Ready for Change: Discussing Sexual Assault with SafeBAE

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SafeBAE was founded by three teenage survivors of sexual assault and cyberbullying, Daisy Coleman, Jada Smith, and Ella Fairon, along with Daisy’s older brother, Charlie Coleman, with the assistance of longtime feminist activist, Shael Norris. They travel as a group to college campuses and high schools around the country to work with students to dismantle rape culture and cyberbullying on campus and in their communities. SafeBAE also spearheads social media campaigns and creates educational materials for survivors of sexual assault and bullying, supporting teenagers in changing their peer culture.

All of the cofounders have shown incredible perseverance and fortitude in confronting their abusers alongside the social systems that protect them. After her sexual assault at the age of fifteen, Ella founded her own non-profit to advocate on behalf of teenaged survivors of sexual violence. Jada fought back and began her own social media campaign, #JusticeForJada, after her rape went viral. Daisy was assaulted by a friend of her older brother’s at the age of fourteen, and left outside her house in below-freezing temperatures. Daisy’s search for justice was featured prominently in the documentary film, Audrie and Daisy.

I spoke with the founders of SafeBAE in August and September 2017.

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The Rumpus: Did the documentary, Audrie and Daisy, grow out of you guys finding each other? Or did you guys find each other because of the documentary?

Daisy Coleman: The documentary was following my story. I kind of got to the point where I wanted to share. I wanted other survivors to be able to share their story also and it not to just be all my story because this happens to hundreds of other people. And so I decided that the documentary film makers could come along with me to this trip when I met all the girls and so that they could also talk to them and shed some light on their stories also.

Rumpus: And how was that experience for you? It sounds like it was kind of a dark time.

D. Coleman: Well, I mean I wasn’t gung-ho for the documentary in the beginning. I was kind of done with a camera being in my face all the time and with all of the media whiplash that I’d gotten with sharing my story in 2013 and my case being reopened, I was just kind of done with my case. And I just wanted to move on with my life and not talk about it anymore. But after hearing Audrie’s story, I felt so compelled to speak on behalf of other survivors who didn’t have the capability of doing so that I decided to go full force with the film.

Jada Smith: So basically we all met in DC, and we all became close after that. We decided we would like to start our own organization, and then Shael came to us. She asked how do you all feel about doing this and giving talks and traveling? And we were like, that’s cool. Now we are in charge of everything, and how we want it to be run. We agree and vote on everything.

Shael Norris: They were very, very clear about some of the ways they wanted to approach this. The filmmakers wanted to offer an activist piece that goes with the film. Every kid, parent, teacher that walks out of seeing that film, or sees it on the Netflix account, that they would be inspired to change. And that we would be able to offer them some way to do that.

Rumpus: So was it like Shael created the organizational structure that was able to support your vision?

Smith: Yeah. She said there was no non-profit organization like ours, being run by young people, young survivors. We can make such a different impact when we go into a school because of our age. People will feel like we’re relatable. And there might be older people in the crowd, teachers or other survivors, and they’re like, “Oh if people so young can overcome from this, we can, too.”

Norris: For the last twenty years I worked for an organization called V-Day, founded by Eve Ensler, who wrote The Vagina Monologues.

One of the things that sort of evolved out of my work at V-Day was work around college sexual assault. And we really became part of the tipping point that happened on college campuses. When everything started happening with the Obama administration, and Senators McCaskill and Gillibrand, I really felt like, okay, there’s all sorts of attention on this issue, it was amazing to see. And it was time to move to the front lines again. And that front line meant secondary education to me. And it also happened to coincide with my girls starting middle school, and so that’s sort of where I started my process in working towards secondary education.

So I asked V-Day for a micro grant, and when I got that grant I started sort of reaching out to different organizations, large and small. And that’s how I connected with the filmmakers and the girls. I had grant money and I had all this background, and they were eighteen and nineteen at the time. If I learned anything from the post-secondary experience on this issue, it was that biggest opportunities came when students were leading the charge, and the adults in authority were listening to them, whether it was Vice President Biden, or administrators on campus, or whoever it was. I couldn’t be the messenger, and they were perfectly poised. We all knew the film [Audrie and Daisy] was going to be huge. The filmmakers are incredibly reputable, amazing filmmakers.

Shael Norris

Charlie Coleman: To me it’s a little different because I’m not a survivor, so this gave me a segue to really talk to young athletes, especially males, and kind of formulate a good idea of what a positive male role model is. Because more times than not, guys that are making mistakes or don’t know what no means or yes means, they weren’t taught right from wrong growing up. And they didn’t have the positive role model set in front of them. It kind of gave me a platform where I could step up and become that positive role model for the younger generation. It means a lot.

