“HER PREPUBESCENT BUM,” Salovaara wrote, to which Labrie responded, “LOVE IT”—Salovaara wrote to Labrie: “MCCARTHY AND I ARE GONNA BE BAILIN YOU OUT OF JAIL.” When another girl rejected Labrie, he quoted Bo Burnham, complaining, “another dumb cum-bucket struck from my nut sucking, suck it slut, slut fucking bucket list.” Though after her assault Prout initially stayed at St. Paul’s for her education, she ended up transferring because of the harassment: jokes during school-wide announcements; boys, like those from my high school, who commented on photos of her and her sister with two words: “Owen Labrie.” That Prout’s assault stemmed from a tradition indicates how habitual and institutionalized Labrie’s behavior is.
As the memoir continues on, we accompany Prout as, even in the wake of her ostracism, other St. Paul’s students privately reach out to her about Labrie. After she is approached by one student who asks what happened, Prout replies, “I said no but Owen ignored it. His fingers were inside me and then the next thing I know his hands are above my head and I realize something is still inside of me.” The student responds: “Oh my God, Chessy, he did the same thing to me during junior year.” As Prout recalls this student’s story, “It was dark, she couldn’t see, and he was very aggressive. She told Owen she didn’t want to have sex. He had one hand on her thigh and a finger inside her vagina. She was okay with that. But then Briana suddenly felt both of his hands on her thighs and pressure inside her. She sat up and it ended abruptly.” We also learn that Labrie had a tendency to take girls to the noisy mechanical room where he assaulted Prout. Another girl pulls Prout aside and says, “I know I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but Owen did the same thing to two of my friends.” It isn’t clear in this case whether she is referring to assault or rape. Another murky whisper network, but it was too late. Prout, in sharing her story, is breaking even that silence now.
When I went to see Prout speak on her book tour, at an intimate event in Naperville, Ill., a member of the audience asked her what we can do to change a culture composed of, as we have been forced to see this year, the dark underbelly of sexual assault. Now 19, Prout, with extraordinary eloquence and wisdom, replied that until we recognize the gravity of the problem—that there is a problem—nothing will change. Once the lawsuit commenced, Prout’s family was promptly shunned from the school community. Besides Prout herself, who endured a level of Internet harassment truly disturbing, which you can still easily find online—filled with assertions like “lying cunt deserves to get raped for what she did to an innocent bro,” and photos of her family and their new house, where they moved after the case, accompanied by their address—Lucy lost her community, and so did their father, himself an alum of the school. St. Paul’s parents raised over $100,000 to hire J.W. Carney, who represented prominent mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, to fund Labrie’s defense, and Labrie is now trying to overturn his conviction, hiring new attorneys to retry his case on the basis of ineffective counsel. As she begins her first year of college, Prout will have to rehash her traumatic story again.
What Prout and Wolitzer do in their books is paint a vivid portrait of the impossible contradictions that accompany growing up female in 2010s America. Greer, Prout, and I are within 10 years of each other—we could be sisters. What’s more, because of our positions, we have a level of protection many don’t: all three of us are straight, white, and cisgender, and we either have a college education or, in Prout’s case, will receive one. We aren’t financially reliant on our bullies. Their stories show assault within the subtler, insidious instances of misogyny that constitute our culture: the rankings, the lists, the bullying that ensues after the rejection or acceptance of an advance. These authors illustrate how encountering these cruelties shapes the way their protagonists navigate the world, the people they turn out to be.
Wolitzer has said in interviews that she does not want her novel to be tied to one moment. But what is magical about literature is that it often roots itself in historical details of the period it captures while exposing questions—cultural patterns—that are timeless. Of course, the kinds of cruelties Wolitzer and Prout write about have been occurring forever. The difference is that today we have begun to listen to, and believe, these stories. Three different things happened in the stories I discuss here: assault, harassment, and rape. Getting definitions in order—lining up what is in the law and what is taught in school—will help make these distinctions, as will sharing stories like Prout’s and Greer’s in all of their challenging, nuanced honesty. The experience I recounted here is not as distressing as what Greer and Prout endured: it isn’t assault or rape. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t significant or telling or pervasive. Because of Wolitzer and Prout, I recognize now that it happened.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.