Rape, the way we talk about rape, and victims have been more prominent than ever before, from New York Mag's "35 Women and #TheEmptyChair" cover to the furor over the Brock Turner case to a recent horrific longread on The Daily Beast about a rape ring populated by pickup artists to the news that a judge just stripped professional basketball player Derrick Rose's alleged victim of her anonymity at trial. On Friday, Netflix entered the conversation in its usual inestimable way when it dropped Audrie & Daisy, an incredibly devastating but still-vital documentary weaving together the threads of two similar sexual assault cases that ended in very different ways.
You may be familiar with one of the girls profiled: Daisy Coleman went very public very loudly when it became obvious that she would not be getting justice by staying quiet and playing by the rules. In 2013, she wrote for xoJane about her struggle in the quest for justice in a small town where her alleged — legally, they have never been charged — sexual assailants enjoyed considerable privilege as they dodged responsibility for their actions.
This is why I am saying my name. This is why I am not shutting up. Matt put on Twitter something recently. It read: 'If her name begins with A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z, she wants the D.'
Coleman was harassed at school, her mother lost her job, and their home burned down. It was a grim reminder of the politics at play in small towns, where it is nearly impossible to be an anonymous rape victim, and where the social status of the person you are accusing determines whether the case turns into a nightmare. In the following months, Coleman struggled with depression and attempted suicide multiple times, adrift in a world where rape victims are treated like garbage.
The same year that Coleman woke up freezing to death outside her home, knowing that something had gone horribly wrong, 15-year-old Audrie Pott committed suicide after she was raped and her classmates passed around photographs of her unconscious, marker-covered body, harassing her unbearably. There is a particularly moving graphic at the end of the film showing a wall covered in a massive sheet of paper commemorating her life, inviting people to write down memories; I was struck, seeing how much of it had been filled in, by the fact that many of the people cheerfully signing it had undoubtedly distributed the images and bullied her at school.
Pott's case would have dead-ended like Daisy's, but for the fact that her parents filed a wrongful death suit that ended in a settlement. The agreement included the issuance of a public apology accepting culpability, something few rape victims are offered in their pursuit of justice.
Audrie & Daisy interviews many of the people involved in the two cases, including friends, family members, law enforcement, and assailants. The documentary pulls together interviews with footage of police interrogations, news coverage, and conversations with Daisy and other rape victims who are willing to tell their stories on camera.
It's impossible to put a number on how many cases like this happen every year. Some victims, like Daisy, become survivors, and others, like Audrie, do not. Sexual assault is devastating at any age, but for young women in an environment filled with people seeking to do anything to bring them down, it can become complicated with bullying and harassment — learned from the teachings of oh-so-mature adult society, which keeps victim blaming front and center, teaches men that "last-minute resistance" is just another obstacle to hurdle on the way to another sexual conquest, and refuses to hear anything against its pop culture idols.
People are fond of saying things like "You must watch this" about films like this one, but to me this always feels presumptuously preachy. I would highly recommend Audrie & Daisy, but it is not for the faint of heart. This is an extremely difficult film to watch, even when you know, more or less, what to expect. My stomach began turning within the first half hour, and it doesn't let up.
Sheriff Darren White may be Nauseator in Chief, and he is already becoming a bit of an internet celebrity for his role in the film. It's hard to pick just one moment when you suddenly realize that you want to pop him like a grape, but when he's asked about the video Coleman and many witnesses say was in circulation, but the sheriff's office hotly insists doesn't exist, he says this: "Don’t ever underestimate the need for attention. Especially young girls."
We see that the sheriff's attitude about rape isn't just after the fact — though he does get extremely hot under the collar about how people keep throwing the R-word around and everyone involved was of the legal age of consent. In multiple interrogation scenes, he's almost painfully buddy-buddy with the accused boys, taking a casual, down-home, apologetic, "Sorry I have to do this" approach. These scenes serve as a really bitter reminder of the fact that you can't legislate problems like rape away — the law is useless if the people charged with upholding it refuse to take their responsibilities seriously.
Conversations like this highlight the fact that culturally, we have an incredibly long way to go, that our young women are more vulnerable than ever before even as we're talking about sexual assault more than ever before. In California, the state where Audrie died, the state has banned revenge porn, mandated comprehensive sexual assault education for college students, and is thinking about dropping the statute of limitations on rape. Across the country, states are rethinking how they treat rape legally, as well as socially.
This is not a problem we can solve with an endless parade of laws, though: It is a problem we must solve through socialization. We must deconstruct the culture of toxic masculinity that makes cases like these painfully inevitable, must teach people not to rape, must also teach people that they have the power to intervene. If you want to watch a chilling expose and indictment of rape culture, or you just want to get really furious at the world, watch Audrie & Daisy.
If you need help managing the aftermath of sexual assault, call RAINN (800-656-HOPE) or take advantage of their online chat service, whether you just want someone to talk to or you need concrete advice about going to law enforcement. If you're experiencing suicidal ideation, or know someone who is, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-TALK).