Inspiring People

Filmmaker and Activist, Nancy Schwartzman

Nancy Schwartzman

Nancy Schwartzman is a director, producer and activist. She is the director and producer of documentary films The Line (2009) and xoxosms (currently in production, expected April 2011 release). Schwartzman runs a group blog at Where is Your Line? and @thelinecampaign as part of a multimedia campaign to promote sex-positive dialogue about relationships, sex and consent. She is launching her second group blog Without the internet we never would have met to create a space for people to share stories exploring digital intimacy.

Schwartzman's film work is rooted in a passion for story telling and new media as she explores the inherent complexities of modern relationships. In founding, an initiative active from 2003-2005, she combined cutting edge mapping technology with community surveys and business participation. In her films and activism, she explores the challenges women and young adults face navigating desire, communication and intimacy, always engaging people to share their stories.

Schwartzman's work has been featured in The New York Times, Feministing, Ms. Magazine, Time Out New York "Sex Issue," Gawker, The Village Voice, NY Daily News,, The Feminist Review, Jezebel, Good Vibrations Magazine, Women & Hollywood, Feministe, Washington City Paper, "The Sexist Blog," HEEB, WBAI Radio "HealthStyles," Prevention Connection. Schwartzman is a graduate of Columbia University with a degree in Art History and Film, she is the recipient of grants from the Fledgling Fund and the Playboy Foundation, and recently awarded the Cinereach Reach Film Fellowship.

She is a graduate of Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn, NY with her partner and cinematographer, Isaac Mathes.

Nancy Schwartzman's courageous and eye-opening work serves to put a new stake in the ground for women's rights. With candor and intelligence, together with thoughtful consideration and a willingness to take a stand, Nancy is creating a new Women's Liberation Movement!

DR: Tell me about your project and about how you came to pick this as a subject.

NS: I knew I wanted to make a film and the subject matter kind of fell into my lap.

The film is about my own experience with sexual assault. It wasn't my intention to make a film about my own story, which is complicated. It's complicated because it's laden with sexual politics and this notion that, as an American woman, we are sexually liberated and we are encouraged by main stream media to be as sexual as possible without really understanding what that means and the politics of it and who we are being sexual for and all of that.

I came up in the early '90s in New York City with a lot of Gay friends and they were very sexually free and promiscuous and that was great with me. That was the crowd that I was in. I had no judgments. I didn't come with shame in my background around sexual behavior. Then I was assaulted and it was really confusing...

DR: What happened?

NS: I moved abroad for a year, kind of taking a break from partying and stuff...I had fallen in love with this guy. He wanted someone else. That broke my heart. So you know when you are having one of those nights when you're like "rebound"?

DR: Was this in Paris?

NS: This was in Jerusalem, actually - the opposite of Paris.

I worked at this really cool film festival and I had this rebound experience with a co-worker. He raped me, but part of it was consensual, like I went home with him and we had sex but then he sodomized me. It was so demeaning because I was like "Wait, no"...

DR: So, wait. You were saying "no"?

NS: It happened really quickly. Essentially I was saying "yes" to everything else and then he turned me over and raped me. I started screaming and then it was over and I was like "What the fuck just happened"? I mean, "I gave you everything. I came home with. We fooled around. We had sex. That was all good so then why did it turn like that? What happened?"

I just went into that space of "Holy shit!"

I had assumptions about the rules and the rules are that:

I can say "yes" and "no" to whatever.

That's what I thought was my right and it was really shown to me that that is not the case. Someone can decide that they don't want to respect me or someone can pretend that they didn't understand those rules. I went through all of this guilt and "I'm American..."

Then I came home to America and when I finally felt comfortable talking about what happened, I didn't even know that I could call it rape.

So, the challenge was around language really. What do we call this stuff? Are we allowed to call it rape? And I was a rape counselor in college so I knew what rape was on paper and on posters...but I was already in bed with him and we had partied...

THE LINE trailer from Nancy Schwartzman on Vimeo.

In the process of trying to sort it all out I discovered that this is a really political issue. Actually, the people in the states were less understanding. I thought that when I came back to New York that people would understand that this was rape. "It was fucked up because I had been 'over there'. They don't get it 'over there'". It was bullshit. I mean people that I love were not getting it.

DR: That has to have been extremely frustrating.

NS: Absolutely...

DR: I know for me, I look back on some experiences that I had in college where I was being really naïve. I found myself in situations that could have ended badly but did not and I think that perhaps it was because I was so profoundly naïve about the realities of date rape. I got lucky...I just got lucky...

As a woman I appreciate the fact that you are drawing attention to this issue.

