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The Chosen Ones: An Interview With Nancy Schwartzman

The director on rape culture, consent, and how far we still have to go in the fight against sexual harassment

Periel Aschenbrand
July 18, 2018
Photo credit: Mikaela Martin
Nancy SchwartzmanPhoto credit: Mikaela Martin
Photo credit: Mikaela Martin
Nancy SchwartzmanPhoto credit: Mikaela Martin

Nancy Schwartzman, a documentary film director, producer, and media strategist, recently finished her first full length feature film, Roll Red Roll. Along with a slew of other impressive accolades, it received the 2018 Special Selection from Tribeca Film Festival. Here is the film’s official description:

In small-town Ohio, at a preseason football party, a horrible incident took place. What transpired would garner national attention and result in the sentencing of two key offenders. As amateur crime blogger Alex Goddard uncovers disturbing evidence on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, documenting the assault of a teenage girl by members of the beloved high school football team, questions linger around the collusion of teen and adult bystanders. Roll Red Roll explores the complex motivations of both perpetrators and bystanders in this story, to unearth the attitudes at the core of their behavior. The Steubenville story acts as a cautionary tale of what can happen when adults look the other way and deny that rape culture exists. With unprecedented access to police documents, exhibits and evidence, the documentary feature unflinchingly asks: “Why didn’t anyone stop it?”

I sat down to talk to Nancy about how far we’ve come in addressing sexual violence, and how far we still have to go.

Periel Aschenbrand: I feel like it’s everything I’ve seen you working on in the past 15 years all come together in the most perfect and perfectly horrific story. Is that accurate?

Nancy Schwartzman: It feels that way in terms of sexual violence, gender based violence, rape culture, technology. … My first film, The Line, talked about consent and rape culture and basically the thing there was educating people that there was a thing as consent. Hi, 2009. Hi, Bush administration, no sex ed. … I would go to colleges in 2010 and 18-year-olds would be like, “What?” They just had no idea.

PA: They didn’t know what consent meant?

NS: No. They would be like, “What is that?” They would say things like, “Well, she was in my room … if we’re already fooling around it’s a done deal.” The lack of information …

PA: … is astonishing.

NS: Nobody knew anything. It was like Girls Gone Wild. And the app I created, Circle of Six, came about because so many people would come up to me after the film and tell me that they had been assaulted. So we got a new president and they hired a chief technology officer at the White House and there was all this new energy and we created the app really based on the stories I’d heard. We were super early and we got a ton of adoption.

PA: What did the app do?

NS: Basically enables the person using it to connect to six people that they choose and you program it before you go out, when you get to college or whatever. It harnesses your own friend group that you choose and trust with a really beautiful and simple user interface, two taps: “Come and get me, I need help” is one of the messages, with your GPS or “Call and interrupt me,” is a big one and the third one is “I need to talk,” which a lot of young people use. And because at the bottom it says, “Sent through Circle of Six” kids know exactly what it is about. It’s a shorthand, even, to say, “Something weird happened and I don’t feel OK and I don’t have the language for it.” So that was really surprising to learn how people were using it. And we also embed amazing sexual health resources on the app that are consent based and sex positive. So everything about the app is about harm reduction and no judgment.

PA: Tell me about the film.

NS: I read about it in The New York Times, when the story first broke, in December of 2012. My dad actually dropped the article in my lap and my first thought was like, yeah, this is happening all over the world. How is this different? But once I saw the social media and how blatant it was … because what I wanted to do was make a story about sexual assault that wasn’t centered around the victims. Because we know those stories. I know those stories, because I am a victim, it happened to me … for me to move the needle as an activist, I want to know why this happens. I want to know how this happens in the mind of a man who commits sexual assault. And his friends who sit back and watch. Or the guys who guard the door. Or the guys who take photos. I want to hear from them. That to me is the psychology of how this happens.

PA: And that’s how you help stop it.

NS: I think so. And what was amazing about the Steubenville story was in response to my question, how was I going to get access to what goes on in the mind of perpetrators, it was right there, tweet after tweet after tweet.

PA: Do you feel like you gained an understanding of the psychology?

