Mentions of the new Lady Gaga song and video made it onto my Facebook feed on Friday and I was extremely hesitant to listen to it. As to be expected, more and more of my friends started sharing it and commenting about how it was amazing and raised awareness about such an important issue.
It was the title of song, ‘Til it Happens to You’, that initially gave me strong doubts and made me anxious when I finally did hit the play button. Upon viewing the video and reading the lyrics, I am even more appalled and disappointed in the messaging behind this song. The title is also the most repeated line and goes on to further clarify that until ‘it’ (rape) happens that people won’t know how it feels and that it won’t be real.
This phrase is problematic and, to a degree, violent because it brings a level of certainty that rape or sexual assault WILL happen to you. It isn’t talking about the impacts IF it happens or the increased risk/vulnerability that certain populations face. As someone who has experienced sexual trauma countless times by multiple people, I don’t think it is necessary for others to be raped to better relate to me and what I’ve been through. And I think it’s atrocious that anyone else, much less a high profile song and campaign, could reflect on how people’s perceptions will only change once they personally experience rape or sexual assault. I am incredibly thankful every time I meet someone who hasn’t been raped or sexually assaulted. I want for their life to stay that way. However, I also want them to be better able to advocate for change both in terms of supporting survivors and reducing the rates of sexual violence overall.
Some of my favorite professional work, and what I continue to do in my personal life, is to educate people on how to respond to survivors appropriately. So many times survivors turn to partners, friends, or family members first and their responses can have a substantial impact. Too often people express disbelief, diminish what they hear, or blame the survivor. Even when people believe the survivor, they say terrible things or say nothing at all because they aren’t sure what to say. Good intentions don’t automatically equate to appropriate actions. These reactions certainly need to be adjusted to ones of support, empowerment, and empathy. But these changes won’t happen if we continue to perpetuate the myth that sexual violence is radically different from other traumas and experiences that people have and are beyond the reach of anyone who hasn’t personally experienced it. These changes will require continued education, conversations, and better models but it is absolutely possible. Some of the people who supported me best never experienced rape or sexual assault but they were knowledgeable about rape in general and my responses and needs more specifically.
I’ve done a lot of work to ensure that those around me don’t know the specific details about my experiences and, to some extent, the impact they continue to have. I don’t believe they need to know exactly what my nightmares entail, what fears play in my head when I am surrounded by darkness, or the physical sensations I have before a panic attack. Knowing these details won’t help them better support me in that moment or the moments to follow. It is helpful for them to know what calms me down, how to touch me, and what behaviors/environments to avoid so that I’m not at increased risk of experiencing these things.
One of the most important things we need to build within individuals, relationships, and society is empathy. Perhaps the video is trying to do that by showing a (limited) spectrum of how rape happens and to whom. However, we don’t actually need to see rape in order to have empathy for those who are affected by it and in fact the proliferation of these images can be both triggering and desensitizing. We need to humanize those who are impacted by sexual violence, see the issue within a larger context, and recognize that we already possess many of the skills needed to respond to survivors and create better environments. Sexual violence exists within a larger framework of oppression, violence, and privilege. To truly address the problem and provide support and empathy for all survivors we need to address the kyriarchial structures and systems that condone and allow it to happen. We cannot hope to eliminate rape without also addressing how it is related to racism, cissexism, ableism, and other forms of oppression.
To assert that only survivors are impacted by rape and sexual assault is not only false but also ignores the ripple effect on friends, partners, families, communities, and society at large. The looming threat of sexual assault impacts everyday behaviors, particularly of women and LGBTQ populations. Survivors often seek support from loved ones and these individuals can experience vicarious and secondary trauma. Significant others can face similar emotional reactions and nightmares in addition to feelings that go along with trying to support the survivor through trauma. They may be further challenged if they know the perpetrator and have to come to terms with the fact that someone they know (and possibly care for) is capable of inflicting harm. The shock of rape is felt far beyond each individual survivor and these waves matter when thinking about the true imprint rape has on society and communities.
This video would have you believe that there is one way to respond to rape as it only shows survivors isolating themselves. They stay in their rooms, have limited contact with friends, and are frequently pictured on their beds. I don’t want to discredit these responses; isolation, depression, and the inability to do coursework or be in social spheres are possible and frequent responses that people have. However, it ignores the range of responses that people can actually have. I threw myself into academics and employment as these things meant that I stayed busy and also the ability to escape in the long-term. Others may party or engage in social activities more, change friend circles or hobbies, have mood swings, or be emotionally numb.
In fact, all survivors will react, feel, and heal in their own ways and how survivors do this will change with time and each situation. The identities we hold (race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, etc) will have a direct influence on how we respond. Our identities impact how we interact with the world around us on a daily basis, how the world perceives and treats us, and the access we have to formal and informal resources. Responses and recovery also depend on the other stressors and resiliency factors in our lives. These could include being unable to take time off work, family life, financial (in)security, access to healthcare, and receiving appropriate support from loved ones. Additionally, a person’s history with sexual assault or other forms of trauma will impact how they react. To say that someone who has been raped inherently knows how other survivors feel is just plain false as each situation is unique. There is no correct, typical, or singular way to respond.
I also find it incredibly ironic that this video is associated with the #ItsOnUs campaign when part of their mission is “to be a part of the solution” and “to create an environment where sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported”. While #ItsOnUs wants to draw in more people to have a stake in this issue, the song is purporting that people cannot possibly understand the ramifications of sexual assault unless they are survivors themselves. The video also only shows scenes directly before a rape happens. When we are thinking about building environments that are intolerant of sexual assault, we need to be thinking about so much more than the hour or two before an assault happens. It is the everyday language, behaviors, and attitudes that allow for sexual violence to flourish and remain unchallenged. When we are implementing prevention strategies and vying for social change we need to do better than bystander intervention and risk reduction.
There are many other ways to dissect and analyze this video. We could look at the way that it incorporates race, gender, sexuality, ability, and other identities. All of the perpetrators are cismen which can dismiss the experiences that other survivors have. We can discuss the fact that male survivors are left out of this video and are frequently left out of the conversation in general. The focus is yet again being placed on campus sexual assault when there are higher rates of sexual violence in other communities who also experience higher barriers to accessing resources (such as LGBTQ youth, homeless populations, sex workers). There are some interesting cinematography choices with the film being in black and white, having a lot of shadows, and voiding the survivors’ entire world of color.
Many people will say that raising awareness is important and that this video does that. I agree that raising awareness is important but it seems that we continuously stall out at this stage. Congress has spotlighted this issue since 2011 and created new mandates and guidelines for campuses over the past four years. There are amazing student activists and leaders who are rallying their campuses and creating real social change movements. There are organizations on and off campus making headway on addressing this issue holistically and understand what prevention truly means. When will simply raising awareness be considered a subpar achievement? When do we start to expect and demand more, especially from those who have such a large platform? I’m fed up with awareness being the bare minimum that people put forth. It isn’t enough to say that rape is a huge problem within our society, we already know that.