“Till it happens to you, you won’t know, how it feels,” goes the poignant refrain of Lady Gaga’s new single, which is an attempt to start a conversation about sexual assault on college campuses. A rock ballad about the aftermath of trauma, the song expresses that sexual violence is something that has to be experienced to be fully understood.
The video unfolds as a companion piece to ‘The Hunting Ground‘, a documentary about campus sexual violence that was released last February, and shows sexual violence in three circumstances—one, where a woman is raped by a co-worker for refusing his romantic advances; another, where a transgender person is bullied and subsequently raped by a transphobic man; and finally, date rape, where a man spikes the drinks of two women at a party and then proceeds to rape them while they’re unconscious. All these three instances are derived from common occasions of sexual abuse that are prevalent across various college campuses.
Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz, carried a mattress all around campus for a whole year to protest against her alleged rapist going scot free, and still being on campus. Despite filing official complaints, and a subsequent university trial, her alleged rapist was not found guilty by authorities. Hence, Emma, a Visual Arts student, made a powerful statement by carrying around the mattress, which simultaneously became a part of her performance art thesis and an important campaign to shed much-needed light on an issue that is often suppressed, pushed under the carpet, and dismissed.
In a survey conducted by the Association of American Universities, 27.2 percent of female college seniors reported that, since entering college, they had experienced some kind of unwanted sexual contact — ranging from non-consensual touching to rape — carried out by incapacitation, usually due to alcohol or drugs, or by force. 13.5 percent—nearly half— had experienced penetration, attempted penetration or oral sex. Transgender students and others who do not identify as either male or female had higher rates of assault than women. Nearly 150,000 students at 27 colleges and universities took part in this survey, which included all Ivy League institutions (except Princeton) and many other prominent campuses within the United States. Even in the most serious cases of assault, almost three-fourths of victims did not report the episode to anyone in authority, let alone law enforcement. The common reason cited for this was either shame, or their fear of not being taken seriously. Even when reports were registered, often proper justice was not meted out to the victims.
Like Sulkowicz’s mattress campaign, Lady Gaga’s video is a similar attempt to bring to public attention the atrocities of campus violence. With the lady gaga snapchat as the medium, her message is being spread. The video is not just about facing sexual violence, but coming to terms with what comes after. It is about what it means to be a survivor, and how society perceives you as a result of that. The widespread silencing, rejection, and ostracism shown towards sexual assault is truly appalling. The laws and reforms that exist to address cases of sexual violence are often prejudiced, or severely lacking in providing proper justice. Though US President Barack Obama made an attempt to create a White House task force to deal with the increasing cases of college sexual assault; cases of rape and unwanted sexual contact are still staggeringly frequent, as the aforementioned AAU survey illustrates.
There are potent scenes in Lady Gaga’s video in which assault victims try to come to terms with their bodily autonomy through inscribing messages in various body parts. There are inscriptions which talk about dealing with depression and low self-worth (“I am worthless”) and about their societal ostracism (“believe me”, “listen—you will hear me”). These messages become a compelling example of what these victims face on a daily basis.
What is most important about the video is its somewhat positive conclusion, where all the victims come together and lend each other support to deal with each of their personal traumas. Where legal and legislative reforms to counter assault are often inadequate, the strongest weapon to fight against sexual violence is perhaps solidarity and empathy. That is the larger message this song tries to convey—to try and understand what these people have to go through, and to try to put ourselves in their shoes and see the world from their eyes. Only then can some headway be made in providing them with the justice they deserve. It is telling that the final message inscribed on their bodies is “I love myself”, portraying the gradual journey from self-loathing to self-love. This demonstrates, how showing unconditional love, support and acceptance towards people who go through such horrifying experiences can go a long way in helping them battle their demons and give them the courage to fight against their abusers. A fight that belongs to not just them, but all of us.
This article was originally published on Cake.