Book Review: What I Have the Right To Taught Me As an Ally (content warning: sexual assault)

I just finished I Have the Right To, a harrowing true story about a young woman named Chessy Prout who survived a brutal rape at the hands of an older student in 2014 in her first year at St. Paul’s, an elite boarding school in New Hampshire, and reported her assault to the police. She and her family dealt with hostility from her classmates, their friends, as well as Chessy’s rapist and his family; nevertheless, Chessy sought support from fellow survivors, and her sisters, mother and father stood with her through the entire ordeal of the trial against Chessy’s rapist. I really do not have words to describe Chessy’s memoir other than it is a much-needed discussion that still needs talking about even after it was published last year. It is a discussion about consent, the pervasiveness of rape culture and the “boys will be boys” mentality, and standing up for justice even when you are fighting your own injustice.

Since I am not really in a position to re-hash Chessy’s story in detail (because honestly, you would need to read it yourself in order to understand why we still need to talk about rape culture and consent, and frankly, I hope I don’t stress out any survivors out there who are dealing with their own painful trauma.), I will just make a list of what her story taught me I need to improve upon as an ally of survivors of sexual assault.

  1. Not conflating sex and rape. Rape will never be sex, no matter how much individuals may try to talk about it like that. I remember in my history class writing a paper on the psychology of white slaveowners in the film Twelve Years a Slave, and very vividly referring to the scene where Master Epps, a white slaveowner, rapes Patsy, an enslaved black woman, as a “sex scene”. The professor gave the paper back and gently told me to be careful about calling the rape scene a “sex scene,” but I still slipped up and, when bringing up the same scene in my Africana Studies course, called the scene a “sex scene” and not for what it was, aka rape. The professor said, “It was rape, not sex.” However, even though both of these professors gave me gentle reminders about the difference between the two (honestly, I am surprised they didn’t slap me for making such a stupid comparison between rape and sex), I didn’t truly understand that rape and sex are not the same until I heard that Brock Turner raped a young woman and then got minimal punishment for it even though he ruined this girl’s life and gave her permanent PTSD (the letter that the survivor read to her rapist still gives me chills because it truly shows how she literally cannot get her life back because he raped her). All across my feed, my friends posted “Rape is not sex. Rape is rape”, and only then did I finally wake up. Sad but true. My professors had told me time and time again to quit conflating sex and rape and yet I refused to listen. I Have the Right To reinforced the fact that rape is rape and nothing is going to change that.

2. Educate myself. Speaking for myself as someone who is not a rape survivor, I have to educate myself on rape culture because it has been so ingrained in our society for centuries and it still needs to change, even with the #MeToo movement. I of course have so much more to read on the topic, but reading I Have the Right To was just one of many materials I had to read in order to really understand why our society still has serious work to do in changing the way people talk about and handle rape culture (to this day, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, a novel about a female rape survivor, remains engraved in my mind). I remember one time asking one of my friends why the survivors of Bill Cosby’s years of sexual abuse never spoke up, and this friend told me that Cosby threatened them into silence so that they wouldn’t tell anyone he abused them. I still didn’t get this since I hadn’t educated myself enough to know about the power imbalances between the perpetrator of abuse and the survivor of abuse, but then when I found out about Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and other people in power sexually assaulting other people in the entertainment industry, it became a very “No, duh” moment for me, as in No duh, these women didn’t say no or report their abusers, because these people in power threatened to ruin their careers if they told anyone or said “no” to the abuse. This time, in another conversation, a friend of mine asked why the women didn’t say no when their perpetrators abused them, and this time I answered that it was because the perpetrator threatens the victim into silence, so the survivor of abuse feels like they cannot tell anyone what happened. I remember leading a training for young women and telling them they could easily say no if someone sexually harassed them or made them feel uncomfortable, and one of the trainees said, “Well, I think the right thing to do would be to file a complaint.” After reflecting on this, it made more sense to file a complaint than try to handle it by oneself, especially since I personally haven’t always felt comfortable saying “no” in these kinds of situations and even after saying “no”, the person kept doing it. As an ally, I must be open to learning and educating myself on how to handle matters related to consent and sexual harassment. After all, there are plenty of resources online, in bookstores, on YouTube, at the library, so I do not have to feel like putting in my own unfounded advice when supporting survivors.

