Even though the movement to end sexual assault on campus is running strong, rape remains a difficult topic to talk about. Inevitably, it brings up high emotions and debate often devolves into fear and hate. So, it is more important than ever that we have deep human stories about what it feels like to live through this experience. These stories support the hard and necessary work of activists by speaking to the hearts of their audience about why all this difficult talk and political action matters. For the past year and a half, I’ve been putting together a film that tells one such story.
At it’s core, Yeah Maybe, No is the story of Blake, a college student wrestling with the memory of a bad relationship and coming to terms with the fact that he was sexually assaulted. This is the story of what sexual assault looks like when it happens through psychological coercion rather than brute force. I was inspired to make this film because I lived through a similar experience, and because of the manipulative nature of the act, I blamed myself for far too long.
Blake’s story is his own, but there are many parallels between our two experiences. My assault took place when I was 12 at an amusement park. I went with a neighbor who was a bit older than me, and, for the first time ever, I left the house with the intention to flirt. I remember feeling both excited and awkward when there was finally a boy paying attention to me. It is only now that I’m older and wiser that I see how the whole thing followed a clear pattern of assault. It started with little transgressions, like graphic jokes and leaning in too close to see how I would respond. I wanted to impress the older kids, so I played along even though I felt like running. Eventually, these little boundary violations lead to bigger ones until I was alone with one guy, confused and dissociated. I felt something like fear, but mostly just numb.
I knew something big had happened, but I had no words for it other than sex. I grew up in a repressed environment where we didn’t talk about “it” except to say that it was bad and something you did when you were married. Based on the movies and TV I was watching, I thought I was supposed to feel accomplished and cool for being a rebel, but mostly I felt sick and tried not to think about it.
Until my late twenties, I continued to think of this as just something bad that happened. Every now and then, I would wonder if it was rape, but another part of me would shake it off with “boys will be boys” or “what did you think was going to happen?” The word “naive” popped up a lot. By that time I was in my late twenties, I was well-read in feminism. I had ranted against victim-blaming, but it wasn’t until a boyfriend repeated my story back to me that it clicked. I had been sexually assaulted and blamed myself. The metaphorical scales fell off my eyes.
By that point, I was already a documentary filmmaker, and I knew that I would make a film about sexual assault. The fact that I had lived for 15 years with such deeply internalized self-blame had humbled me greatly, and I wanted to tell a story that would help other people in a similar spot.
And that’s when I met Blake. He is a student at Reed College, the same small liberal arts college I that graduated from ten years ago. In 2011, students demanded that Reed do a better job handling sexual assault cases on campus. Reed took this seriously, and not only changed their policy around assault, but also took proactive steps to educate students to educate students about consent and healthy sexuality. In Blake’s words, “All aspects of sex where being discussed… it was something subterranean dragged out into sunlight.” Through Reed’s efforts to create a safe and healthy space, Blake’s had unprecedented institutional support for his experience.
Outside of the bubble of Reed College, activists, such as Know You IX are putting pressure on colleges throughout the country to change their policies to support survivors. And in January, President Obama announced that the White House has even convened a task force to address assault on campus. We are in a potential moment of change, but it needs to be change that matters. Currently RAINN, the nation’s largest organization working to end sexual violence, is urging the white house to focus on taking rapists through the criminal justice system.
Our film speaks with people working alongside the justice system to question the value of sending young sex offenders through punitive sanctions such as the sex offender registry. The fact is that our legal system was built in an era without sophisticated social research, and there is compelling evidence that we’re getting it wrong. Education, counseling and community-based efforts to hold young offenders accountable are demonstrably more effective at changing violent patterns of behavior.
Blake does not vilify the man who assaulted him, nor does he seek revenge. Instead, he asks for compassion and empathy from those who hear his story, so that he can move on. He is breaking the cycle of violence in a way that punishment through the criminal justice system cannot. As a survivor, this is the hardest part for me accept. I want to be angry. I want to rage. But if my goal is truly to prevent violence, I need to look at what works to end it. Efforts based in empathy and compassion don’t just sound good in theory, they work in practice.
I have learned so much from Blake, and part of that is that he’s a man talking about what people often think of as “violence against women.” I did not set out to find a man to talk about being assaulted, but working with him has challenged me to think beyond my own gender politics that often refer to men as predators and women as prey. It’s not “men” who commit violence. It is rapists and abusers. These people are often men, but the overwhelming majority of men are not. And when men are victims, it’s even harder to for them to come forward than it is for women. Since I started working on this project, I’ve been surprised by how many men have quietly told me their experiences and the deep shame they feel.
There is an important discussion that we need to be having right now to bring discussions of sexual violence into a supportive space where we can take real steps to combat it. We do need to put pressure on schools and universities to do more, but we also need to educate the general population so that people stop blaming themselves for what happened. With so much misinformation and sensationalized reporting, it’s hard not to fall into patterns of victim-blaming or disbelief. But that needs to stop. I’m making this film to add my voice to the call for change. I hope you can join me.