/

Tokyo-raised American Chessy Prout fights for rights of sexual assault victims

by Takuya Karube

Kyodo

Chessy Prout, an American teenager who spent most of her childhood in Japan, initially felt a sense of powerlessness as the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault gained steam last year.

About four years before the movement evolved into a global force, Prout, now 19, was sexually assaulted by one of the most popular senior students at an elite boarding school in New Hampshire.

Fast forward to late 2017, and she began to see she was not alone in her experience. But she also felt overwhelmed by the scale of sexual violence.

There were “millions of other people who were going through and feeling the same thing as I was feeling and I could do nothing to help them,” Prout said in recalling her first reaction to the movement during her recent visit to Tokyo to promote her memoir, which details the assault and subsequent trials. “So for a while I felt really helpless and depressed that I couldn’t do anything.”

Prout said she was in a particularly somber mood around November, as it coincided with the time her memoir was in the final phase of editing, and her story had not yet been told.

To write the book detailing her life before and after the assault at St. Paul’s School in May 2014, she had to intensively recall her hardships.

After months of writing, she was weary.

But then she became encouraged and inspired by the countless messages of support on social media for sexual assault survivors, while mainstream media outlets also finally started to give sexual assault some of the attention it deserved.

Joining hands with other women who had stayed silent for decades, she has become much more active in telling her personal story inside and outside the United States since the publication in March of her 405-page memoir, “I Have the Right To: A High School Survivor’s Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope”.

During her visit to Japan, she promoted her memoir and spoke about sexual violence at a gathering at the International School of the Sacred Heart in Tokyo, where she used to study.

“I was the nameless, faceless victim,” she said. “Nobody cared about who I was or what I was going through.

“I wanted to reclaim my story” through writing the book, she said. “I wanted to reclaim my voice and I wanted to use my voice.”

The assault took place in a secluded mechanical room on campus as part of a ritualized competition among some upperclassmen called the “Senior Salute,” in which the boys are said to have tried to have sex with as many younger girls as possible before graduation.

Prout and her family, who relocated to the United States from Japan following the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake, did everything they could to address the attack. And yet they faced an unforeseen backlash from a wide section of the community at a school they had once trusted.

The book, which she wrote with Boston Globe investigative reporter Jenn Abelson, recounts how the school and her perpetrator denied responsibility by disclosing a number of messages exchanged between the parties following the attack.

In the course of a subsequent criminal trial that made headlines across the United States, in which Prout appeared as an anonymous victim, she continued to suffer in silence and isolation.

She said the 162-year-old institution, where her father and older sister had also studied, devoted its collective energy to protect the school’s prestige.

“They wanted to ignore the problem, ignore me and stay away from me as I was challenging the status quo,” she said of school administrators. The school settled in January a civil lawsuit filed by her parents.

The perpetrator, Owen Labrie, was convicted in 2015 of three counts of misdemeanor sexual assault, a felony charge of using a computer to lure a minor, and child endangerment, but was acquitted of felony rape. He is appealing his conviction.

To tell her side of the story, Prout first shed her anonymity on NBC’s Today show in 2016. The teenager felt she was psychologically hurt the most by the betrayal she experienced from friends and St. Paul officials.

Despite the trauma, Prout is aware she is “lucky,” as her family was supportive of her throughout and she was able to leave the community behind.

When asked if she has any advice for others, Prout said, “Knowing that what somebody did to you is not your fault and you have the right to heal in any way you want to and … being able to talk to somebody who one can trust (are essential).”

Before coping with the difficulties of the assault, Prout, however, said she was angry for a long time at her parents for making her leave Tokyo in the wake of the 2011 disaster.

She said that “Tokyo was the only home I really knew” after living in the capital for 11 years, since she was a 6-month-old baby, adding it was “a big culture shock” and took a while for her to adapt to an American lifestyle.

Because of the struggle Prout’s family had to go through after the earthquake, with her father having had to stay in Tokyo for work and the rest fleeing to Florida, she thinks they grew stronger together as a family.

Years have gone by since the family’s move to the United States. But Prout, who will be starting college in New York this fall, said she still misses Japan’s culture of politeness and “mutual respect.”

In addition to making efforts to amplify the #MeToo movement, she is now leading a social media campaign, #IHaveTheRightTo, to help empower other sexual assault survivors to seek justice, as well as teaching children about consent and how to respect other people’s boundaries.

Teaching these ideas in school, she said, is paramount because “it’s a fact of life” that everyone needs to deal with sexuality at some point even if it is not talked about in a classroom setting.

“I truly believe in the power of conversation and human connections,” Prout said.