Isabella Grace Cohn wants to get ahead of the problem. Peer-on-peer sexual violence has no place in our community, she says, yet it’s become an endemic part of our culture. After collecting more than 30 hours of interviews with survivors and perpetrators alike, the 19-year-old from Boulder is betting on new storytelling techniques to move the cultural needle on sexual violence—and, she wonders, is the community ready to face itself?
“If I’m to achieve one thing,” Cohn says of her forthcoming documentary Watch You Rise, it “would allow people to begin questioning—questioning everything.”
Raised in Boulder, Cohn has been activating conversations about sexual violence and the rights of survivors for years. Early this July, after U.S. Congressman Joe Neguse spoke in Boulder at the Women’s Freedom March organized by YWCA of Boulder County, Cohn took the microphone: “I’m here to share with you the radicalism of hope,” she told the crowd. “I believe that in order to implement the change that we want to see, we must begin to humanize one another.”
Through her documentary work, Cohn is effectively humanizing data about sexual violence, such as what was reported in last year’s Health Kids Colorado Survey (HKCS), the state’s only comprehensive survey on the health and wellbeing of young people. Every odd-numbered year, Colorado’s public high schools are called to participate (a randomly selected, small group of schools is required every survey; the rest can participate voluntarily); the anonymous student data and survey results help many public, private, and community organizations—including school districts—make decisions that best serve adolescents.
By shining light on youth sexual assault from multiple angles, Watch You Rise aims to illuminate the injustices in our legal system, and what Cohn describes as “the failures of institutions that are supposed to provide young people with safe and healthy environments.”
In the fall of 2021, 340 middle and high schools (106,799 individual students) completed the HKCS, which contained several new questions about consent culture and sexual behavior—thanks, in part, to BVSD Survivors, a student-led advocacy group formed in the 2021 aftermath of Fairview High School student Aidan Atkinson’s acquittal of sexual assault charges. The group worked with Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) and other community organizations to construct and refine the survey’s new questions; seeking actionable data, many community stakeholders shared an interest in measuring the reality of consent culture, emotional control, sexting, and sexual violence perpetration in high schools today.
“Nearly 50% of the proposals received for the 2021 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey … involved adding questions related to consent and experiences of sexual violence,” a CDPHE spokesperson told Boulder Weekly. “CDPHE convened the individuals who submitted these proposals, including youth, parents, researchers, school staff, nonprofits, and CDPHE’s Sexual Violence Prevention subject matter experts.”
Of the new questions, one asked if youths had ever “forced someone to have sex when it was unwanted,” and 533 (0.05%) students said yes. In another, 2,563 students reported “they were unsure if they received fully-granted consent from the other person,” while 12,495 were unsure if they gave their fully-granted consent to the other person.”
Cohn graduated in 2021 from Boulder’s Watershed School, a progressive, independent middle and high school. While she didn’t attend a BVSD school, she knew all the survivors from the Aidan Atkinson case and has several friends currently embroiled as survivors in criminal cases or civil suits in Boulder County.
“One of my friends had nine separate sexual assaults and pressed charges on two of them, but the other ones just … didn’t have enough evidence,” Cohn says. “And so what are you supposed to do with those, like, seven other stories?”
Turn them into a documentary, for one.
When Cohn began producing Watch You Rise, she was already several years deep into a survivor-story collection project. Her freshman year of high school, she founded the Me Too Teen Project, an online space for survivors of teenage sexual violence to share stories (anonymously), and in the four years since, the site has swelled into a striking repository of anecdotes equally empowering and devastating. Readers from every continent, most countries, and all 50 United States have accessed the site, she says.
Stories create rippling effects, the website states, which empower survivors and provoke meaningful change in communities and the world. Cohn herself is a product of this logic. She was provoked to begin the Me Too Teen Project by the surge of high-profile sexual violence cases that flooded mainstream news her freshman year. It was then that Christine Blasey Ford testified against Brett Kavanagh, and cases against Jeffrey Epstein hit the country with full force. “All these high-profile sexual assault cases—basically all these women and men and people were pressing charges for assaults that had happened as teenagers or as children,” Cohn recalls. “Even my teachers were talking about their own experiences.”
Cohn says her mother was assaulted multiple times as a young woman, and as Cohn watched her work with lawyers to determine which options were still available to her, decades after the violations, Cohn saw how statutes of limitations limited options for those seeking justice. “Getting ahead of the problem” quickly formulated as one of her mottos, and part of the Me Too Teen Project’s mission is to help educate survivors on their rights before it’s too late. “What do you need to have a case? That’s not talked about,” Cohn says.
In holding a mirror to Boulder, Cohn is building upon the work of local storytelling change agents like Anna Hanson and Katrina Miller. In 2011, Hanson published For Now: Words of the Girl Who Fought Back, a book about the aftermath of her rape; shortly after graduating from Fairview High School, her then-best friend violently assaulted her and she took him to trial. As part of her healing process, Hanson wrote and shared her story with thousands around the country, describing it as a key part of her recovery.
Earlier this year, director/documentarist Katrina Miller premiered her film This Is [Not] Who We Are at the 2022 Boulder International Film Festival (BIFF). The 77-minute documentary probes the gap “between Boulder’s self-image and the more complex lived experiences—both historical and contemporary—of its black citizens,” and has since collected accolades at the Los Angeles Film Awards, Berlin Indie Film Festival, and Boston International Film Festival (among others) after taking home BIFF’s People’s Choice Award.
Cohn, building upon the reach of the Me Too Teen Project, has expanded her interviews to students all over the country. After graduating from Watershed, Cohn left Boulder to attend Hampshire College in Massachusetts but has since redirected her studies with a transfer this fall to Oregon’s Lewis and Clark College and plans to study anthropology and justice.
“People are coming from all around the country and around the world with different levels of sex education,” Cohn says. She hopes to show just how varied and muddled education about consent and sexual behavior has remained, despite generations of work to advance the rights of bodily autonomy beyond cis-white men.
At least 15 of Cohn’s 30 sources are from Boulder, and she’s actively searching for more people to add testimony of their lived experiences. “You don’t have to show your face; I could alter your voice…. You could elect someone like your best friend, or a parent, or a partner, and they could read something or speak on behalf of you,” Cohn says.
There are limitations to story sharing, Cohn has realized. After interviewing survivors with open cases against their perpetrators in Boulder County, she witnessed “how survivors’ voices are being hushed” as a byproduct of the current criminal justice system. Sharing lived experiences and perspectives before trial risks negatively impacting a victim’s case once it’s heard in court (a defense could collect the survivor’s words to use as evidence against them); as such, many survivors decline to speak publicly until after their case is closed—this, however, risks silencing the survivor forever should an acquittal protect their perpetrator behind claims of libel or slander.
But for every limitation, Cohn also sees the multifold opportunities and positive impacts of storytelling. “For a lot of people, I was the first person they’d ever told their story to,” she says. “One of the only ways I’ve been able to do it is, like, it’s not about me—these stories have nothing to do with me. My job is to hold space, always.”
With the recent launch of a GoFundMe, Cohn seeks financial support for her own camera and recording equipment (she’s been borrowing film gear over the last year), plus editing and sound software, legal support, marketing assistance, and more—all parts of a toolbox she’s been assembling to help her build upon the existing work of sexual violence prevention; inviting perpetrators into her film is one way she hopes to push the envelope.
For years, community-based organizations like Moving to End Sexual Assault (MESA), Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence (SPAN), and BVSD Survivors have cultivated safe spaces in Boulder County for victims of sexual assault to seek validation, community and education. “Your story does matter, which is a part of the conversation that does need to be had. But I think it’s already being had, and already has been had,” Cohn says—thus, she’s hoping to widen the table, add more chairs, and include more of the stakeholders involved in the violence.
“Most perpetrators are survivors,” she notes. “Everyone can be assaulted and violated, and everyone can violate; like, every single person has the ability to violate, purely just because people don’t say a hard ‘No.’”
In this sense, the complexity of sexual violence shouldn’t be ignored. “I feel like it would be ignorant to only shine the light on one part of it. And the other thing is, like, from what I know, most perpetrators don’t watch films about survivors,” she says. “If you have a film that includes football players, includes perpetrators, includes, like, your typical junky dude … I mean, there’s no typical perpetrator, but if you were to include them, that may open the door for one type of perpetrator, or a family, to watch it.”
Hearing from perpetrators directly can also add valuable insight to sexual violence prevention strategies. Cohn recently interviewed a former BVSD athlete; he described the boys’ locker-room culture: “The way they talked about any girl … they wanted them for their body,” he says in a recording that Boulder Weekly reviewed. “Obviously, not every player on the team was that way, but, like… no one really held anyone accountable for the way they talked about anyone, or like what they’re doing, or like the way they’re treating the girl, like, never, ever, ever.”
The biggest issue, he continues, is that they “don’t view [women] as the same or equal, and feel like they can do what everybody wants. So in order for the sexual part to be fixed, I think, like, men have to look at women as an equal,” he says. “The misogyny part was super, super, like, always there.”
This Fairview graduate is himself a survivor of a sexual assault that happened later in college, yet he’s also able to speak to his own lived experiences of being unsure about what counts as consent from a woman. Storytelling, he believes, can help bridge the gaps in equality, bodily autonomy, and justice.
“When you hear a victim of sexual assault talk about how it affects them, and how they can describe every detail because it’s something they’ll never forget, I think that’s something that is … good reinforcement to show people what it does to someone,” he says. “Because [sexual violence] alters their life completely, like they’re a different person after that. So I think [storytelling]—that’s what there needs to be more of.”