3. Stand for survivors of all genders. Reports revealed much later after Chessy’s assault went to trial that the school she attended had a long history of sexual abuse of students, and quite a few of these survivors of the abuse were male. Men, women and non-binary survivors exist, and so everyone’s voices need to be recognized. Chessy makes this point very clearly in her memoir. Full-Frontal host Samantha Bee even has a segment dedicated to male sexual abuse, and a commercial where her and actor Terry Crews, who is a survivor and advocate for the #MeToo movement, tell people that sexual abuse jokes aren’t funny and that we have better things to joke about.

I myself thought about this for quite some time. I of course cannot personally say much about #Me Too since I cannot relate to everyone’s stories, but I have read and listened to experiences by cis-male, trans*, and non-binary survivors of assault, and oftentimes these survivors wondered whether they had a voice in the #MeToo movement since people assumed that all of the survivors showing up were cis-women. After watching the Gillette toxic masculinity ad a few times, I thought while it made a good point about how historical ideas of what it means to be a man have conditioned boys to demean girls, and later on, men to demean women, it overlooked the fact that not all assault survivors are cis-women and that there are many survivors who are cis-male, trans*, and non-binary, and their individual stories are crucial in having a more well-rounded discussion about sexual violence.

4. Listen and show up. Chessy’s family showed up every day for their daughter, and while it was painful to see her struggle with depression, PTSD and her classmates’ cowardice and refusal to support her through the case against her abuser, they still supported her along the way. Again, I am not a survivor, but I have learned from reading Chessy’s memoir is that regardless of how you personally feel about rape culture or the struggle of the survivor you are supporting, just listen. Show up. Do what you can. Even if you don’t have your words perfectly sugar-coated, sometimes the best thing is not to say much at all and to just show up for the person, even if it’s to just sit in silence. After Chessy’s classmates turned on her, some of them tried to save face by sending these super long-winded messages to her that basically spouted guilt tears, and in the end these messages were not supportive but instead narcissistic attempts to make themselves, not Chessy, feel better. But Chessy saw through their B.S. and knew it was time to let them go. If no one else is supporting your friend after their assault, be the one to show up. I am still working on this part myself, and have often times let my ego get in the way of my allyship, but reading Chessy’s memoir reminded me that allyship isn’t something you do as a means to an end, unless the end you speak of is ending the f’d up ness that is rape culture and the ignorance surrounding it. To be a good ally, as I learned from reading this memoir, you just need to set aside your personal biases and just do the work because you genuinely care about your friend’s well-being. Which leads me to…

5. Let your friend make time to deactivate from social media, focus on school etc., anything to help them through the healing process. This includes talking about other topics besides their trauma. Remember, they are human beings. I will be honest here: without thinking, I was going to send someone I knew who had survived assault an experience about someone who used faith to survive assault. While I thought I was doing the right thing, in retrospect, I am glad this person never responded to my email about requesting to send them the article. I ended up not sending it, but I am glad because after reading this memoir, I know now to be more careful when bringing up rape and rape culture in discussions with survivors. The painful ordeal that Chessy had to go through after the student assaulted her was emotionally exhausting for her, and she even mentions a time later in the book when Chessy is getting ready for school since it’s finals week, and her mom shares some words of encouragement from a fellow survivor. Even though Chessy listens to her mom share it, she is completely exhausted, and all she wants to do is focus on school. However, trauma inflicts long-lasting permanent damage, and the survivor can never fully recover because the perpetrator, by raping the survivor, forces the survivor to disassociate themselves with their body, stripping them of any security they once felt with themselves and robbing them of life itself. In short, rape takes someone’s life away from them, making it hard to sleep, eat, and do everyday things that people like me who aren’t rape survivors take for granted every day. I remember talking about classical music in a casual discussion one time with some friends, and I mentioned the sexual abuse history of several male conductors, and one of the friends interrupted the conversation to try her other friend’s meal. At first, I took it personally that this person cut me off, but then I reflected and remembered that the girl’s friend was a survivor, and what I said might have triggered something in her, so I am glad that this person changed the topic.