NS: What I learned and what comes out in the film is that this is completely learned behavior. We are steeped in rape culture like a toxic tea. The high school I went to had rapes every weekend. They had girls bullying and shaming other girls. This is what everyone expected. When you go out with the “cool seniors” or the “football team,” this is what you should expect. So digging in to Steubenville, we got all the tweets and the police reports and 400,000 text messages, I wanted to show the different facets of covering your ass. But it’s everyone. It’s mean girls, it’s adults who minimize it, it’s people who say, “It’s always been like this, what’s the big deal?” I think we’re finally ready to acknowledge it’s a big deal and we’re all complicit in it. And it’s really laid bare in the film.

PA: Do you think that it’s changing?

NS: I think so. I don’t think you can watch the film and at the end of it say, “It’s no big deal.” Not a single person can sit through the film and say, this behavior is acceptable and I want my child to behave this way. This is for men.

PA: That’s what Eve Ensler has always said. This is about talking to men and engaging men and getting them involved, because that’s how this stops.

NS: Yeah.

PA: We’ve been telling these stories since the beginning of time. Nobody gives a shit.

NS: Right, exactly.

PA: It’s the guys who need to call each other out. The onus is on you guys.

NS: The big question at the end of my first film, The Line, which is, again, all about consent, is how can we make sure we respect the line. And I was doing a Q&A with the audience after and one guy stood up and said, “I actually think you were raped.” And I was like, “I was. I’m clear as a fucking bell.” He said he never knew you could be in the middle of something and then it turns into something else. Then we did this Where Is the Line campaign. I come forward to say–and this isn’t against sports, there is a lot of value in team sports—but all the coaches who are obsessed with making sure their players aren’t drinking, need to be as obsessed with making sure their players aren’t raping.

PA: Seems pretty simple.

NS: Just add that in to your list of rules, and things might really change quickly.

PA: This seems like a very simple concept. It never ceases to amaze me. So the million-dollar question is how does a nice Jewish girl from the suburbs of Philadelphia wind up making a movie about rape about a football team?

NS: In rustbelt Ohio, you ask? I went to football games in Steubenville. I said the Pledge of Allegiance, with the marching band. I asked myself that question. It’s this ritual I’ve never been a part of. This is an America I didn’t grow up with. It’s poignant. It reminded me of my grandfather.

PA: Where is your grandfather from?

NS: He’s from PA but he’s older … it’s like, does this America exist anymore? It obviously does.

PA: Did you grow up with this stuff?

NS: Not at all. I grew up nine miles outside of Philadelphia in a really diverse area. We had a horrendous football team in my high school.

PA: You obviously experienced sexual assault/rape and I imagine saw it a lot around you?

NS: Yes. Even though the high school I went to couldn’t have been more different than Steubenville, culturally, it was exactly the same. For us, it wasn’t the football team raping, it was the rich kids raping.

PA: And did you have access to … what was your Circle of Six?

NS: Nothing. No one talked about it.

PA: You weren’t allowed to talk about it? How long after did you talk about it? If I may ask?

NS: I wasn’t assaulted in high school but I witnessed my two best friends, very pretty freshman girls, raped by their boyfriends.

PA: Was that the language that they used back then?

NS: No. If someone is telling you that they had sex and they are weeping and crying, you know it’s not something they wanted. No one said the R word but the next day in school, all the girls made sure to call my friend a slut and a sleaze. It was very much a cultural thing of the new freshman girls are going to get wasted and let’s see who’s stupid enough to get raped. That was my upper middle class suburban Philly high school. And we didn’t have language for that. We didn’t know what that was. We didn’t understand. I knew that a lot of people close to me were having those experiences. I got to college, I went to Columbia, and I was attracted to that because they were doing Take Back the Night and it was that I learned the words for everything: rape, child sexual abuse, etc. I had many friends who were sexually assaulted by adults when they were children. And I was assaulted when I was 25. And by that time, I knew it was completely not normal and not OK. Everyone who tried to deny my experience, I was like, “Shut the fuck up, I know what I’m talking about. That’s not sex, that’s rape.” So I was able to tell a story around it. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t completely traumatizing and confusing but I was still able to tell a story.

PA: Right. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, because it’s confusing. I think the work you do is so important because you’re giving girls language and power. And you’re also giving it to boys.

NS: Thank you. That’s a really nice way to put it.

Periel Aschenbrand, a comedian at heart, is the author of On My Kneesand The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.