Editor’s Note: Shedding Fear and Speaking Out

By on May 30, 2018

In a community where a poisonous sexual culture has thrived, Jackson’s youth seek cultural reformation 

Nearly three months before the #MeToo movement emerged, Jackson Hole faced its own moment of reckoning.

“I had no idea what I wanted, so I didn’t know how to demand it,” reporter Sarah Ross wrote in a July 2017 opinion piece for Planet Jackson Hole. In that article, she exposed the toxic sexual culture that has long fomented among Jackson’s youth. “The boys I was with never asked. They pushed my hands and head where they wanted me to go, and after I had done what they wanted, the night was over.”

To be clear, Ross, a 2011 JHHS graduate, was not sexually assaulted while she attended high school. But she “felt constant, nagging pressure” to perform sexual acts, to place boys’s perceived prerogatives and pleasure above her own all before she knew the meaning of sexual coercion or consent.

Ross almost didn’t write that piece.

“I was scared to be so vulnerable in such a small town, I was scared people would think I was being dramatic, that I misremembered my own life,” she told me.

But one local woman inspired her to speak.

Ross drew inspiration from Claire Andrews, who at the age of 17 was raped by a classmate. Ross was struck that unlike some of her peers, Andrews somehow found the courage to press charges and speak out.

In so doing, however, Andrews paid a price.

In August 2015, when the case was in juvenile court, defense attorney Richard Mulligan argued that the assault “didn’t cause any personal injury” because Andrews was not a virgin at the time, Planet Jackson Hole reported.“It was absolutely mortifying to have something like that brought up that shouldn’t have been brought up in the first place,” Andrews told PJH. “Your sexual history doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter.”

The two-year case, in which the defendant ultimately received five years of supervised probation, took its toll on Andrews. “Everything in your daily life is affected by it,” she said. “My mental health, my physical health, my learning abilities, everything.”

That Andrews risked so much, shining a light on asymmetrical power dynamics among the valley’s youth, compelled Ross to sit down and write.

After the publication of Ross’s opinion piece an outpouring of residents contacted her.

More than 50 people told Ross they too were captives in the valley’s adolescent world of nonconsenual sex, coercion, toxic masculinity and misogyny. The response was so overwhelming, Ross knew her work wasn’t done. But she proceeded with caution.

Following the publication of her opinion piece, “some people I grew up with called me a liar and a bitch, questioned my ethics and my memory,” Ross told me. “It devastated me.”

Still, Ross saw a responsibility and an opportunity to be a steward of the many stories people shared with her.

This week’s 10,000-word cover story is just a modicum of those experiences. It is the result of a five-month reporting project in which Ross interviewed current and former high school students, educators, local and national experts and law enforcement. She parsed research and data and spoke to people positioned within Jackson’s youth cohort to understand what factors have compounded a problematic sexual culture.

Of course, some of the experiences she writes about are touchstones of adolescence—awkward moments when young people “didn’t know what to do next,” Henry Sollitt told her. “I didn’t know what the next step was … I had no idea what sex and relationships were supposed to look like.”

Other examples, though, point to factors uniquely exacerbated by this area: Jackson’s pervasive drinking culture, its risk-taking proclivities, the fears people confront speaking out in a small town.

The latter is why some subjects, years after graduation, chose to remain anonymous for this story.

Ross said there were often two particular reasons for their reluctance: either their parents still do not know what happened or they feared their assailants would disregard their stories, deepening the trauma they continue to bear.

During high school, young people did not speak out about coercive or nonconsensual sexual experiences because the social stakes were high, Ross explained.

After all, many were friends with the people who violated them.

Those stakes persist and make it difficult for survivors to speak today, perpetuating a dangerous cycle. Their fear and reluctance, “by default protects those who have hurt others,” Ross said.

But the people Ross interviewed for this story, no matter the depth of their scars, were largely uninterested in pressing charges.

“Instead, they crave a community dialogue about what went wrong,” Ross said. “They wish to bring these stories to light so that they, and their community, can begin to heal. They want a safe place where they can receive closure, ask for accountability, and imagine a different future for young people in Jackson.”

That future, Ross said, is one where speaking out does not mean you will be called a bitch or a liar.

About Robyn Vincent

Robyn is the editor of Planet Jackson Hole and Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine. When she's not sweating deadlines, she likes to travel the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow her on Twitter @TheNomadicHeart

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