The Line: A New Doc About Consent

[Trigger warning]

THE LINE trailer from Nancy Schwartzman on Vimeo.

I met Nancy Schwartzman, the director of and a principal in the new short documentary The Line, last year when she was looking for resources about consent in the sex industry as possibilities for inclusion in her documentary. I was really taken with her project, which is not just a documentary about sexual boundaries and the line of consent, but also an autobiographical project about a date rape she experienced, the reactions of her friends, and the eventual (on hidden camera and included in the film) confrontation of her rapist. When I taught my intro to human sexuality course at Rutgers University at Newark last fall, I asked her to be a guest, screen her film, and talk with my students about consent. It was pretty amazing and intense, in a way that I wasn’t entirely equipped to deal with (as an aside, the biggest thing I’ve learned about teaching a sexuality course at the college level is that it is crucial to provide resources and potential avenues of support for students for whom difficult stuff comes up).

My classes at Rutgers tend to be pretty gender balanced, racially and ethnically very mixed, and not at all the gender studies crowd – my students take the class because it fulfills an undergraduate science requirement. This means that the class is generally heterosexual and cisgendered (and has a lot of trouble tangling with the concept of cis), but they’re also eager to discuss sexuality in depth, in ways that most of them have never had the opportunity and invitation to do.

Nancy handled the screening and conversation afterwards with grace and aplomb, and we really dug into the idea of consent and crossing the line, and we especially talked about men and responsibility. We talked about the idea of enthusiastic consent, which Heather Corinna writes about so well in her piece on Scarleteen, How You Guys Can Prevent Rape. Here’s my most favorite snippet from Heather’s piece:

When someone wants to, really wants to, have sex with us, we’ll know because that person will be taking a very active role, will be saying — if not yelling! — “Yes!” or “Please!” or “Do me NOW!” We may know because that person is the one initiating sex, at least as often as we are. (If you’re going to say that younger women just aren’t like that yet, know that isn’t always true. Some are, but those who aren’t likely aren’t because things are either moving too fast, or they really just aren’t ready for or that interested in sex with you yet.) We’ll know because it will feel like something we are absolutely doing together, that couldn’t happen if the other person wasn’t just as engaged as we are (imagine trying to dance with someone else when they’re just standing there or not really paying attention: same goes with sex). We’ll know because our partners will absolutely not “just be lying there.”

I was really interested in what the conversation and film brought up for men, and several of the men in the class spoke articulately and honestly about how it made them feel and what it made them question. However, the really great stuff came in the form of response papers. Here is a snippet from a response paper that one of my straight cismale students wrote:

I found this documentary to be interesting because of the way it made me think about all of my past sexual experiences. Did I ever cross that line? Was I ever too pushy with a girl? Did a girl ever do something she didn’t want to with me, just to get it over with? Have I ever made a girl feel uncomfortable being alone with me? Questions like this will make a man rethink everything he has done with a woman. This documentary touches on a subject that today still hasn’t clearly been established. There are so many unanswered questions regarding that line, and these types of questions make it difficult for a woman to come forward and allow our judicial system to do what it was created for. Regardless of what the situation may be, I believe the man is more responsible for knowing where exactly that line begins, and where it ends.

If you want to have Nancy bring The Line to your school or community center, you should check out her website and drop her a note. It is a really great tool for moving conversations about consent forward, and Nancy is just amazing – and brave for sharing her own story in such an intense way. She’s working on a curriculum to teach with the film and has lots of thoughts provoking activities that she’s created with high school and college students in mind. You can also be a fan of the film on Facebook and find out where she’s screening it next.

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12 comments for “The Line: A New Doc About Consent

  1. August 6, 2009 at 10:25 am

    I’m glad your student seems to “get it.” It always makes me happy when a guy* gets it, or when a straight/cis person who’s not a declared queer ally gets it, etc.

    *whom I don’t know via a feminist blog or other feminist space

  2. Qedeshet
    August 6, 2009 at 11:24 am

    It is really great to hear that you are including consent in your classes- too often, it seems that it is a topic that is either completely ignored or shamefully under represented in sex and sexuality classes and discussions. This project seems like a unique and intersting way of facilitating that discussion.


    How is it ok for the filmmaker to film- and then include in a documentary that we would like thousands of people to see- a conversation that was (I am assuming, since it was a hidden camera) conducted in private without his consent? Not having seen the film in it’s entirety, maybe I am missing something. But based on this short description alone, it just seems that including a video clip obtained in such a manner is a gross violation of his rights as well.

  3. Iggles
    August 6, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    Qedeshet – I disagree.

    Confronting her attacker is well within the victim’s rights. It’s not a private issue. He’s lucky he wasn’t charged for rape — which is a crime. No one tells families of murder victims that they have to keep things private or else they are violating the “alleged” murderer’s rights.

