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Powerful documentary aims to provoke discussion around high school sexual assault

By Allison McNearney on September 23, 2016

In 2012, two girls were assaulted at separate high school parties on opposite sides of the U.S. In the days that followed, Audrie Pott, devastated and believing that her reputation would never recover from the photos and gossip, committed suicide; Daisy Coleman thought her perpetrators were headed for justice for what they had done. But after the charges were dropped, she struggled to survive the trauma of her ordeal and the backlash she faced from her community.

In a powerful and devastating new documentary debuting on Netflix on September 23, directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk examine the two stories of Audrie and Daisy from all sides — the experiences of the victims, testimony of the perpetrators, and the responses from their communities. While sexual assault on college campuses has been gaining a voice over the past year, the same crimes among the high school population have largely been kept silent. This can be attributed to a variety of factors, including victims who are afraid to come forward and cases that remain sealed due to the ages of those involved. But with the release of Audrie & Daisy, the directors and survivors who cooperated with the film hope to change the stigma and shine a light on this grave problem.

“It’s honestly been a long, crazy, wild ride,” Daisy tells Women in the World when asked what the experience of participating in the documentary has been like for her. “At first, I wasn’t so forthcoming with doing this film since people were following me around with a camera in my face. But after I learned about Audrie’s story, I decided that someone really needs to hit home with this and open this discussion.”

Audrie Pott was devastated after she was assaulted and believed her reputation would never recover from the photos and gossip that followed. (Facebook)

On September 2, 2012, Audrie went to a party and had too much to drink. After she had passed out, two boys at the party wrote vulgar slurs all over her body in black marker, digitally penetrated her, and then took pictures of her naked body. The violation was bad enough, but in the wake of her suicide, her parents discovered from her recovered Facebook chats that it was the idea that her reputation was ruined and that the gossip from this incident would follow her forever that led to her decision to take her own life.

Social media takes center stage in the documentary, as Cohen and Shenk examine how this emerging technology has created new issues for the current generation of teens. On the one hand, it is a tool that can make bad situations that much worse. “We were interested in not only the sexual assault happening in the high school years, but also where the social media bullying had gone on to a kind of really radically bad degree,” Cohen tells Women in the World when asked how they decided on which stories to tell in the film.

This community-wide bullying reached a crescendo in Daisy’s case. In January 2012, 14-year-old Daisy and her friend Paige were invited over to the home of an older boy. Daisy says the two girls were kind of the weird kids at school, and they were excited to be invited to the party of athletes. They had been experimenting with alcohol at Daisy’s house earlier in the night, and were encouraged to drink more once they arrived at the party. Daisy eventually passed out and was sexually assaulted; 13-year-old Paige was also raped, but she was awake at the time, and her assailant confessed to the crime. The next morning, Daisy’s mom found her lying passed out in the front yard, her hair frozen to the ground with a blood alcohol level of 0.1349. The boys had driven her home and left her there.

The backlash from the community was immediate after the boys were taken into police custody. Daisy’s brother Charlie tells the camera “it was one school divided” when he and his sister showed up the next Monday. The prosecutor eventually dropped the charges, saying he couldn’t prove the crime beyond a shadow of a doubt, and the fallout was extreme. The Coleman’s house was vandalized and Daisy was flooded with tweets supporting the boys and attacking her. “I wanted to fight back with everyone and I wanted, you know, I wanted them to believe me,” Daisy says in the film. “You begin to believe that all these bad things they’re saying about you are true.”

But there is a flip side to the power of social media. While many survivors were bullied by their peers and communities when they chose to speak out, they have also been able to use these same tools to create their own support networks. After hearing Daisy’s story in the news, another survivor of a high school sexual assault, Delaney Henderson, reached out to her over the Internet to make sure she knew she was not alone. This work has continued. “After all that happened, I was able to turn [social media] around, and turn it into something positive by contacting other survivors and making other people feel like they’re supported,” Daisy says.

