In “Yeah Maybe, No” filmmaker Kelly Kend interviews a male rape survivor and explores the dynamics of doubt that cloud our collective understanding of consent.
Consent meant nothing to me. And rape is something that happens to somebody in a dark alley by a hooded man with a knife.
These are the words that Blake, the college-student subject of Kelly Kend’s documentary “Yeah Maybe, No” speaks as he reveals what he thought rape was—before it happened to him. Blake’s ability to understand that he’d been forced to have sex was impaired both by society’s stereotypes and the lukewarm reactions of his classmates, who said things like, “Really, you know that just kind of sounds like it was a crappy situation,” or “Really? You know, it’s really unclear as to really what that was.”
Blake’s response goes right to the heart of the matter. “Well, sure. But … I have feelings about it.”
The filmmaker behind “Yeah No, Maybe” is Kelly Kend, a young woman who studied anthropology in college at a time when campus policies on sexual assault were not as robust as they are now. Kend began using video as a tool in her research, finding it “a powerful way to communicate with and influence large groups of people.” Her interest in sex education and gender issues led her to write an essay about improving sex ed in schools as part of her graduate school application. But after eight years of work, Kend found herself frustrated with “never being able to find the right story and never feeling confident in her own skills.”
Her watershed moment was realizing that her own unresolved personal trauma—involving a sexual assault that occurred at an amusement park when she was 12—was preventing her from “making the film I wanted to make.” Previous efforts to move forward triggered Kend in a way that paralyzed her with panic, and she had to do her own personal work to get to the point where she could engage with the topic both from her experience and with a measure of professional detachment. “There were a lot of reasons I had to face it,” she says, “including losing hold on the ability to be a functional adult.” Kend describes her assault in an entry on her blog.
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.
It is at this point that Kend met Blake, a student at her alma mater, Reed College. Reed had recently instituted strong policies concerning sexual assault and begun to proactively educate students about consent and healthy sexuality. Kend explains that “the institutional support Blake received from Reed enabled him to come to terms with his experience, come forward with it, recover from it, and participate in my project to share it with a broader audience through film.” It is the kind of support Kend wished she had when she was 12. Says Kend, “Reed gave Blake the vocabulary he needed to speak about his experience and understand it in more than just an intellectual way.” And as Kend began to work with Blake, she experienced a similar transformation, as a male rape victim uncertain of what transpired reflected back to her a version of her own story. This powerful mirroring enabled her own healing and sets the tone for the film.
“Yeah No, Maybe” is not a “rape prevention” video. It is a more subtle exploration of our ingrained attitudes about sexual assault—what constitutes it, who it happens to, how we recover from it, and how we can respond more effectively to survivors. Behind every assault is a “deep, human story.” The film also breaks through the prevailing myths of how rape happens and how targeting—prevalent on so many college campuses—works.
Kend’s choice to use a man as the victim of rape was not intentional but came to define her project in a meaningful way. As she writes on her blog:
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 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. I feel more strongly than ever that I want to do something to support them.
Blake’s attitude also supports a new model of empathy and compassion that informs Kend’s work with the justice system and organizations involved in education and prevention.
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.
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.
Kend offers the following message as the crux of why she is making “Yeah Maybe, No.”
There is so much fear and anger around this topic. People are afraid of the label of “rape victim” or “rape survivor,” because it’s a painful one to acknowledge. That fear and pain can result in survivors redefining their experience as something different, something less affecting, less wrong than what it was. It’s easier to push it down and ignore it, to say “I was young and stupid,” than to face the uncomfortable fact that we lost agency over our bodies and were forced to give up control. People need to be educated and learn that sexual violence is not just what we may see in movies and on television—that it can be manipulative and coercive—and that it affects both men and women. I want to bridge the gap between theory and experience, to let people know that on the one hand this could happen to them, may even have happened to them without their fully realizing it, but on the other hand show them they are not alone, that admitting they’ve been victimized is not as scary as they think, that it doesn’t mean you’re broken forever or that you’ll never enjoy sex again—that it is possible to get over it. Making this film has been at times emotionally overwhelming for me, given my own experience, but the overwhelmingly positive response makes it all worthwhile.
Kend’s work on “Yeah Maybe, No” is nearing completion, but she still needs funding for shooting a major scene, music licensing, sound engineering and color correction, as well as to commission illustrations by artist Lucy Bellwood to accompany the film. She is currently working with sexual assault resource centers to organize community screenings and plans to submit the film to festivals to obtain the widest possible audience.
You can support the completion and distribution of “Yeah No, Maybe” by backing the film on Kickstarter, as I have already done. Kelly Kend’s project has 20 days to go, and she only needs another $6,000 to make it happen.
Photo courtesy of author.