Hollywood. Sports. Media. These areas have had, if not a reckoning, at least a dawning acknowledgement of the prevalence of sexual assault, harassment and predators.
Not so in the education sector, despite the fact that a majority of children attend school five days a week. In 2020, the Washington Post reported on a study from the Civil Rights Data Collection that found there were nearly 15,000 reports of sexual violence during the 2017-2018 school year. As the Washington Post writes, “The discourse around sexual assault has typically revolved around college campuses, where surveys found that up to one in five women experience sexual violence … But it has gotten far less attention in the K-12 setting, where administrators are far more likely to be unprepared or unaware of their obligations under federal law when it comes to handling allegations of sexual assault.”
In other words, there isn’t really a public media narrative around sexual assault that starts in the classroom and continues; or, regarding abuse that begins with grooming, manipulative behaviors that abusers use to gain trust over, desensitize and isolate victims. A new documentary series seeks to change that.
Produced by Vox Media Studios and The Front for Freeform, “Keep This Between Us” (available on Hulu next day) attempts to shed light upon abuse and grooming that begins in high school. Executive producer Cheryl Nichols takes a close look at grooming by sharply examining her own story, as well as talking to other survivors like Alisson Wood, author of the memoir “Being Lolita.”
Nichols goes back to her small hometown, talks with former high school classmates and teachers, and attempts to understand the relationship she had with her teacher which started when she was only a teenager — an experience which would permanently alter the course of her life.
Salon talked with Nichols about her story, grooming in general, and the documentary series.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and condensed.
Why did you decide to tell your story now, and in this way?
I decided to tell the story about five years ago when the Harvey Weinstein story broke. I immediately started thinking about what happened to me, and how I wanted to come forward, and frame my story. This was before #MeToo. I didn’t really have a frame for it, but I knew that I had never seen a documentary about teacher/student sexual relationships. I thought I might be the person to talk about this.
“We moved forward, and started discovering how big this problem was, and how many other girls this had happened to.”
I’m a filmmaker. That’s the space that I’m most comfortable telling stories … For me, it was as the #MeToo movement progressed, and women came forward, and they were speaking about what happened to them, I thought: I really want to take a deep dive into this. Since I’m just starting to uncover what happened to me, and think about it in a different way, I thought it would be interesting to tell this story cinematically as it’s happening to me, so that people can see what the process is of coming forward.
One of the strengths of the series is that it’s not just your story, it’s also the story of other women who were groomed as children. How did you feel when you found other women who were willing to stand up, and talk about what had happened to them? Like Heaven Rubin, who is in the midst of a court case involving her former teacher and alleged sexual battery?
I started this process out by myself. I’ve held onto this information for a long time. I wasn’t the only person alone who experienced this, but I definitely didn’t really speak to them about it. I felt really alone for many, many years. For the first part of making this documentary, it was just me and my partner, Ari [Basile]. As we moved forward, and started discovering how big this problem was, and how many other girls this had happened to, I realized how I was not unique in my experience. That feeling, for me, was comforting because it allowed me to reframe the things that had happened to me in a way that was more about me being out of control of the situation, rather than being responsible for the situation.
When I met Heaven, that was something that I immediately could connect with her on because she’s so freshly out of this experience. It was almost like I was able to reframe that experience in the moment, and reparent myself, and relive it when she was sitting in front of me, because I was able to see myself in her.
That leads into a question I wanted to ask. The documentary also talks about how our culture struggles with seeing teenage girls as children, which they actually are, and that even you had difficulty thinking of yourself as a child. Can you talk about that?
It’s something that I think we probably talk about maybe too much in the documentary, because it’s really important to me. It’s the thing of teenage girls being girls. They’re children. Teenagers are trying to become adults. They’re trying to see themselves as adults, and it’s up to us as adults to see the teenagers as children, and to guide them.
“The word victim is one word that is used to squash women a lot.”
Teenagers, in a way, are in sort of the most vulnerable position, because they’re in that in-between space. I know for myself, I wanted to be grown up so bad. I just wanted to be grown up, and out of the house, and living my little artistic life, and I could see it. It was so easy for this person to pluck me out of that, to tell me the things that I wanted to hear, and then to guide me in the direction that he wanted me to be. For me, really nailing the idea that teenagers are not burgeoning adults, that they are children, and that they need our guidance, is the most important thing. [It’s] about reframing the entire narrative of how we actually see teenage girls, and how we interact with them as adults.
I also think the documentary does a good job of explaining the idea of victim blaming, and why that might happen, how other girls and women are conditioned to blame the victim rather than the abuser. Can you talk about how you were victim blamed even by your classmates?
