On Cyberbullying, Consent, And Rape Culture: A Q&A With The Filmmakers And Subject Of Audrie & Daisy

The doc, which premieres on Netflix tonight and in theaters, centers on the horrifying sexual assaults — and their equally harrowing aftermaths — of Audrie Pott and Daisy Coleman

In 2012, Audrie Pott, a high school sophomore in Saratoga, California, drank too much at a party, passed out, and was sexually violated by three of her male friends, who scrawled lewd messages all over her unconscious body, stuck a foreign object inside of her, took photos of her in this state, and distributed them all over their high school. Pott, overwhelmed with fear and confusion and taunted relentlessly by her classmates, hung herself a week later.

That same year, Daisy Coleman and her best friend, Paige Parkhurst, both high school freshmen in Maryville, Missouri, headed to the house of one of Coleman’s older brother’s friends, who served the girls multiple shots of alcohol, waited until they were nearly unconscious, raped both of them, then dumped a sobbing Coleman on her lawn. Her parents found her the next morning, nearly frozen to death.

The boys who assaulted Pott received a slap on the wrist, serving 30 days — weekends only — in juvenile detention. While Parkhurst’s rapist confessed, Coleman — whose accused rapist was a star high school athlete and the son of an influential congressman and insisted their encounter was consensual — was deemed a liar and a slut; the entire community turned against her family, eventually burning down their home and forcing them out of town. In the following years, she too attempted to take her own life multiples times.

Audrie & Daisy, a new doc from directors Jon Shenk and Bonni Cohen that premieres tonight on Netflix and in theaters, centers on both of these horrifying sexual assaults and their equally harrowing aftermaths. The directors interview Pott’s grief-stricken family, Coleman’s family, members of the Maryville community who still place the blame on Coleman, and Coleman herself, as she works to rebuild her life and reach out to other victims of sexual assault. The doc explores and indicts us all — parents, teens, lawmakers — in upholding a rape culture that places the onus on women to protect themselves while absolving men of all responsibility. It’s a difficult but important watch, and one that, somehow, ends on a hopeful note. MTV News caught up with Coleman, Cohen, and Shenk the day before the doc’s premiere to talk about consent, sexual violence, cyberbullying, the failures of our legal system, and what we can all do to prevent stories like Audrie’s and Daisy’s from repeating themselves.

[This article discusses potentially triggering topics, including sexual assault and suicide. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]

First of all, Daisy, I think it’s incredibly brave what you’re doing — coming out publicly with your story in the first place, then agreeing to do this movie, and now talking to the press about all of it. Was there ever a moment you considered not doing this film, or not rescinding your right to anonymity as a rape victim?

Daisy Coleman: I think after the first time Bonni and Jon shot with me, I really didn’t want to go forward with the film, because they had me run out on the track and it was 100 degrees and I thought I was gonna die [laughs]. I thought filming the rest of the documentary was gonna be like that, and I felt like I was done with the media, and my case was already closed. But after I heard about Audrie’s story, that’s when I decided to go full force with the film.

When did you hear her story?

Coleman: I think it was a couple months in. [Bonni and Jon] asked me if I knew about the girl Audrie Pott from California, and I said I’d heard a little bit about her case, how she was assaulted and she was drunk and couldn’t remember anything. At the time I didn’t know she committed suicide, and she never really got to tell her story. So that’s when I felt strongly about it.

What about the decision to tell your story initially? You had the option of remaining anonymous, but you chose not to do that.

Coleman: Well, I had kind of already decided I had nothing to lose, really, and there was no point in me not doing it. The whole town of Maryville already knew my name. I didn’t really understand it would blow up that big [nationally], I didn’t think it would be such a huge deal if some people knew who I was or what my case was. If you watch the film, you’ll see some of the comments people were making about me in Maryville on Twitter and Facebook. There were kids in the school who’d jump out of their classrooms and yell stuff at me, or when I was walking down the hallway. Everybody basically knew the whole situation.