I am wondering if you think that we have this need as human beings to separate ourselves from the possibility of something horrible happening to us by choosing to believe that if something bad has happened to someone, they had to have done something to cause that bad thing to happen.

NS: Yeah. They call it The Just World Theory. It's the belief that the world is a just place and bad things don't happen to good people so "if it happened to you than you brought it upon yourself because it's not going to happen to me."

You have to create that distance and that separation and try and pick apart the reasons why it would never happen to you. The other thing is that it does happen to a lot of other people, so women have to acknowledge their own violation. If they have to hear you and conclude that "Wow. That was a rape?" than they have to acknowledge that it happened to them too and that's really hard.

The thing about what happened to me – I definitely had those moments where I was like "Wow I got out of that really lucky!" Hitch-hiking at sixteen and ending up in some swampy apartment and how I got out of there was really lucky. All of this stuff I used to do? I was lucky many, many times.

But this time was different. I didn't get lucky and that's kind of the take away of the film. That night I was unlucky.

I went home with a man who chose not to respect my screams. He just chose not to hear them. In some ways people will say that I did everything wrong but I did everything right. I articulated what I didn't want.

I have this whole campaign that goes along with the film and I ask people to define where their line is. People see the film and then fill out a sheet. I have literature that says things like "I am a sexual being not a sexual object" or "It changes. Please ask. Please Listen" or I am a whole not a hole". It's push back that's really powerful.

The film follows my personal story but also opens it up to this larger conversation about consent...

It was really cool that The Fledgling Fund supported my project because I'm cursing in the film and I'm very up front about who I was before and that is really important. I didn't have to include that stuff. I could have made myself look a lot better because I'm a filmmaker. But I decided not to do that. This is who I am. No apologies.

DR: What I like about that is the fact that it doesn't matter who you are or how you are. A violation is a violation. It goes back to our culture always wanting to make it the woman's fault.

Last week I was walking down the street in Soho and passed some construction workers who were verbally harassing me with the usual sexually degrading catcalls and gestures from behind my back as I walked by. I decided to stand there and call 311 and report what was happening just so I didn't feel so powerless but also as a mother, I have to take a stand for my daughter and for other young women who have to put up with this kind of bullshit. But, even as I stood there angry and fearless, I found myself second guessing the outfit that I had decided to wear that day as if somehow I was considering that I might be to blame for the asshole-ish behavior of these jerks.

NS: I mean, yeah. What about your daughter? What about the fact that we have to totally self-police?

For me, when I moved to Jerusalem, it was really about how you dress. You are really inviting a lot of unwanted attention if you don't dress in a certain way. I remember observing how interesting it was that part of me liked covering and wearing baggy stuff. It was very different. It was very exotic and freeing. I discovered that I could have a friendship with a man and it could be really chaste and he doesn't know what my shape is. That's kind of interesting and it sort of puts you in this neutral territory. But I didn't like it when it was oppression and it was like "Oh I have to wear this shit or people are going to treat me like I am inviting there unwanted glances and touches or whatever. So, yeah. My self-policing mechanism went in right away – "Is it the tank top or maybe the parachute shorts...?"

Or like if somebody is hassling you on the subway platform and you call them out and then you're really embarrassed? And then you just quietly check, "Are the people around me going to be on my side? Is anyone backing me up? Do I deserve this?" All of that stuff...

DR: What was the turning point for you in deciding to talk about what happened to you?

NS: Well I had all of this footage from when I had been in Jerusalem and I guess as I started to kind of quietly tell people back home what happened and I realized that they didn't get it and I realized that there was a lot of education that still needed to happen.

People didn't get that I had a story. They didn't get that.... I don't like to use the term "gray area" because that suggests that it's not really that bad or not rape. But it's that space where it's not the stranger on the street. And in this culture where we do "hook-up" and we go out and we have casual sex or you're in college and you let the guy come sleep in your bed but you are clear that we're not having sex and the guy gets that. You know what I mean? It's that kind of culture that my mother wouldn't understand. So within the space of our "hook up" culture these rapes and violations are happening and we don't have a language for them so we don't really talk about them.

I realized that I had a story and I decided to go back to Jerusalem and confront him and talk to him with a hidden camera. When I came home with that footage I decided that I had to build a film around this. The film gave me purpose because I had this conversation with someone who we can call a perpetrator who denies and squirms in his chair...There's no "I did it. I'm guilty" but what I love as a visual piece is you can see his discomfort. It was a powerful part of the narrative. Having that footage convinced me to make the film.

DR: So where there any charges that were pressed against him?

