Unlike her previous music videos, known for their theatrics and intricate dance numbers, Lady Gaga’s new video “Til It Happens to You” opens on a simple black and white shot of a college dorm. Like most dorms across the country, the walls are sparse cinderblock, the floors are tiled, and the desk and beds are made of heavily lacquered pinewood.
Like many dorms across the country, this set is the scene of multiple sexual assaults. More than one-in-five women are sexually assaulted or raped on college campuses each year. Lady Gaga’s video was made in conjunction with the documentary film on campus rape, The Hunting Ground, and the stories her video portrays are both unique in their details and disconcertingly familiar.
One woman is chatting with a friend who appears drunk. He tries to kiss her. She refuses. He gets violent. Another woman is getting out of the shower, and sees a guy who probably lives on her floor. He pushes her against the counter. Two friends are at a party. A guy brings them drinks he spiked. He takes them back to his room. One of them wakes up to find the guy on top of her. She pulls her unconscious friend from the room.
These are harrowing scenes to watch, but the video does not end on the nights of the assaults. Each survivor has to deal with the trauma in her own way. They pull away from their friends. One fears the bathroom and stops showering. The two friends are unable to talk about what happened and one drops out of school.
What is powerful about Lady Gaga’s video is not only the voice it gives to survivors of assault, but the complicated picture of what it means to live every day after it.
She sings, “You tell me it gets better…better in time… But how the hell could you know? How do you know?... Until it happens to you, you don’t know how it feels. ” She is unapologetic in her criticism of our responses to those who have suffered sexual assault and rape.
As a recently-graduated female college student, I am all too aware of the reality of the statistic. Each spring, students at my alma mater organize a rally as part of the international event to end sexual violence, Take Back the Night. The evening includes a chance for women to share stories of their experience with sexual assault and rape.
Just as in “Til It Happens to You,” these stories don’t involve strangers lurking on street corners. They are populated with boyfriends, girlfriends, that guy at a party, the person on your hall. They involve long-term relationships and solitary nights. They remind us that recovery is never a straight line, but a winding of good and bad days.
As more and more people share their experiences of assault and rape, we must remind ourselves what it means to be supportive of survivors.
People who have not experienced sexual assault or rape are not called to prescribe any sort of solution or “fix.” It is not our place to say, “I understand” if we do not, and cannot, understand. Instead, we are called to sit with our friends during the difficult moments, to give advice when asked, and to offer comfort when needed.
Every week it seems there is another story of the ways we, as a society, have failed rape survivors. Colleges have repeatedly demonstrated that they prioritize their own reputations over justice for survivors. When confronted with the reality many women and men face, we tell them it’s not really rape, ask what they were wearing, and tell them it would be better if they stay silent.
But survivors are refusing to stay silent. Take Back the Night allows women to share their experiences in a communal way. Hundreds of college students continue to demand that their universities be accountable for the rape culture they perpetuate. Individuals are sharing their stories with friends they trust, and even broadcast them across the country. Each story reminds us that these are not solitary events, but indicative of the culture we’ve created.
“Til it Happens to You” ends with three survivors finding the words to explain their assaults to others. With those who love and support them by their sides, they leave their dorm rooms to enter a crowd of women and men who have all bravely come forward. And behind the crowd of survivors, a woman watches them. She is our reminder that for every person who comes forward, there are many more carrying these burdens alone. She reminds us that it is our duty to stand for justice, to listen carefully and above all else, to never stop saying “I believe you” to survivors.