Bonni and Jon, why’d you choose these two stories in particular to focus on?

Bonni Cohen: When we started exploring communities around the country where there was a sexual assault at the high-school level, and an onslaught of social-media bullying as the aftermath, there were really only a handful of cases in the country where girls had come forward with their names. We looked at Steubenville, whose case had a Jane Doe, and we didn’t feel like we wanted to go forward with the film unless we could speak with the families and the girls and really tell an intimate story. Otherwise we knew we wouldn’t reach teenagers.

Obviously Daisy’s case had a huge amount of press; we live an hour north of where Audrie Pott was from, so we knew about that case as well. We had the ability to drive down and talk with the Pott family, and we flew to Missouri to meet with Daisy and her family. And once we started talking to them, there was an eerie similarity between their stories that, from a film perspective, felt like a poetic opportunity — to have these two girls, one who was no longer alive and one who was struggling to build her life back together, speak as one and speak for all of these other girls around the country going through this. That’s how we began, and we weren’t quite sure how it would work as a film structure, but in the end I think it worked quite well to have Audrie’s story as a cautionary tale before you head into Daisy’s much longer story, in which she’s rebuilding her life and connecting with other girls and finding power and strength in that. Then you come back and finish with the echoes of what’s happening in the Pott case, and how terribly sad it is for her parents to have to go on.

This is obviously an extremely sensitive and difficult thing to ask a young woman — or any woman — to talk about, especially on camera. Why do you think Daisy and the Pott family trusted you?

Cohen: Patience. Returning.

Jon Shenk: One thing is that Bonni and I are parents with teenagers. We genuinely — we haven’t gone through what the Colemans have gone through — but we felt for them, navigating the waters of what it meant to be a teenager these days. So we were able to go to Daisy as a mom and a dad and talk to the Potts as a parent. We also told them, “Look, we’re not a magazine news show who will show up here once and disappear. We’re gonna come back and come back again.”

Cohen: Maybe Daisy was hoping we wouldn’t come back again … [Laughs.]

Shenk: We have the luxury of time that quick-turnaround journalists don’t have. We spent over two years on this story, and we really wanted to see it from Daisy and the Potts’ perspectives.

Daisy, you must have had people coming to you asking to talk about your rape and the subsequent fallout for years. Why now, why these filmmakers?

Coleman: I definitely had a lot of people reaching out to me to tell my story [because I wasn’t anonymous]. A lot of the girls at PAVE [a nonprofit that works to prevent sexual assault and heal survivors that Daisy is a part of], they’re people that chose not to be anonymous, too, so meeting them was really gratifying, knowing that there were other women out there willing to be not anonymous so they could help other people. Once I learned how closely [Jon and Bonni] were working with the Pott family, I decided I could genuinely trust them, if a family with a daughter who isn’t even present could trust them.

What about Audrie’s story moved you?

Coleman: There’s a lot of almost ironic connections between Audrie and my case. After meeting her mother, I learned that she’s a lot like I was, who I am today, even. I feel like after meeting Audrie’s mom, the reason she wasn’t able to talk about it is because she never got the chance to. People started bullying her before she got the chance to use her voice. Whereas in my case, people started bullying me after coming forward.

What do you think might have helped her get to where you are now, if anything?

Coleman: I don’t know. I feel like maybe if there was just some chance of hope for her — her mom talks about how she’s very private and doesn’t really like being vocal or anything in the first place, but I feel like if she had somebody to look up to who was very vocal about things that were done to them, she may have had the hope to realize what was done to her was not her fault.

What do you want young women and men to take away from this movie?

Coleman: If anything, I really hope it opens up the discussion about sexual violence in our nation. It’s something that’s commonly swept under the rug, and it seems like such a taboo and awkward subject for even parents to talk about with their own kids, and I hope it makes it more comfortable for people to talk about, because they have this platform to go off of now.

Have you seen any of that happening yet? Have you had people approach you after seeing the film to talk about this stuff?

Coleman: Oh, yeah. After a showing in Toronto, there was a group of 600 high school kids, and there was literally a line of young men and women waiting to talk to me and Delaney [Henderson, another rape victim and advocate in the film]. It was really gratifying to know we were helping that many people.

What were they asking you?

Coleman: Surprisingly enough, a lot of them told us that we were the first people they told about their case. That was really powerful. A lot of men came forward and said, “Someone came to me about how they were assaulted and I just didn’t know how to react, but now I do, because of your film.” It’s good to know we’re actually educating while letting people know that this discussion needs to be open.

This movie grapples with so many horrifying things at once: cyberbullying, consent and rape culture, victim blaming. Each of the issues compound and feed into the others, and it’s a lot to take in — it almost feels impossible to get your arms around all of these problems, much less solve them. Do you guys see a way out?

Cohen: There’s definitely a way out, but we have to come together as a society and work at it. The key to the whole thing is early and frequent education. Getting into a middle school and talking to girls and boys about respect, how to treat each other, social-media use. There’s a curriculum getting developed around the film, and it may become part of core curriculum in certain states.

What is it, exactly?

Cohen: That’s a long story, but we’ve been working with an organization called Futures Without Violence, and they do all of this really cool programming and work educating boys and girls around issues of sexual violence. Along with some curriculum developers, they’re developing specific discussion guides around the film, and breakouts about social media in particular.

Shenk: We’re launching it all at audrieanddaisy.com today with the film. Basically anybody can watch and teach the film.

This movie coincides, timing-wise but also subject-wise, with the Brock Turner rape case and his subsequent lenient sentencing. Now he’s going on this speaking tour to address “drinking and promiscuity.” Daisy, I’m curious about your thoughts on this “tour.”

Coleman: I mean, is he able to eat steak again? I have so many things to say about him. It’s an absolute absurdity that he thinks he has even the intellect to preach about promiscuity and drinking, especially when he was the one promoting promiscuity that night. It’s obnoxious that he thinks his snacks are more important than someone else’s life.

Shenk: If a girl gets assaulted, it’s not because she was drunk. It’s because somebody decided to assault her. The idea of blaming alcohol or drugs or quote-unquote “promiscuity” is a false path. The real issue is that men should not hurt women.

Cohen: In doing that speaking tour, he’s propagating this myth, he’s aligning the drinking with what happened. We get a lot of questions about the film: “Well, both girls were drinking and out of control and unconscious. Why don’t you talk about that?” It’s like, “Yeah, OK, teenagers shouldn’t drink, somebody can talk about that at some point.” But the reason we didn’t talk about that is because we didn’t want any confusion, that the drinking led to the raping. We didn’t want anyone to draw that conclusion. And here [Turner] is, drawing that conclusion.

Shenk: The boys who [assaulted Audrie] said the same thing. They point to the drugs and alcohol. You can’t blame a victim for being under the influence when there is a violent act [happening to them]. These are two separate things. The Brock Turners of the world are confusing the two.

One of the scenes that really stuck out to me is the interview with the local sheriff, Darren White, who blames Daisy, essentially, for her own rape by saying, “Don’t underestimate the need for attention, especially young girls.” Daisy, did he say things like that to you during the investigation?

Coleman: Dealing with the sheriff throughout the investigation, I was very aware that … he doesn’t have much of a filter. To put this nicely.

Shenk: There’s a misconception about girls accusing people of sexual assault. There’s this sense of, Well, she might be lying, she might be telling the truth, it’s really a he-said, she-said. But it turns out if you study the cases, something like 97 percent of the cases are actually true. And you think about it common sense–wise: Why would a young girl or a woman bring this attention upon herself? It’s nonsensical. It sets up a binary equation where, in fact, if a girl makes that accusation, she’s usually not lying about it.

I wondered if, after watching this whole movie, he still thinks that’s a reasonable thing to say.