Ella Fairon: I started my own non-profit when I was fifteen and kind of ran with that. But it wasn’t as powerful as working with other survivors, and just having like a sister network with Daisy and Jada and even having Charlie, too, it’s just been very, very powerful. And we’ve created such interactive and proactive tools and materials through this organization that we didn’t have back in the day when this happened to us.

Rumpus: Tell me about the name, SafeBAE?

Norris: It was a collaborative thing. We’d been tossing stuff around for so long and “bae” was a vernacular that stood for “Before Anyone Else” and that really resonated. It’s funny because teenagers know that bae stands for before anyone else, in that vernacular of using it as your boyfriend or your best friend or whatever. I think that’s why it resonated, because the work is to prevent what happened from happening to anyone else.

Rumpus: I hadn’t put that together. Are you guys kind of the only organization working with high school and middle school students?

Norris: That’s our goal audience. With that said, we’ve got a long way to go. Not everybody likes to address this issue at that age, but we really believe that rape culture indoctrination starts in middle school with the dress code. That’s when girls are starting to be body-shamed.

And at the crux of Title IX. It’s that there isn’t supposed to be a differentiation in your educational access because of your gender or gender identity. I think it’s almost like a series of tearing down walls. You have to tear down those walls in post-secondary education so that we can tear down those walls in secondary education so we can continue and continue and continue until in kindergarten and nursery school, we are teaching our children body autonomy. Teaching anti-bullying. That is our goal.

Rumpus: What is it like when SafeBAE visits a school? How does that go?

Fairon: Typically when we go into a college, we screen the film for them first and then after the film is over we come up on stage and we show them all the tools that we offer. And we kind of go through a little presentation of what we really do at SafeBAE and what college students can do to make a difference. And then we open up for Q&A.

But what we do with high school students is even more interactive and even more proactive. We get into little circles with them in their classrooms. I mean, we do a little presentation. Some of the high schools that we’ve been to have seen the film. Some haven’t. But we open up with a presentation and showing them the tools that we offer for free on our website that they can use and share with their peers to address the topic of conversation.

After that we really sit down with them and we ask them about how they feel rape culture plays a part in their high schools. And I think that’s one of the most intimate things that we do. We’re not telling them what’s up; they’re telling us. They’re telling us essentially what’s up with rape culture in their schools. And that gives us a good idea of what we can then produce to make more of a difference continuously.

Ella Fairon

Rumpus: What do you want someone to walk out knowing or understanding?

Fairon: There’s a place for free where they can learn about bystander intervention, survivor support, their Title IX rights. And that they know that there are people out there like us.

D. Coleman: It’s ultimately our goal for people to understand what’s wrong about victim blaming and what’s wrong about slut shaming. And you know, what is the right way to talk to a survivor, and just that we want to stop this before it happens to anyone else.

Rumpus: Obviously, the goals in the organization align with feminism, but do you identify as feminist?

Norris: We are feminists. Absolutely. Even Charlie, he’s like, “Wait, I can call myself that?” And I’m like, “You don’t have to. Everybody else is going to.” And he’s like, “That’s fine. I like that.”

Rumpus: I love that you have a young male athlete in your organization. I think that’s so critical toward this even being a dialogue. It can’t just be women trying to make this change.

Norris: We’re all feminists here. It’s like I tell Charlie, “Every day you get up, you put on your work out clothes, and you’re crushing the patriarchy.” I’ve never seen him speak at a school and deliver our materials on an occasion that he has not cried. Much more so than girls. And so that alone opens up space. That alone invites sensitivity, invites emotion, invites vulnerability.

And what’s interesting is, again having done this work for a very long time, I love Men Can Stop Rape and have worked very closely with A Call to Men. But those organizations are all men. And particularly in this generation of kids, they don’t make big gender distinctions. And if they do, it’s like, agender. So when you start separating that the men are going to be over here in this room talking to the men and the women are going to be over here in the women’s room talking to the women, you’re already losing them.

Do we have trans survivor in our group? No we don’t, because talk about a group of people who aren’t safe to come forward? That would be one of them. So we don’t, but we advocate about trans survivors. They’re one of the highest risk population groups in the world and so we advocate that this isn’t a women’s issue. And we need as many people talking about it as physically possible.

It’s not up to Charlie to change every mind of every man in the room and it’s not up to Daisy, Ella, and Jada to change every woman’s mind. And some of the most powerful and important conversations we’ve had as I’ve been touring the country this year has been in schools where they make attendance for the screening mandatory for student orientation, their different athletic groups or fraternities or sororities.

At first, we were like, “Oh my God. Don’t make it mandatory. They’re going to be a hostile crowd.” But, these are the people that need to see it the most. And they’re the most affected by it.