This happened a lot in my school. I was not the only person. It was an insidious problem. I think that sometimes the victim blaming for me was coming from a place of girls not wanting to feel like they were victims, that they were weak. The word victim is one word that is used to squash women a lot. You’re a victim: somehow you’re not worth a career or anything. That you have to rise above victimhood. I think sometimes the victim blaming amongst the girls at my school was really just about self-preservation. I think sometimes that’s a lot of why we point the fingers at each other, and why we say, ‘Well, I wasn’t the victim. This happened to me, but I’m okay.’ We don’t want to believe that we’re not okay. It’s difficult to process that in a bubble, which is what you have to do when you are a victim. You’re alone.
Keep This Between Us (Freeform)Honestly, something that I really learned in this documentary is how to extend my compassion to people that I felt had hurt me, or weren’t coming forward, or I felt like had victim blamed me at some point, because we’re all sort of just trying to survive this experience that really is done to us, is not our own responsibility.
Everybody reacts to trauma in a different way. You go into some of the ways people respond.
Teenage girls are kids. Kids act like s***. They’re learning how to be communicative and adults, and it’s okay for teenagers to point the finger at each other. It’s our job as adults to say, “Hey, this is why this is not okay. This is how you apologize. This is how you accept responsibility.” … That’s the problem here is that we treat the teenagers, who get into these situations, the same way that we treat the adults who created the situation.
Why hasn’t there been action on abuse and grooming in education? Not that there’s exactly been a reckoning, but at least we’re having conversations about these issues in other areas like Hollywood and sports. Why haven’t we talked about it in education so much yet, do you think?
I wondered that the entire time, and I don’t know that I totally have an answer. I have lots of ideas. I think there are a lot more moving parts in the educational system. I think that there are a lot of people who have interest in taking care of their own. I think that there is a huge conservative element to this, which is people don’t want to deal with this kind of shame.
There is a lot of shame associated with teenage girls being abused by their teachers. I think there’s part of it that’s the whole cover up, and the conspiracy about what is actually happening, and the whole passing the trash aspect. We all know what that means now. It’s become so ubiquitous, that term. There is that aspect of it. I’m not meaning to diminish that that’s a huge part of this, but I think there is another part, which is the biggest part: the shame.
“Our society puts so much judgment on the girls.”
It’s why the administrations go to the parents, and say, “We know that this is happening. We don’t want this splashed on the news. You don’t want to shame your daughter. You don’t want your daughter to lose her scholarship, so let’s just pass this teacher on to another school, and just call it good.” That’s why it continues to happen. I think a lot of that is because our society puts so much judgment on the girls. The girls feel like they have so much to lose by coming forward, that it’s better just to shove this under the rug.
The biggest thing that I’m trying to change is [to emphasize] you’re not bad, you’re not dirty, you’re not a slut. You didn’t do anything wrong. [It’s] the person that did the thing that’s wrong. That’s what I’m trying to change.
One of the things that I think will always stick with me is how the documentary conceptualizes what happens long term when you’re groomed as a child. How it impacts your whole life. What does someone lose when they’re groomed this way?
The things that I learned when I was in high school were things that had to be sometimes unlearned in college. The way that I learned about history, or the way that I learned about how to relate to other people in my small community. Those were things that when I went to college, I learned, “Oh, I didn’t…” — my teachers were maybe teaching a certain kind of history. Maybe these things weren’t true. That same thing is the exact thing that happens when you’re groomed. You’re being taught things when your mind is malleable. Those things stick with you until you unlearn them.
The problem is that we don’t have a lot of models for unlearning grooming as adult women. In fact, we’re greater groomed by society because they take the way that we are groomed to be polite, or to defer to men, or to be pretty, or whatever it is that we need to be for society — they take those things and they build on them. This has been happening for so long that I think when the #MeToo movement came around, that was really one of the first times that we realized how deeply this was ingrained in us as children.
For me, being groomed in this particular way as a child, made me believe that I was in service to my male sexual partners. Maybe that’s a sensational thing to say, but I did not understand how to honor myself in those kinds of ways. That philosophy then extended to what I believed I was emotionally entitled to in a relationship. It extended to what I thought I was entitled to in my career, and the way that I interact with my male peers, and I am in a male dominated field; I’m a film director. Once I started realizing how deeply this thing was ingrained in every single one of my interactions, it was depressing for me. It was overwhelming. It took me a long time to unravel. I’m still unraveling it. I think there’s something to be said about us being groomed by society, but so much of it was to do with how one person isolated me, and then told me what he thought was the way that I should relate to my sexual partners, and to the greater world.
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Your reality is shaped in a certain way by a certain person with power over you. It takes a long time to unlearn that shaping.
Yeah. Do I say this because he told me I should? Do I like this kind of music because he liked it? Every single part of your personality is called into question. You don’t really understand that until you’ve been groomed as a kid. You don’t understand what that feels like. To call your entire person into question.
“Keep This Between Us” is streaming on Freeform and next day on Hulu. Watch a trailer below via YouTube: