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10 Questions with Jennifer Baumgardner

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Jennifer Baumgardner is one of my favorite feminist colleagues, and one of those people I just think we're mighty blessed to have in our world.

A writer, speaker, and activist, Jennifer is the co-author of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future and Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism, and the author of Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics. She has also brought vital and original feminist perspectives to magazines (in need of them, IMO) like Jane, Glamour, Redbook, Real Simple, Marie Claire, and Elle. She's done great work for Honor the Earth , Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the Third Wave Foundation and the New York Abortion Access Fund and, through an organization called Haven, helps host women who come to New York from other states in order to get a later-term abortion. She created an I Had an Abortion campaign to encourage women (and men) to “come out” about their procedures, of which an element is a film documenting women’s stories of abortion. She and Amy Richards are also the co-owners of Soapbox, Inc., a feminist speaker’s bureau and she has spoken at more than 200 colleges and universities in the last 8 years. In 2003, the Commonwealth Club of California hailed her in their centennial year as one of six “Visionaries for the 21st Century,” commenting that “in her role as author and activist, she has permanently changed the way people think about feminism…and will shape the next 100 years of politics and culture.”

Right now, Jennifer is working on a new project, I Was Raped, which will work to highlight the prevalence of rape in our culture and break the silence that surrounds it. A diverse range of women will be interviewed about their rapes in the hopes of adding nuance to the cultural conversation around sexual assault. Much like with her previous documentary, I Had an Abortion, alongside the documentary will be a campaign, with t-shirts that say “I Was Raped,” a resource card, and portraits of women wearing the t-shirts. As part of this project, Jennifer and I are working together through Scarleteen to distribute the t-shirts and increase further awareness about rape, particularly for younger people.

What is "I Was Raped?" The “I Was Raped” Project is a documentary, t-shirt campaign, and resources designed to a) highlight the prevalence of rape in our culture and b) interrupt the silence and shame that surrounds it. The goal of this project is to add nuance to the cultural conversation around rape. The reality of rape is more subtle than the preconceptions suggest. The act of rape—as well as the emotions and reactions of the raped—fall somewhere outside of the black-and-white roles of perpetrator and victim. The current things we have in place for justice are also inadequate, since the vast majority of rape victims don’t want to or choose to press charges. The aim of this documentary is to highlight these issues, as well as to give rape survivors a voice.

Why did you want to make a film about rape? What do you see as the pros and cons in how rape has been presented in film to date? There are many good representations of rape in film and TV. The scene where Louise shoots Harlan in Thelma and Louise was electrifying because women got it -- even before it was explicitly revealed -- that Louise had been raped and that she'd do anything so that Thelma wasn't. I thought the rape of Dr. Malfi in The Sopranos was appropriately terrifying and not sexy at all (I hate it when rape is shown sexily!) Even the attempted rape of Buffy on Buffy the Vampire Slayer struck me as appropriately complex. In the documentary world, there are quite a few incredible new films, including Aishah Shahidah Simmons' film No!, for instance, and Lisa Jackson's The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo.

So, what's unique about I Was Raped? I based this project on something I worked on a few years ago called the "I Had an Abortion Project." Quite a few people pointed out to me that sexual assault, like abortion, is an incredibly common-yet-silenced experience. So, it seemed like I could pretty easily plug rape into the template I had developed around abortion.

Jennifer BaumgardnerJennifer BaumgardnerPretty early on, though, it became clear that a big difference between the two is that you might feel sad about your abortion, but you probably chose it and there is agency in that ability to steer your life. People don't choose to be raped. Further, having an abortion is an objective experience -- you know if you have had one, generally, because you sought it and don't spend the rest of your life saying "DID I have an abortion? Maybe that wasn't a real abortion." By contrast, people who've been raped tend to doubt the experience -- say things like, "Well, I would call that rape, but maybe most people wouldn't agree," or wonder whether the perpetrator knew he was raping her or thought she was into it....it's just so much more murky. The possibly unique element to this film is that, like the abortion film, the film will be composed just of ten stories, told by the women (and one man) themselves. The only experts I'm using are the people who've been raped. No activists, lawyers, or academics (unless they are also survivors).

Do you have personal experiences with rape, either as a survivor or as a friend or relative of survivors? My sister was raped when she was 14 and I was 12. It was a very typical story -- it was one of her first times drinking and she got woozy. She went to lie down and woke up to find the friend of her boyfriend on top of her. The next day she was the talk of the school -- and newly rechristened as a "slut." When I was a kid, I was just sort of baffled that my sister was so sophisticated that she'd be ready to have sex. I was just 19 months younger and was nowhere near ready. I later realized that she wasn't ready either, and didn't choose that sex (nor did she choose to be preyed upon for the rest of her high school career, thanks to her new reputation). Some of my friends in high school had similar experiences to my sister, and by the time I got to college I was exposed to a feminist framework for understanding what had happened to my friends and my sister.

How has making the film been for you as an experience so far? It's been wonderful in the sense that I have met incredible, resilient, and insightful women who entrust me with their stories. Having said that, it's also been really upsetting. Rape is usually a really humiliating experience--in addition to being a profound betrayal--and here I am asking people to relive those moments.

What's one big myth you often see about rape? One big myth is that talking about rape is "Too Much Information."

What's your take on the justice system and rape right now, and how do you feel that impacts victims and survivors? Rape is crime that goes unpunished, despite its illegality. It's very unlikely that someone who has been raped will get legal justice (the majority--60%--of rapes are not reported; only 50% of reported rapes result in an arrest; very few arrests result in a conviction). Given that, it's important to find other ways to feel like some justice has been served, whether it's writing a letter to the rapist about what was done to you or telling your story to help someone else heal.

Often, a lot of people have the idea that we've come a long way when it comes to rape in terms of awareness, the legal system, and cultural ideas about rape. Do you think we have? Where do you think we still need to go? Well, we at least have language to describe date rape and marital rape (which are most rapes), where we used to only think forced sex could happen with total strangers lurking in the bushes. I think we need to find spaces for people to be able to be open about the things that have happened to them, like rape, without defining them by that experience. All of the women I've talked to are so eager to tell their stories, yet fear being reduced to "that raped girl." A well-known, super-feminist writer of my acquaintance said that she couldn't imagine being open about her rape because people would "use it against" her--i.e. people who opposed her political insights would say, "Well, yeah, she'd say that--she was raped and is screwed up!" She felt honesty would not put the onus on the rapist to feel shame, as you'd hope, but would merely undermine her credibility as a woman in a still male-centered field.

What do you think young people, particularly, can do to help disable rape culture? I think women can practice saying "No!" a dozen times a day--yelling it or not, but looking someone right in the eye and saying "No." Because it's hard for women to--I don't know, disappoint? Be seen as mean? Be unfriendly?--a very clear no is an important muscle to have to interrupt rape culture, which relies on women being polite and not trusting their instincts or believing they can have boundaries. I think we can talk to men about our rape experiences. One woman in the film tells her son about being raped; another tells her father. Being honest and inviting men to understand and sympathize will undermine rape culture, too, which is based on silence and no one thinking they know people who've been raped. Men are raped, too, and making space for them and hearing about that experience is crucial, also.

As a feminist and an activist, what do you see a film like this as being able to accomplish? What's your wildest dream for it? I just hope it's an entry point for people to think about rape not as an abstraction, but as something that affects our circle of loved ones and needs all the brains possible to figure out strategies for eliminating rape. Wildest dream? That every high school will screen it and invite a community discussion around rape and sexual violence.

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