One of the first questions has been like, “What about false reporting?” As annoying as those questions are, you have to answer it because they’re thinking it. Then Daisy was like, “I’d love to field that question. I’d like to address the actual statistics about that and then we can move on from there.” She just gave them the stats on it and said sexual assault has literally no higher rate of false reporting than any other crime. It’s not a thing. But I think it’s an important conversation to have with a room full of people who wouldn’t necessarily voluntarily put themselves in that room.

Charlie Coleman

Rumpus: Because when you have people who are self-selecting, you’re obviously going to have an audience that either has survivors themselves in there or that are ready to have those conversations. That are wanting to have those conversations and you’re going to miss that whole segment that isn’t wanting to or isn’t ready to. Can you tell me a little about the consent piece that you talk about in schools? What is that conversation like?

Smith: We hit all the key points about rape culture, consent, what it is, and how you can start that conversation with even like, a five-year-old. Basically, my favorite part that I usually touch on is that you don’t have to start a conversation with a five-year-old and say, “Don’t have sex, don’t drink, this is what happens.” You start the conversation by saying, “You don’t have to hug or kiss people that you don’t want t0. Your yes means yes, and your no means no.” That’s my key point that I always want to make. Because SafeBAE is meant to target kids from kindergarten through twelfth grade, and people are like how can you talk to a kindergartner about rape or what consent is? By just telling them that they don’t have to do things with their body if they don’t want to. If it makes kids feel uncomfortable, they shouldn’t have to. That’s how they will grow up to know what “no” and “yes” mean.

Rumpus: How were you taught about consent? Were you raised with a family that talked about it?

Smith: I guess, my mom never forced me to go kiss relatives or talk to them. I was never forced to do anything I didn’t want to do. I did know about rape because it has happened to other generations in my family. I was taught about those things at a young age. I just never thought these things would happen to me, but I knew it was a thing. But it was in a family type of thing, like my great-grandma’s type of stuff.

Rumpus: I don’t think—even if we know the statistics—I don’t think anyone expects it’s going to end up being themselves.

Smith: Yeah. I did hear about it. I didn’t even think that stuff happens to so many people at all, either. I was just like, when we learned about the statistics before we went to educate other people, I was still like, wow. And it just keeps happening every day. I keep reading stories about it every day, like it’s not helping.

Jada Smith

Rumpus: Do you feel like when you’re talking with younger kids that they’re learning something different about rape culture?

Fairon: Yes, I think this is definitely a conversation that’s being had now. I will say that I think… I mean we’re just starting to break into the high schools. And we’re just starting to see change in high schools where kids are openly talking about consent and how to go about that and the education that there is out there. But I think getting into middle schools is where it really starts. Even if it’s as little as just sexualizing girls by what they wear. Or petty stuff that boys talk about that ends up having a huge impact later on in their lives. I think that consent is definitely being talked about but there still is a lot of work that needs to be done.

C. Coleman: I was raised differently, I guess. I was raised by a father and mother that preached respecting a person and respecting their word. So in my eyes it was always if someone said no, it meant no. If someone said yes, it meant yes. It wasn’t a gray area that everybody argues about now. I kind of always lived by that but a lot of people aren’t raised that way. You see a lot of kids… like a lot of the assault cases, people say, “Oh, she didn’t say no,” or “She didn’t say yes.” But alcohol was involved and there are just so many standards now instead of how about just don’t do it if there’s a “no.”

Rumpus: Do you think when you’re talking to younger guys now that they are coming up in an age where they’re getting that? Are they hearing, “If she’s not saying no, it’s a yes?”

C. Coleman: I really think that depends on the kid. There are going to be kids that listen and there are going to be kids that don’t. But the majority of the guys I talk to, or majority of the kids I’ve ever coached, they’ve always picked up the things that I’ve taught them and they’ve done a really good job of just passing on the torch. And I couldn’t be more proud of some of them but there’s always other kids out there that don’t use their head and they make poor decisions. I don’t know. I just… that’s a hard one to answer because I know that are guys that do see the light in it and then there are people that don’t.

I’m right on board with the whole education thing. I just think the education… I mean just start early and the more things will start to change. But we can’t just keep sliding through the cracks, letting it slide. We’ve got to start teaching everyone. We’ve got to make it mandatory in schools and stuff.

Rumpus: Yes, the schools. That’s important. A lot of the pushback you get from people is we can’t talk about this in schools. We don’t want to talk to our kids about sex. We don’t want the schools to tell our kids about sex, right? What is your response to that?

Fairon: I think I would want them to know that there are people like us out there that are really eager for change and really, really ready for a new era and more education. That we’re more than ready and hungry to do so. I think that’s what I would say.

