‘You Can’t Tell Me I Wasn’t Raped’

We were incredibly impressed by the latest issue of Verde, a magazine written and produced by students at Palo Alto High School (“Paly”).  Inspired by events in the news, Verde’s writers turned social concern inward and wrote about rape issues in their own community — among their peers.  Local TV news has covered the story, and we won’t be surprised to see national media coverage of this issue of Verde.

Paly students made so many smart choices in their coverage, starting with an introductory note, which includes a trigger warning for readers and an engaging look at the motivation and editorial process behind the issue.  They anonymized sources, but they also include voices expressing ideas that are difficult to hear. They focus on the big picture of rape culture, rather than investing editorial energy in reporting on specific examples of rape or sexual assault.  And they offered crucial guidelines — and a lesson in media ethics — to their readers: “You may know or think you know those featured in the article. Please don’t name names or speculate as to the victims’ or perpetrators’ identities either in conversation or online. Not only does it detract from the goal of proactive discussion on rape culture, but it can be  defamatory for both victims and alleged perpetrators as well. Speculation can quickly spiral into false accusations, which are damaging to people’s lives.”

Lisie Sabbag wrote the lead article for the magazine, and she answered a few questions about the project by email.

UPDATE: The San Jose Mercury News covered the magazine, too.

Why did you decide to devote an entire magazine issue to this idea?

After the rapes in Amherst, Steubenville and New Delhi, I knew Verde had to address rape as it concerns our own town. We didn’t plan for it to be the cover package at first, but after hearing the stories of several rape survivors, we decided this was something that people needed to read about. We postponed publishing from our last issue to give it the time and thought that it deserves. Other staff writers wanted to get their opinions out about the topic, and it evolved into a big cover package naturally.

Do you and your friends tend to agree or disagree on these issues?  If you disagree, how do you manage to stay friends and keep the conversation respectful?

I think most students can agree on a very politically correct view on rape when it is all hypothetical. Everyone was upset to hear about the rape in Steubenville, and no one would say it was that girl’s fault, but when it happens here, it’s a totally different story. Before writing this, I would distance myself in the same way. I would hear about a girl claiming she got raped, and be like “Psh, I know her. She’s just looking for attention,” or something else ridiculous, then go and share an anti-slut shaming article on Facebook and think I was doing something good. So yes, my friends tend to agree on these issues, but their own actions disagree with their words.

And I don’t think the conversation is respectful most of the time. While students are very smart and can have a respectful, thoughtful debate about rape when it’s halfway across the world, just look at Facebook the day after a big party, and you’ll see it doesn’t carry over into our real lives. People are cruel and mean when it comes to this subject, and they don’t even realize it.

Do you think this is an issue that teenagers and adults understand differently?  If so, what are those differences in their opinions?

Teens and adults definitely understand rape differently, and I think there are two reasons. For teens, it’s something very real that happens to their friends at parties, maybe to them. … As teens living in this rape culture, we have to think of it differently because it’s so commonplace.

The other reason would be the difference in information teens and adults have access to. When you’re younger nobody wants to talk to you about rape. You get the basic facts, learn how to be politically correct about it, but no one discusses the real life implications. No one wants to talk about the common occurrence of date rape, because it’s too real. No one wants to admit teens are affected by it, so people simply don’t talk about it and teens have to fend for themselves when it comes to knowledge about rape. And we all know most teens aren’t the most careful thinkers and this leads to rape being perpetuated in our culture. It’s kind of a chicken or the egg thing: which came first, rape or ignoring rape?

How did school leaders respond to your idea to publish an issue on rape? 

I approached writing this story very seriously, and started with a lot of research. I read numerous similar articles, took a little crash course on trauma reporting on the Dart [Center website], and had long involved conversations about absolutely everything with my adviser and the editors. We knew this story needed to be thought through carefully and done right, and I looked to the pros (journalists, specialists etc) to help.  When I had a near-final draft of the story, we started sending it out to experts like Deirdre Stoelzle Graves, the executive director at the Ochberg Society, and the executive director at the Student Press Law Center, who were more versed in this kind of journalism and its implications. They would send me back feedback, and it was great because they took it so seriously.

The big point where Deirdre really helped out was going more into depth about what constitutes consent. I had previously focused on what constitutes rape, and only realized after she pointed it out that consent was really the key. The other important part she helped me with was illustrating how the survivor blames themselves. Having done the interviews, I knew how they felt about this. I got to witness their emotions firsthand, and I think I didn’t realize others wouldn’t automatically see how they were suffering.

I had shown the article to family members and friends, looking for feedback, and most people would look at this story only through the lens of a high school publication, and asked me, “Do you think high schoolers should really be reading that?” or “Do you really want your name associated with rape?” But the professionals saw how important this was to get out there, not just in a high school, but especially in a high school. They gave me wonderful feedback, and helped me develop the story to be more meaningful.

When Paul, my adviser, informed teachers, counselors and all other staff about the upcoming story, I didn’t get any pushback. He let everyone know ahead of time, so they could be ready to field questions and support the students. I didn’t expect the principal to be too happy about it; I even thought he might try to [get] me edit it to not be so explicit. A teacher at Paly who read the story early on tried to talk me out of publishing the firsthand accounts, and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to publish if others reacted the same way. But I knew I had the staff’s support when the principal simply walked up to me on the quad and told me he couldn’t wait to read the full story. I know there were concerns, but I was fully supported by school leaders in publishing.

What do you hope this magazine can accomplish?

At first I thought my article had to have an innate lesson, like a parable. I wrote tons of drafts looking for this message and ended up showing them to friends and family. I thought they might see something I didn’t, help me uncover the message I was trying to get out. And they did, just not in the way I expected. Everyone who read the article came out with opinions, questions and their own unique point of view, and more importantly, they wanted to talk about them. I ended up having numerous discussions with readers, not about my story specifically, but about rape and our culture in general.  I realized that I didn’t need a specific message, because this article isn’t supposed to be preachy. This article is supposed to simply start a conversation and help people begin to talk about these things in the open, even question their beliefs and actions. Forcing my opinion down readers’ throats isn’t going to change anything, but Paly students are smart. I think if I simply help them start to think about something they will change on their own, and I trust my peers to make that change one for the better.