Shame is a powerful thing for victims of sexual assault.
It’s what keeps so many of them in the shadows, afraid to identify themselves and risk further pain and harassment — their motives, veracity, history, and clothing choices scrutinized and judged.
It can also be a weapon. Attorneys for St. Paul’s School attempted to use shame as leverage against a girl with whose care they were once entrusted. They tried to demand that the name of the student Owen Labrie was convicted of assaulting on campus two years ago be made public when the suit her family brought against the storied prep school goes to trial.
It’s hard to imagine a legal gambit backfiring more spectacularly.
Plenty of victims would have been intimidated, withdrawing their claims or pursuing them less vigorously. But Chessy Prout would not be intimidated. Faced with opponents who were trying to muzzle her, she outed herself this week, giving a long interview to the “Today” show.
Making her own name public, speaking out against the isolation of sexual assault survivors and the stigma attached to them, she blew up the school’s most potent weapon against her. She also put a chink in the wall of shame that isolates other victims.
“I want everyone to know that I am not afraid or ashamed anymore, and I never should have been,” said Prout, supported by her family.
Prout was a 15-year-old freshman in May 2014. Prosecutors said Labrie, then an 18-year-old senior, was taking part in a campus custom in which male upperclassmen competed to have sex with younger students before graduation. They said Labrie lured Prout to an empty room and had sex with her against her will. Last August, Labrie was acquitted of felony rape charges but was found guilty of misdemeanor sexual assault and other charges. Though the jury split the difference on whether or not Prout had consented to sex, the judge said, “It is clear . . . she did not.” Labrie is appealing his convictions.
The Prout family is now suing St. Paul’s, accusing the school of condoning the culture that led to Chessy’s assault. Their suit lays out just how concerned St. Paul’s officials were for the school’s reputation — marshaling a large and expensive public relations team to do damage control — and how unconcerned they were about her. A group of parents and alumni rallied around Labrie, raising $100,000 for his defense, while Prout got no help, according to her claim. She was ostracized when she returned to St. Paul’s and eventually left.
The St. Paul’s community failed Chessy Prout. It’s appalling but not surprising. If she is to blame for what happened that night, the culture at the school needs no transformation. If Labrie did nothing wrong, there’s no need to acknowledge that even stellar students headed for divinity school can show breathtaking misogyny. Nothing to see here.
But the civil suit argues there is yet plenty to see at St. Paul’s. No wonder the school’s attorneys chose such an aggressive approach to batting it away, using the victim’s name against her.
That name was shared at the time of the trial, among Internet trolls who connected the dots and savaged the teenager. They found her Facebook page and her sister’s. They posted her family’s address and pictures of her house.
Now, Prout’s name is everywhere.
It was brave of her, and her family. As she acknowledged on Tuesday, it’s easier to come out when you have a network of support as strong as hers (and, it has to be said, the financial resources to make your case).
Having launched a public campaign on behalf of victims of sexual assault, Prout seems determined to make it easier for others say their names, too, if that’s what they want.
But it comes at a steep price. What happened to Chessy Prout will follow her for the rest of her life, all of the ugliness within easy reach of anyone with a keyboard.
Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.