6. Be mindful about other grayish-areas of consent, such as hugging. On another level, reading I Have the Right To made me more conscious about even just asking permission to hug people. I remember this friend in school who hated being hugged, and yet I kept telling her, “Give me a hug! Oh, come on, lighten up, give me a hug!” even though she said “no” many times and she, in the end, begrudgingly let me hug her. However, when I met someone later on who was asexual and didn’t like hugging (not that all asexual people hate hugging), I gave everyone else a hug and shook hands with her on the last day of this program we attended because I remember she told me she preferred not to be hugged. After that, I try to remember asking people permission before hugging them. Early on, I would mess around and poke kids with my pencil during classes even when they told me to stop, or would stare in the halls at my crush even when they told me multiple times they didn’t want me staring at them. However, after reading I Have the Right To and also listening to people’s perspectives on consent and sexual violence (and after working in a place with a much-needed strict zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment), I am less worried about coming off as impersonal and cold when I don’t initiate bodily contact with everyone. Because there are ways of expressing affection other than bodily contact, and the best thing, if you want to avoid making someone uncomfortable, is just to ask if you can hug them. I learned this when someone I knew kept hugging me and asking for my info even when I told them I wasn’t interested in a relationship. Everyone kept telling me, “Don’t hug this person” and I thought this person was just being friendly, when in reality, they were still in love with me and wanted to be more than friends. One of my friends even told this person to ask me first before hugging me and after that I made it clear to this person that I didn’t want to be hugged anymore (I still don’t know if they have gotten the message). After this, I learned to ask for permission before hugging people and if they don’t like hugs, to either shake hands or just say a friendly greeting to the person. No one’s going to think you are weird for not being a huggy person, and if they do, then explain that you only ask permission because you want to respect people’s boundaries and that not everyone likes being touched.

7. If someone jokes about sexual violence, speak up. Many times I have not spoken up when someone would joke about sexual abuse. In fact, I remember at my high school there was a “national ass grab day” and everyone acted like it was the coolest thing ever. Even though at the time I just thought it was some inane made-up holiday, but after reading I Have the Right To, I wondered why neither I nor anyone else (let alone the principal or teachers) shut that nonsense down. Because it wasn’t just nonsense, it was, in reality, sexual assault. No one consented to having some random stranger in the hall grab their backside, and frankly speaking no one asked for there to be a day that, at its core, celebrates non-consensual touching. Now, if someone I know makes a joke about sexual violence or celebrates it in any way, I am going to speak up and say “hey, this isn’t funny. Stop joking about that.” Comedians such as Amy Schumer have found a way to talk about rape culture without making rape survivors the butt of the joke, and have instead made the cultural messages that young men receive at an early age (i.e. “You are entitled to sex whether or not the person wants it”) the focus. Rape isn’t something to joke about and in the past books, movies and songs have been terrible about addressing how messed up it is (Robin Thicke isn’t the only one, don’t worry, there are several others). However, Schumer’s “Football Town Nights” is a social commentary about toxic masculinity and how it has perpetuated rape culture. While it may seem like it’s making fun of rape (and Friday Night Lights), it actually, in the end, skewers rapists, as well as people in their environment, for perpetuating this culture of entitlement and power abuse. The writers knew they were going to be touching on a serious topic, so they proceeded with caution, as is evident in the brilliant way Schumer and her co-star Josh Charles, who plays the coach, execute the sketch. Watch below.

8. Do what you can for organizations that raise awareness of sexual assault. Volunteer, join a campus club for Students Against Sexual Assault, attend a production of The Vagina Monologues (its creator, Eve Ensler, started the V-Day Movement to raise money and awareness about violence against women and girls. I attended a production one time and it is one of the most powerful plays I have seen in my life), donate to organizations that promote awareness of sexual violence (I Have the Right To has a website where you can donate or volunteer your time and money to the cause). Read The Mighty, a site where people with visible and invisible disabilities share their stories about the challenges they face and how they get through the day when dealing with misunderstandings and the very struggle itself of having a disability.

I Have the Right: A High School Survivor’s Story of Sexual Assault, Justice and Hope. A Memoir by Chessy Prout with Jenn Abelson. 405 pp. Simon and Schuster.

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