Cohen: I don’t want to speak for him, but after having interviewed him — he’s not an anomaly. I think that his voice is representative of a lot of voices in law enforcement, which is, “We did our job.” They roll their eyes. “Who can manage these girls these days? They’re always doing something crazy.” Sheriff White was probably thinking, Why was she drinking? Which has nothing to do with the final reality, which is that there was sexual violence. My guess is that when he sees the film, he will hear himself, and he’ll think, Yeah, I stand by this. That’s how I feel.

Another thing that really haunted me was the interviews you did with the two teenage boys who were charged with sexually assaulting Audrie. And you ask one of them what he learned from the whole thing, from her suicide and his punishment —

Shenk: “Girls gossip, and boys are just laid-back.”

Daisy, how did you feel, watching that interview?

Coleman: To put it lightly, I was extremely frustrated. It was really obvious that he learned nothing from Audrie’s case.

Shenk: That’s one really sad thing about these cases: It seems like we’re not learning as a community, as a society. Bonni and I talk about this a lot. There’s something almost impossible about the criminal justice system when it comes to sexual assault cases. It immediately sets up a trial, where witnesses may have been drunk or maybe there were no witnesses and maybe there’s no evidence.The perpetrators of Audrie, they’re caught in in this system. Their parents are defensive. Both sides are lawyered up. It almost sets up a situation where there’s no way to learn a lesson. In a way — and we don’t want to excuse their behavior — they’re victims of circumstance. They were never educated, or told it was illegal to trade these pictures, or given proper guidance.

Cohen: It’s like, “Where is everybody?”

Shenk: It feels very hopeless. But we’re [trying to advance] the perspective of: Let’s all agree that this should never happen in the first place. Let’s get to a world where we don’t litigate the aftermath, because it doesn’t happen in the first place.

Cohen: It’s not gonna happen on a federal level, but if we do it town to town, state to state, community to community, and we keep pushing this ball up the hill, like any advocacy work, I think people are ready for it.

What about adults, though, like Sheriff White or these boys’ parents, who just don’t get it at all? Is there hope for them?

Cohen: There’s also specific discussion guides for law enforcement and teachers. I don’t know about Sheriff White [laughs]. We’ll see.

Shenk: A lot of the guys who end up perpetrating these crimes are involved in sports, and jock culture propagates this conquering mentality, you know, scoring girls and bragging about it. On the flip side, we’ve met with coaches that want to propagate the exact opposite. They want to provide positive mentorship for boys and teach them about healthy relationships, that a real man isn’t somebody who takes advantage of a young girl but who treats her with respect, and that that’s something to brag about, not having sex with a girl who’s passed out and can’t consent. If that can change, certainly law enforcement can change as well, and we can slowly teach this truth.

What’s been the response to the film from Maryville?

Coleman: I have had a couple people from my graduating class who have come forward and said, “We know this case is complete and utter bull crap, to be quite frank.” It’s really good to know that I have the support of people now that I used to consider friends.

Cohen: We spoke to a number of families in Maryville that weren’t willing to go on camera because they were worried — worried about their jobs, about how coming forward would affect their lives in a small town. I think what we discovered, being in Maryville, is that it was very divided. There were so many people who wanted to support Daisy, and they couldn’t. That level of fear that we live in in this country — and I don’t want Maryville to feel like they’re alone in this country, there are many Maryvilles around this country. Jon often talks about the fear-based nature of our society that’s kind of guiding this stuff, and that’s really horrifying and sad to me.

Shenk: Most people are good people. But they’re afraid to speak out, they’re afraid for their safety and their jobs. And unfortunately that dictates a lot of their actions.

And yet, despite all of this, you guys feel hopeful?

Cohen: We do. We think we’re at a tipping point right now. Whatever Brock Turner wants to do on his tour is his business. But the outrage that that case brought against the legal system and his parents — that’s so symbolic. Those two attitudes exist in our film. There’s a level of denial about this stuff that we’re waking up to.