C. Coleman: It doesn’t have to be sexual. You can literally just have conversation with them about consent. If their “no” means no, and their “yes” means yes then that’s a good start. I mean, you can start that with a two- or three-year-old. Don’t force them to do something they don’t want and then that doesn’t become a thing.

It’s a learned trait. They learn that and they’ll carry it with them the rest of their lives. Teach them, “Well you said no, so we’re not going to force you to do it.” And then lo and behold, later on in life they’re going to come across a situation where someone says no to them. They’re not going to force them to do that because they were given that respect when they were younger. So why wouldn’t they give it to someone else?

Rumpus: I have a three-year-old and definitely in our house that’s true. But it’s a weird thing because you have a culture that says, “Oh, if someone wants to kiss you cause you’re so cute and little, they can do that.” It’s really weird.

D. Coleman: A lot of sexual violence is mostly among teens. A lot of this happens to about fourteen- to nineteen-year-old kids, which is during high school. And we wanted to really that target that audience and educate on sexual violence, what are your Title IX rights, and so on and so forth, in high schools.

We kind of had to make a plan to get into high schools because they’re so touch and go with the subject of sexual violence. They think we’re just going to come into their school and talk about sex, which isn’t the case at all. And we’re totally talking about consent, and what is safe sex, and then what is sexual violence, and some of the facts and some of the lies that you hear around sexual violence. Like victim blaming. We want to shatter the idea that you can blame the victim for what happened to them.

Daisy Coleman

Rumpus: What do you think the impact of Internet has been on rape culture. I’m in my thirties. When I was in high school, this whole cultural feeling of like slut shaming and blaming the victim was there. But do you think that the Internet or the way that people use the Internet has changed it or amplified it?

D. Coleman: I think the Internet is definitely a double-edged sword because it completely dehumanizes some people, and it gives people a way to say things to someone that they would never say to that person’s face. And it’s just absolutely terrible what people can say to each other on social media. But at the same time, a lot of people are being social justice heroes and actually taking the Internet and turning it into a powerful tool where they’re educating people, and they’re standing up for the people that’s getting bullied and stuff. And they’re making it into a positive place for people to be.

Fairon: I think that in the past year, year or two, that people are finally starting to be up-standers instead of trolls adding fuel to the fire of negativity. I think people are starting to realize that’s wrong. It’s slowly starting to change. But in the past, it was just a battle every day to go on such platforms and I think to speak to what SafeBAE’s doing about that is we’re actually creating some innovative tools almost like a loophole around the cyberbullying through an app we’re developing. So that’s something new.

C. Coleman: Definitely when everything with Daisy came about I believed the Internet was pretty dark. The Internet was kind of used as a weapon of destruction. It wasn’t really used for good. But now people are becoming aware of situations like this. There are more people that are educating themselves. They’re becoming educated about standing up for people instead of just jumping on the bandwagon, which is nice to see. But the Internet is definitely, like Daisy said, it’s a double-edged sword. It can go either way. People can use it for bad or people can use it for good.

Rumpus: I think it was Daisy that said something about the anonymity of the Internet. The way it allows people to dehumanize other people. People feel free to maybe say things in a meaner way or in a more aggressive way than they would in real life.

C. Coleman: I mean you see it constantly. People are constantly hiding behind the screen; they think it’s a joke to mess with people. It’s just those people out there, those trolls are gonna hide there and do that.

Rumpus: How it has changed you to be able to go out there and advocate in your communities?

Smith: Working with SafeBAE has helped me heal—being able to talk about my experience more, helping others, and just knowing that the rest of us have been through it. Like me and Daisy and Ella. Because when it happened, I didn’t feel like anybody else could knew what I had been through. And what’s sad is that it’s really common. Learning that made me feel like there’s not anything wrong with me. I mean, it shouldn’t happen, but it’s pretty normal.

Rumpus: Did you feel like you were alone before you met the others?

Smith: Yeah I felt alone for a minute. I felt like, I did a lot of news stories. Then that’s when I became dark. At first I was strong and I had so much energy, and thought I’m going to fight and be strong and fix my reputation and stuff like that. And then after the news, some people, like some newscasts cut pieces of it, turned it around, and changed it from what I wanted. So I became distant. I didn’t want to be involved with anything. I was offered the documentary, but I was like, I don’t want cameras. I want I just want to be alone. I don’t want to be bothered.

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To learn more about SafeBAE and ways that you can get involved, visit the organization’s website here. You can make a tax-deductible donation to SafeBAE here.

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Photographs and logo image provided by SafeBAE.


Marissa Korbel’s award-winning essays have appeared in The Manifest Station, Under the Gum Tree, Nailed Magazine, and other publications. She recently completed a hybrid memoir, and is working on an essay collection. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her partner and their toddler, and writes with Lidia Yuknavitch at Corporeal Writing. More from this author →