New Netflix Documentary Looks at High School Sexual Assaults in America

Sept. 13, 2016

By Meghana Kulkarni

Photo above: Daisy Coleman, Sexual Assault Survivor and Advocate

Girlhood is unique for each generation. Today, societal pressures are amplified by social media and smartphones increasing connectedness with peers after school hours. While this can lead to strong friendships and support, it also facilitates constant bullying and harassment in school and online.  In the case of sexual assault survivors in particular, social media has proven to be both a friend and an enemy.

Coming to Netflix on September 23, the film “Audrie and Daisy” explores this phenomenon and follows the two parallel experiences of U.S. high school sexual violence survivors in Maryville, Missouri and Saratoga, California. Both young women were assaulted by boys they knew and were filmed and photographed during the attack while they were unconscious. The videos circulated throughout school, and unfortunately, Audrie Potts committed suicide due to nonstop harassment from classmates. Daisy Coleman and her family also endured death threats and had to leave their town.

Daisy discovers a bit of hope when another survivor, Delaney Henderson, reaches out through Facebook. She reminds Daisy that she is not alone and urges her to speak publicly about her experience. Through the organization, PAVE: Promoting Awareness | Victim Empowerment, Daisy and Delaney begin their advocacy work to prevent sexual assault in high school.

Safe magazine interviewed Sara Dosa, producer of the “Audrie and Daisy” documentary about the powerful impact survivors’ stories can have on our culture and why sharing men and boys’ viewpoints on Audrie’s and Daisy’s assaults were critical to share, too.

MK: The film centers around the theme of girlhood and issues young women face. How do you think the experience of being a girl has changed over the last few years and how was that depicted in the film?

SD: I’m sadly no longer a girl, so I can’t speak from that level of experience. But I’m so struck by the fervor and virulent nature that social media has taken. The level of attacks and how cutting it can be in terms of tearing down the reputations of both boys and girls. I think in our film one of the most striking lines is when Audrie, over social media, says “You have no idea what it’s like to be a girl.” And I think that’s just so telling because she’s trying to explain to this boy – one of the perpetrators – just what it feels like. He’s saying “Oh this will just blow over. Don’t worry about it. People are going to be gossiping about something else.” So she’s trying to explain to him “No, this is my reputation, this is my entire world that is completely changed from this moment.” I think that happens, I think it’s always happened, but with social media it happens instantaneously and exponentially. There’s no way to really control it. We say in the film that we’re in the frontier world of social media right now where there are no laws and no regulations, or very few at least.

high school sexual assault and social media bullying

Online Harassment Daisy endured in Maryville Photo Credit: Tom Miller Courtesy of Netflix

MK: You also showed how social media could be used in a positive way: To bring people together and amplify the voices of these survivors. How can we create a more positive social media environment with less of the shaming and blaming that happens?

SD: I was so moved when Delaney reached out to Daisy because she heard about Audrie’s story. To me, that’s kind of like an act of sisterhood and created this network of strong women. Unfortunately, one of them did not make it, but Daisy and Delaney found each other over the internet and told each other that they’re no longer alone. Then they created, through PAVE, this network of other survivors around the country. It’s so powerful for survivors to feel like they’re not alone. For example, Chessy Prout just came out publicly against Owen Labrie with the #IHavetheRightTo viral campaign. There are a lot of ways to not just put your face out publicly but to create these lasting archives of imagery and people who are connected through how they’re surviving.

There are a lot of ways to not just put your face out publicly but to create these lasting archives of imagery and people who are connected through how they’re surviving.

MK: You showed Daisy’s brother Charlie talking about what happened to Daisy and acting as a role model as a little league coach. Why did you want to include his perspective?

SD: On one level, he’s part of her story, but also it was really important for us to create a realistic portrait of masculinity because there are a lot of perpetrators in the film. We have the footage of the perpetrators who violated Daisy, and we also have the interviews of the perpetrators in Audrie’s case. We really wanted young men to especially understand that we’re not saying all men are bad – but there is a right way and a wrong way to come of age into manhood.

There’s very much a lack of awareness of what consent is, what sex is, what it’s like to be a girl, all of those things. It creates a lot of complications as boys are trying to clumsily understand what it means to be a man. Unfortunately, so many boys equate being a man with having sex without understanding why consent is important. So you have Charlie who is a very strong role model essentially teaching these young boys, his little league team, that it’s not okay to rape and what healthy relationships mean.

We also wanted to show that boys can intervene. Charlie says in the film that if one person had texted him that night, “Why is your sister over at Matt Barnett’s house?” so many lives would be different right now. It was really important to illustrate the bystander effect in the film through him, too.

MK: You worked with a number of sexual violence prevention organizations throughout the production of the documentary. What was their role in Audrie’s and Daisy’s cases and in the documentary itself?

SD: Currently we’re putting together an outreach and engagement campaign that is led by Futures Without Violence in partnership with PAVE and many other partners that will also dovetail into a community and campus screening campaign. There will be a screening in a church in Oklahoma, a school district in Iowa and many other communities where people can, in a more grassroots way, connect with the film. Along with that, Futures Without Violence and an organization called Blueshift are offering a curriculum guide so educators, parents, judges, coaches, etc. will have a framework for engaging with…their kids.

MK: Going back to the film: We heard from Sherriff White who was involved in Daisy’s case. Why did you want to show his perspective?

SD: We reached out to lots of people, any kind of key player, to participate in the film. That included reaching out to (accused perpetrator) Matthew Barnett, his family and the other perpetrators because we thought it was important that all of these perspectives get factored into the understanding of these cases. We think that you need that kind of complexity to show just what survivors are up against but also to understand how the justice system really works.

The charges were dropped and that was an important part of the story we wanted to show. That created national outrage and most of the country felt that was an unjust move. Unfortunately again, once the case was reopened and reexamined, the special prosecutor also found there was a lack of evidence in moving the case forward. But that doesn’t mean that a crime wasn’t committed – it just means that there is a very high burden of evidence that must be provided in order to have a criminal conviction with these cases.

With Sherriff White from Maryville, the police officer we hear from, I think that in parts of the country, many people will agree with him. To us as filmmakers, we kind of saw him as one of the voices of rape culture so to speak: that blames the victim, that thinks of young women as liars after attention. So it’s also important to illustrate that this perspective is alive and well in our country and is a harder thing to fight against. It’s less concrete, its cultural and it takes a specific kind of cultural strategy to fight against that.

MK: An analysis of Justice Department data shows that less than 2 percent of perpetrators receive any jail time for these crimes. If stories like these continue to be highlighted, do you think more survivors will start seeing the results they want through the criminal justice system?

SD: We’re in a moment of leadership, and I think there are some very brave young women, and men too, who are getting us up to that important cultural place. I do think that the laws are lagging behind even though we’re seeing incremental change. For example, in California the laws just changed slightly to minimum sentences for rapists because of the fallout of the Brock Turner case. I think you can lead with cultural change and hopefully the laws will follow. This kind of leadership that these survivors are showing might encourage people to at least report, and then hopefully that might catalyze some shifts in the law. But I think it’s going to take a ton of work and strategy to get us there.

MK: What else should we look out for in the film?

SD: I think everyone on the team sees it as a character-driven film…and I really hope this approach will allow audiences to understand their personal experiences and then be motivated to action through their stories. But this isn’t a film that is going to tell you what to do or how to feel. You’re kind of immersed in their world and that can be hard for some people. But I think that’s ultimately where the strength of the storytelling comes into place. We’re just really grateful for the fact that they shared them with us. And let us follow them around with cameras for two years!

Watch the trailer here: