Gender

It Wasn't Bad Sex, It Wasn't a Mistake, 'It Was Rape': Film Grapples with Society's Dark Side

Jennifer Baumgardner's powerful new documentary gets eight women to describe one of the worst moments of their lives.

Jennifer Baumgardner’s latest project, a 60-minute documentary film called It Was Rape, opens with a warning: If the movie serves as an emotional trigger, “please take care of yourself, even if it means leaving the theater.” The reason for this heads-up is that sexual violation is an abysmally common crime. According to a 2011 report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in six US women and one in seven US men have been raped at least once. These numbers make the film’s admonition especially poignant since it is likely that audiences everywhere will include people for whom rape is not a theoretical issue, but a lived reality.

Baumgardner calls rape “the feminist issue that never changes." She hopes the film will nudge viewers to listen to victims’ stories without judgment or condemnation. “I speak all over the country, giving Feminism 101 lectures, and people often come up to me afterwards and say, ‘I was raped.’ Most have never been asked about it, and have not really been listened to. I did not cast a wide net looking for people to interview.”

Unlike her previous film, Speak Out: I Had an Abortion (2004), Baumgardner says, “No one chooses rape, so talking about it is not immediately empowering. But many of the women in the film spoke hoping that their stories would later be of use to someone else.”

Still, she admits that making It Was Rape was difficult, and asking women “to re-live, on camera, one of the worst experiences of their lives" required immense fortitude. Not surprisingly, it took five years for the project to come to fruition. The result is heartbreaking, terrifying, and important.

Eight diverse women—Baumgardner attempted to include men but was unsuccessful— speak directly about being raped and address both the long- and short-term trauma they’ve experienced. None were attacked by strangers—there are no rapists lurking in bushes or breaking into homes in these accounts—but rather were assaulted by men they knew, however casually.

One of the victims is Andrea Baumgardner, the filmmaker’s older sister, who was raped when she was in her first year at Fargo, North Dakota’s South High School. “I was at a party,” she begins, “and I drank enough so that I needed to take a nap.” She went into a bedroom and says that almost immediately after lying down, a boy she knew from school came into the room “and decided to have sex with me. He tried to kiss me and I said, ‘No, I want to sleep.’ I did not feel I had any control over the situation. I did not want to scream or be outrageous and told myself, ‘I can withstand this.’”

Word of the encounter spread immediately, but it was Andrea, and not the boy, who bore the brunt of her peers' revulsion. She recalls “intense shunning” but says she did not fully grapple with the assault until years later, when she was in college. In fact, during her senior year of high school she dated her rapist, as if in some twisted way to restore her reputation as desirable and worthy of attention and love.

Poet and performance artist Staceyann Chin, who was conceived as a result of rape, reports being sexually violated while attending a university in Jamaica, her birthplace. After coming out as a lesbian, she says she was grabbed by a gang of men, dragged into a bathroom, and pushed against a wall. “They hit me, put their hands in my vagina,” she says. It was only because someone accidently interrupted the assault that Chin was able to escape.

Unlike Chin, there was no escape for Annie W., who was repeatedly raped by her father when she was between the ages of four and 10. “It was very random,” she tells Baumgardner, “and happened six or eight times over six years.” Her memories include lying on a bed covered with peach-colored sheets and being told that she would be the "favorite child” if she complied with her father’s periodic demands. “I remember he took me into the shower and masturbated in front of me and made me suck his penis,” she says. “I was afraid that if I told, my parents would get a divorce.”

When Annie W. was 12, she learned that her father had also molested her babysitter and recalls wondering “who the hell else this had happened to.” She also feared that her father was continuing to rape other women. This fear prompted Annie to report her abuse to Florida police officers who helped her orchestrate an on-tape confession from her dad. Before he could be arrested, he committed suicide in a hotel room.

Other stories include film critic Karen Durbin’s rape by a guy she’d met at a club in the 1970s and had initially found charming, attractive and fun. She says she brought him home willingly, only to have him become physically violent as soon as they entered the bedroom. As he forced himself on her, she says she had to turn away because the fury in his eyes was so frightening.

The man disappeared moments after the encounter ended, and Durbin recalls phoning her close friend, the late Ellen Willis, immediately after he left. “Ellen reminded me that the only reason I’d had sex with him was because I was scared not to, and when you have sex out of fear, it’s rape.” Somehow, in her panic, Durbin (an active Second Wave feminist) had forgotten this, and blamed herself. After all, she’d been drinking and had invited the man into her home—a common reaction of victims who reproach themselves, rather than the perpetrator, for what happened.

Lisaa Brunner grew up in a family in northwest Minnesota that was steeped in violence. Her first rape, she says, happened when she was 15, her second at 16. Three years later, she gave birth to her first child while in an abusive relationship. “It suddenly dawned on me that I had become my mother and my daughter had become me,” she says. Refusing to believe that this was her destiny, Brunner fled, got a job, and presently works to assist other Native Americans who have been sexually assaulted.

Brunner is not the only woman in the film to have used the heinous experience of rape to help others. From blogging about women’s issues and feminism, to teaching yoga and creating nutritious meals and performance pieces, the eight women interviewed have all been able to move on from their rape and do something meaningful with their lives. Christen Clifford, for one, spoke at a recent screening in New York City: “The rape will be a part of our lives forever, but our relationship to it changes over time” she said.

This valuable conclusion is tempered by questions that linger long after the closing credits ofIt Was Rape. What goes through a rapist’s mind as he is committing an assault? How does he justify forcing himself on someone? Does he even understand that this is rape?