Daisy Coleman (L) and Delaney Henderson have bravely shared their stories in the hope of effecting change. (Facebook/SFIFF)

The decision to make this documentary came from a very personal place for Cohen and Shenk, who are married and have teenage children of their own. “We got talking about how there really isn’t a good way for teenagers to sort of have a mirror reflected back on them about this particular moment in time where social media has such an important role in their lives and there seems to be a proliferation of sexual assault, whether it’s true that there is a proliferation or we’re just hearing more about it because of the social media,” Cohen says. “But we, together with [the nonprofit Futures Without Violence], thought if we could find a way to tell a real emotional story about these issues, wouldn’t it be amazing to get it out in the world just at this moment when there’s real paralysis around conversations of this nature.”

There is a paralysis around talking about these issues, but the documentary also shows a misunderstanding that persists. As part of the settlement of the wrongful death lawsuit brought by Audrie’s parents, the two boys, named John_R and John_B in the film with their identities obscured for the sake of privacy, were each required to sit for a 45-minute interview with the directors. Four years later, at least one of them still seems to miss the point of what was so wrong about his actions.

“I have definitely learned from all this. I mean there is a lot of different things that guys and girls think,” John_B says. When asked by one of the directors what he’s learned about girls, he answers, “I mean girls, you know, they gossip really. There’s a lot of gossip between girls. And, you know, guys are more laid back and don’t really care. So that’s what I’ve learned, for sure.”

“I think the broad answer is no, I don’t think they totally understood it…they weren’t cut from the same cloth. I mean John_B and John_R were variations on a theme and one was much more remorseful and kind of conscious of what had happened than the other,” Cohen says. “I think that what actually comes out of their mouths is as powerful a statement as their body language and how uncomfortable they are. We found that day to be the hardest and possibly the saddest day of production because…you just don’t get that much out of them.”

Currently, we do seem stuck in a cycle of violence that continues to populate headlines with these horrible stories of assault. One of the most recent high profile cases involved a Stanford student on athletic scholarship who was caught sexually assaulting an unconscious girl behind a dumpster after a party. Despite the victim’s eloquence in explaining why his actions were so devastating and wrong, the judge gave Brock Turner what amounted to a slap on the wrist — he was sentenced to six months in jail, but released after three for good behavior.

“None of it surprised me. I know that sounds tainted, and I don’t mean to be flip at all, but none of it surprised me,” Cohen says. “None of the reactions, none of his family’s reaction, especially his father’s reaction. None of it surprised us unfortunately. It felt like part of a cycle…If we don’t turn our own conversations around and turn a mirror back on ourselves and look at ourselves a little more seriously, whether it’s the corridors of law enforcement, the criminal justice system, who we are as parents, who we are in our schools, we’re not going to change this. These cases are going to keep happening.”

But there is hope as people like Daisy and Delaney begin bravely sharing their stories and starting conversations around these topics. Both women attended a screening of the documentary at the Toronto Film Festival for an audience of 600 high school students. Cohen says “there was literally a line out the door to talk to them,” after the event wrapped up. Daisy says many young women were, for the first time, revealing their own assaults to the two survivors on stage. They were also approached by young men, who wanted advice on how to react to and support people in their lives who had revealed similar experiences.

In this willingness to share and create a safe space for conversation on these issues, there is hope that things will start to change. In the aftermath of her assault and the failure of the court system to bring her assailants to justice, Daisy has struggled to get her life back on track. She’s now attending Missouri Valley College on a wrestling scholarship, and is a burgeoning tattoo artist on the side. One of her passions is tattooing semi colons on survivors, a symbol to her that their assaults are not the end of their stories.

At the end of the film, a group of survivors meets for the first time at an organization called PAVE (Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment). In a video she made for the group, Daisy’s final message rings out: “Since my friends didn’t stand up for me, I urge other people to speak out, because you can’t ignore an army of voices, and I would like to see others stand up for people who have been assaulted. Because the words of our enemies aren’t as awful as the silence of our friends.”


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