NS: No. It's a foreign country and I didn't feel comfortable in their legal system but I've learned a lot since making the film. The lawyers that I talked to for the film were all defense attorneys. One of the attorneys said that if you've done anything to make you something less than a perfect victim, you are doomed.

That is the message we all hear.

There are a million reasons why I am not the perfect victim. I mean I'm so far from a virgin it's not even funny. So that is what I learned and heard and what society reinforced. What I learned since doing the film is that there are some really good prosecutors out there who will take these cases and I'm actually helping a young woman right now. She has a very similar case as mine. I applaud her for pressing charges and there are people who will give her great advice and take her case.

Another thing I learned is that the courtroom is not necessarily a place to find justice. It's a place to go through the legal process. For me, justice came in making the film and taking it out and presenting and talking people about it and creating a language to talk about consent. If more women can stop being blamed for this kind of stuff and if we can put the responsibility where it belongs, on the people who commit the acts, then that is justice for me.

DR: My daughter is about to go out into the world and I am concerned that she feel empowered. I am interested in girls being able to take back some of their power. Are you doing work that is more directly aimed at girls and for that matter, what about boys?

NS: That is the other thing about the film. This is not just for girls. It's for boys and there are two really strong voices in the film that belong to men. One is John McPherson who is an NFL quarterback who now does all this work to educate men about masculinity and challenging masculinity and educating them about violence. He says we raise women to survive in a rape culture yet we do nothing to educate men. We burden women instead of going to the source of the problem and saying "Hey dude! Sex is about an exchange and about a partnership and not this thing that you do to a woman".

The other man is a lawyer. I teamed up with Men Can Stop Rape, this non-profit organization that goes out to boys in middle school, high school and college and challenge dominate stories of masculinity and having certain feelings...

I am definitely working with young men and I love that.

I think the film is fine for high school students. It's just hard to get it into high schools. I'm trying now to get it into fraternities and sororities but I want to get it a little bit edited for high schools. Even if I can just get all of the guidance counselors to see it, that would be great.

Part of the films whole process is getting people to even think about their boundaries. We are allowed to have them. Where are your limits? You are free to explore them and it would be great to explore them with someone that you trust...

DR: And even then, and even when you are in a situation it doesn't mean that you still can't navigate within your comfort zone, "Okay, now I want to stop".

NS: You should be able to be in a "maybe" space and feel safe enough in that "maybe" space...

DR: What is your overall objective for the film?

NS: For one thing, a lot of men have said to me that the film has really made me think twice. It's like reclaiming the understanding around boundaries and consent. Also, I think it's important to let young women know that it's not their fault ff something happens and it's not something to be ashamed of. Society tries to suggest that it's not that bad if it happens but it sucks and at the same time, it's nothing to be ashamed of.

Lastly, putting the responsibility on the people who do the perpetrating. That is just number one. I'm going to call myself a slut before you're going to call me a slut and it still doesn't matter. These kinds of experiences are not okay. They are rape and rape is rape. Bottom line. All of these definitions have been so eroded.

DR: 100 Years from now what do you want to be remembered for?

NS: I want to be remembered for creating radical sex-positive dialogue.

Thanks Nancy!



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More about Nancy Schwartzman here!

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Our most popular programs:

Where is Your Line?

The Line film is the jumping off point for an in-depth conversation about the perceived "grey area" in sexual assault, and the myth of the "perfect victim." During the course of the workshop, students will analyze the complicated and ambivalent ways sexual assault is often framed and understood in our culture. With a sex-positive approach, participants will discuss how to facilitate events and conversations on campus around sexual health and safety, pleasure and consent, and the legal rights and politics surrounding gender violence.

Back to School

The highest instances of sexual assault on college campus occur between the months of September – November. Part of orientation programming, Back to School is geared toward incoming first year students who are just discovering the freedom of being away from home, co-ed dorms, hooking up and parties. Resident advisors and faculty use Back to School as a violence prevention measure, and to keep channels of communication open year round.

Hot Safe Spring Break!

Geared specifically toward Fraternity and Sororities, this program combines a screening and discussion in the house party model. We package the program, and house leaders facilitate. Perfect for the weeks leading up to Spring Break – Hot Safe Spring Break! emphasizes safe, consensual ways to party at the beach, and encourages bystander intervention among friends.

Using Activism to Confront and Transform Rape Culture

As an activist, Nancy has dedicated her energies to addressing sexual health and safety, pleasure and consent. This workshop will examine two very different strategies crafted to address violence against women. The creation of combined cutting edge mapping technology with community surveys and business participation. "where is your line?" campaign, involves creating a sex-positive language to discuss boundaries and consent. The workshop asks: How can you create something that is collaborative, sustainable and addresses the needs of the community, without burning yourself out?

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