  4. Shisan
    August 6, 2009 at 11:06 pm

    Qedeshet- Also, as long as one party in the conversation realizes that they are being recorded, it’s completely legal for him to be recorded and the recording to be used without his consent. Police do this all the time. Having not seen the film either (though I really want to now), it could be that his identifying features were blurred in the video as well. I also think that she does have a right to confront her rapist and that he doesn’t have an expectation of privacy in that situation.

  5. rachel
    August 7, 2009 at 8:21 am

    This is interesting. I’ll have to check it out.

  6. August 7, 2009 at 9:21 am

    In the confrontation scene, the rapist’s features are blurred. And – I agree that Nancy had the right to confront him and document it. I don’t think this perpetuates a climate of non-consent, instead it encourages empowerment in survivors.

  7. Elaine Vigneault
    August 7, 2009 at 10:11 am

    Consent has always been fascinating to me. What qualifies as consent? when is silence consent? who is capable of giving consent?

    It’s a concept that stretches far beyond rape, far beyond feminism… it’s, in my opinion, THE central tenant in any sort of rights-style philosophy.

    I’m curious to see the film.

  8. Qedeshet
    August 7, 2009 at 2:02 pm

    The fact that his features are blurred makes it a bit better in my head- is his name mentioned specifically? I definitely agree and support the right of a survivor to confront her attacker, i just have some issues with that confrontation being turned into public material without the knowledge and consent of the other party. I have issues with empowering one person at the expense of another, regardless of the circumstances. I have a hard time expressing the way that thoughst swirl around in my head, but i think my end thought is that the public accusation aspect is- in part- the role of the role of the judicial system. And yes, iI know that the system has a whole slew of other issues that surround it, but I don’t think that bypassing the system is the way to change anything.

    I don’t know how to make my point without sounding like I am defending the actions of the man involved, but it just feels wrong to me.

  9. August 7, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    Hey — its Nancy, the filmmaker, here. Thanks for all of your comments. I’d love for you all to check out the film and talk in more detail.

    Regarding privacy/hidden camera and consent: Qedeshet– I thought long and hard about the hidden camera component – am I violating his privacy? Am I tarnishing my own ethics as a filmmaker? How much do I need to care about him? Will I get sued?

    I consulted a lot of people, and for the first time in my life I met with a rabbi. We sort of weighed the acts on the scales of justice and he felt that it was well within my rights ethically to have the conversation and film it, and this violation of his privacy/consent does not equal or outweigh his violation of me, my body, my trust, etc.

    I felt for safety purposes that the bringing the camera was the only way I would feel strong enough to meet him. The camera was the eye, the witness, the other “being” that I didn’t have in the bedroom that night, so I needed the protection of a witness to gather some semblance of “the truth”.

    In the final version of the film, I’ve almost completely blacked out his face. All identifying features (nose, birthmark, etc) are removed. We are left with his words and his body language. Legally, I’m covered.

    Things are about to get interesting as I have been invited to show the film at the International Women’s Film Festival in Israel, which could lead to a broadcast, so this will be the natural time to alert him of the film an dperhaps even invite him to the screening! I’ll be blogging about the process, to keep my sanity!

  10. MarkusR
    August 8, 2009 at 8:35 am

    Could it be a good rule of thumb to never have sex with someone who is drunk? Even if you have no intent on raping the person, what you are doing could still be rape. The only problem here is kinda like the public intoxication laws. When exactly would you consider over the limit? A couple drinks might just have a metal relaxing effect, but a six-pack? I can easily see quite a few people accidentally crossing the line because their partner’s degree of intoxication was too great to provide full and free consent.

  11. August 20, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    Thank your for this post; I have not yet seen the film, but I certainly look forward to it, as any discussion around consent – something that we are very much in need of discussing further in this culture – is a good thing.

    For those interested, we’ve just recently had an interesting discussion sharing thoughts on defining consent on the Prevention Connection listserv (via Yahoo Groups).

    MarkusR: I would say the question for me is not “could it be a good rule of thumb” but perhaps why did the current system become so entrenched in the first place; how did it come to pass that we have perpetuated a culture that thinks that getting intoxicated and having sex that neither party may fully remember the next day is somehow sexy or desirable? It pains me that this is the modus operandi on many of the college campus across the nation.

    I must also disagree, slightly, with your student, who states:
    “Regardless of what the situation may be, I believe the man is more responsible for knowing where exactly that line begins, and where it ends.” — no, that line is different for every person and every situation, and it’s not about the man being responsible for knowing as much as it is about all of us learning to communicate about our boundaries (and not presume, impose, or ignore).

    – stephen montagna
    men stopping rape, inc.
    madison, wi
    ~ a valuable part of the movement to end sexual violence since 1983 ~

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