Author Jessica Knoll went to a liberal high school in a progressive town in Pennsylvania. But when it came to sexual assault and consent, she said, “there was absolutely no discussion of this subject at all.”
Knoll revealed in a March 29 Lenny Letter essay that she was gang raped in high school, an incident she has since spoken about in front of audiences on her book tour, as well as in the media. Her novel, Luckiest Girl Alive, centers around a young woman who had a similar experience in high school and continues to struggle with the after effects years later. Knoll wrote in her Lenny Letter essay that she had been slut-shamed, even by a teacher, following her assault as a 15-year-old.
“Everyone around me shot me down and said, ‘That’s not what happened to you, you’re just a slut,'” Knoll told The Huffington Post.
“There were very few people around me who were mature enough to recognize what happened,” she continued, due in part to a “lack of education and understanding of what consent was.” This played a significant part in why Knoll for years found it difficult to say out loud that she had been raped.
Many of you have asked me about the dedication of my book, what it is "I know." I've demurred answering for a myriad of reasons that I explain in this essay, the link to which is in my profile, but mostly it was because I was ashamed. Today I am not ashamed. Today I am proud to tell you #WhatIKnow, in my own voice, in my own words, for the first time in seventeen years. Thank you to @lenadunham, @jennikonner, and @jess_lenny for creating the fearless platform that is @lennyletter and emboldening me to tell you what I'm about to tell you.
Men and women are more vocal about sexual assault now than perhaps any other time in American history. Dozens of women have influenced the culture by coming forward with accusations against famed entertainer Bill Cosby, and many fans and celebrities have shown support for Kesha, the singer who is trying to end a contract with a producer she said sexually abused her. Meanwhile, universities nationwide scramble to respond to students speaking out in unprecedented numbers about how the institutions have mishandled cases, prompting increased federal scrutiny and even attention at the Oscars ceremony.
Many of the activists leading the charge in the collegiate world say sexual violence rates won’t go down unless the U.S. starts improving sex education at the K-12 level. And without that education, high school students are much more prone to stigmatizing people who are assaulted.
“Girls who are sexually assaulted in high school probably have a much tougher road ahead in terms of the support they are given,” Knoll told HuffPost.
A majority of women who experience sexual violence are assaulted by someone they know, and research indicates that the attacks often go unreported. Knoll contends that most people still assume that a rape victim is “someone who is a shrinking violet and who immediately goes to the police after the attack — and if you don’t follow this path, then you’re lying.”
Indeed, HuffPost has interviewed multiple teen survivors who said their classmates bullied them and accused them of lying about their assaults, sometimes assuming that the claim must have been false if no charges were filed.
Some students are pushing back. For example, a group of girls from Tualatin High School in Oregon began anonymously sharing their experiences online after they said school officials made disparaging remarks to them. Several other young women around the country, who say their peers shamed them after they were sexually assaulted, helped form a new project called Safe BAE to arrange workshops in middle and high schools about consent and sexual violence.
“I think it absolutely helps to shift the culture,” said Ali Safran, an activist who helps high school and college students share what people told them after their assaults. “A lot of students haven’t necessary known someone who talks about being a survivor. Knowing someone that they can actually put a face to the experience makes them much more empathetic, and having enough of those narratives out there has helped to shift the campus dialog and will hopefully help to shift the high school dialog too.”
As more women “stand on soapboxes” to share their experiences as sexual assault survivors, Knoll believes the perception of “what a rape victim looks like” will start to change. She compared the potential effect to that of the “It Gets Better” videos created for young people coming out at LGBT.
“I can remember watching [‘It Gets Better’ videos] at my desk when I worked at Cosmo, and sitting there, crying, because I relate to this,” Knoll said. “If I had seen a video from women, all saying they had been slut-shamed and bullied in high school, it would’ve just meant everything to me.”
Knoll said she hopes to do her part with her essay, that and that someone will feel a little less alone after reading it.