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Story of the Year No. 1: Survivors speak out against a culture of sexual abuse

  • U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster thanks Chessy Prout for speaking out during “Voices for Change: A Conversation about ending sexual violence in NH,” a panel discussion at University of New Hampshire Law School, in Concord on Monday, April 17, 2017. Prout and Kuster were among the panelists. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz



Monitor staff
Friday, December 29, 2017

A culture of silence was shattered this year as survivors of sexual assault – both celebrities and everyday people – used social media as a platform to tell their stories and to seek support from others who had also found the courage to come forward.

The ongoing movement spurred everyday conversations about the meaning of consent and brought to the forefront a topic that many were too uncomfortable to speak about.

While many of the national headlines have focused on allegations against high-profile celebrities, small towns and cities throughout the country are also grappling with a troubling reality about the prevalence of sexual violence and harassment in their own communities. Boys competing in sexual conquest games on a private school campus, a state representative’s involvement in a misogynistic online forum, and the all-too-common harassment of women in the service industry are stories taken from New Hampshire’s headlines, but they could be representative of anywhere in America.

Increasingly, more women and men are emerging from the shadows and speaking out about the abuse they suffered, in some case decades ago. And as more people tell their stories, they’re paving the way for others who realize they’re not alone.

This spring, the Monitor profiled four women whose stories highlighted the deeply personal struggles victims face as they try to regain a sense of normalcy in their lives after an assault. The women featured in the “Unsilenced” series made the decision to shed their anonymity as a way to regain power, and to use their experiences to advocate for societal change.

Among the women featured was Chessy Prout, the former St. Paul’s School student who spoke out as a survivor of sexual assault for the first time on national television in fall 2016. Prout was a freshman in spring 2014 when she was sexually assaulted by then-senior Owen Labrie as part of a springtime ritual known as the “Senior Salute.”

Since going public for the first time on NBC’s Today show, Prout has been at the forefront of a growing national movement to end sexual violence. Her #IHaveTheRightTo social media campaign has gained traction around the world with millions of survivors and supporters proclaiming their rights and hopes for a better future. Prout has also completed a memoir which is scheduled to publish in March 2018.

As Prout continues her advocacy work, the private school she attended as a freshman has fallen under increased public scrutiny. In July, the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office launched a criminal investigation into St. Paul’s to examine how the elite prep school responded to reports of sexual assault and misconduct. The scope of the investigation spans decades to include reports of faculty abuse by students as well as cases of student sexual abuse. Prosecutors are looking into whether St. Paul’s endangered the welfare of children or broke a law that prohibits the obstruction of criminal investigations.

In launching their investigation, prosecutors cited a report released by the school in May substantiating sexual misconduct claims against 13 former faculty and staff members between 1948 and 1988. The yearlong investigation – commissioned by St. Paul’s and carried out by a former Massachusetts attorney general – found that teachers repeatedly took advantage of the teenagers in their care. Allegations range from boundary violations, such as love letters, to rape. A 30-page addendum to the May report was released on Nov. 1, and it names four additional faculty for the first time.

The announcement of a criminal investigation into St. Paul’s came on the heels of reports that male students were recording their relationships on a map and, more recently, a crown, raising questions about the culture of sexual conquest at the school, even after the “Senior Salute.” While the school’s internal investigations found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing, state prosecutors say they are reviewing both the map and the crown as part of the broader criminal probe, which is ongoing.

Phillips Exeter Academy, a Seacoast boarding school, also made national headlines in 2017 for disclosures made against former faculty members. The international law firm hired by the school to review allegations as recent as 2011 found that Phillips Exeter did not have sufficient reporting systems in place, and that the school community would benefit from increased education and training.

As these high-profile cases highlight the need for reform on school campuses, they also have some lawmakers considering whether legislative reform could be part of the solution.

But the spotlight shed light on the New Hampshire Legislature in other ways, as well. This year, top government leaders called for the resignation of a Republican state representative for his involvement in a misogynistic online forum that promoted the abuse of women.

Rep. Robert Fisher came under fire after the Daily Beastreported he founded a Reddit forum known as “The Red Pill,” where he commented that he had videotaped sexual encounters to guard himself against fake allegations of rape. Fisher, a Laconia resident, resigned in May amid calls for the state attorney general’s office to investigate him for possible perjury after he said under oath he was no longer involved in the forum.

A wave of sexual harassment and assault allegations have hit politicians throughout the country, including those in the U.S. Capital. In some cases, elected officials have resigned after being outed by their peers. Many credit the dozens of women, including high-profile actresses, who reported abuse at the hands of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein with starting a national movement, known best by the hashtag #MeToo.

New Hampshire advocates say it’s hard to gage the impact the movement has had on survivors in the state. What’s for certain, they say, is #MeToo has shined a light on the unfortunate realities of sexual harassment and provided a forum for all survivors to speak out.