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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.
 
 
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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 i mmediately, 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.

 
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