Filming to Shatter the Stigma

by Jennifer Baumgardner

I was finishing a writing and film project breaking through the contemporary silences about abortion experiences when a photographer acquaintance said, “You know what else is a common secret Rape.” I knew she was right.

The goal of the abortion project, I Had An Abortion had been to encourage people to “come out” about abortions for political and personal reasons. It’s political because abortion occurs in one in three women’s lives, as well as the lives of many men. I filmed women and let them tell their stories. We photographed women in simple tee-shirts that said “I Had An Abortion.”

Seeing the true faces of women who have had abortions means looking at our mothers, sisters, best friends, pastors, daughters and selves — not some scary, irresponsible bogey figure who doesn’t “deserve” an abortion. Seeing people we know makes it harder to demonize and restrict abortions.

But the more important goal ended up being personal. As a longtime pro-choice activist, I hadn’t realized how little space was available to talk about abortion experiences — not the politics or laws, but the details of one’s own pregnancy, the decision to have an abortion, the day at the clinic and the emotional aftermath.

When my photographer friend said that rape was another common yet silenced experience, I decided to undertake an I Was Raped project. Within weeks of the launch, I received dozens of calls and emails from women who wanted to share their story. I was gratified, as I had been with the abortion project, by how much I was learning about an intractable issue.

Immediately, too, I was hit with how different the experiences are. While needing an abortion is often a hard, sad time in one’s life, there is agency in choosing to have an abortion. Rape happens to someone — it’s a violation, a humiliation and a loss of power. The power in telling one’s rape story is, in part, to divest oneself of the guilt and sense of complicity that so many rape victims feel and to get comfort from others who have shared the experience.

But the fear in coming out is just as menacing. People who have been assaulted fear that they will be reduced to their experience and become just that “raped girl.” Of the several journalists who interviewed me after the rape project launched, all but two revealed to me that they had been raped. One older woman writer said matter-of-factly: “I was raped in my dorm room one afternoon by my roommates boyfriend. Afterward, he said, That wasn’t as good as I thought it would be.'” Another grimaced at my concerned expression as she described her rape by a high school sweetheart. “You don’t have to give me that look–that worried face,” she said. “I’m not permanently damaged.”

One well-known feminist journalist told me, when I asked her to share her story, for I Was Raped: “I can’t — people would think that all of my feminist beliefs, any strong opinion I have about any issue, are because I was raped and I’m bitter and screwed up.”

“But rape is so common,” I countered, “aren’t there millions of women and men who would share your vantage point It’s the isolation that makes you feel vulnerable, right” She didn’t know if that were the case, and didn’t want to risk finding out who was right.

The silence from the outspoken famous writer really struck me. She can’t trust that people will understand the complexity of her story, that they won’t just blame her or say “that doesn’t sound that bad” or “was that really rape” or look at her, not with compassion, but an ability to write off anything she believes with “you know, she was raped.” She can’t trust because there is such revulsion and silencing and misunderstanding around this common experience–and the only way to change the reality of rape is to listen (really listen, simply listen) to complicated and hard-to-hear stories.

December 3, 2008

Jennifer Baumgardner is the author of Abortion & Life and Look Both Ways. See more about I Was Raped at

Also see RAPE NEW YORK by Jana Leo in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See Media Tools Counter War Violence by Ariel Dougherty in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


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