At the 88th Academy Awards, Lady Gaga gave the most important and powerful Oscar performance since last year’s “Glory” by John Legend and Common.
Reminiscent of last year’s showstopping, politically charged performance of “Glory” from the Oscar-nominated film “Selma,” Gaga brought the house down with her rendition of “Til It Happens to You,” her Oscar-nominated song from the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Hunting Ground,” about sexual assault on college campuses.
Gaga was introduced by none other than Vice President Joe Biden, who, after uproarious applause and a standing ovation, gave a short speech that many sexual assault activists and survivors never thought they’d hear from such a high-ranking political figure, let alone on the Oscars stage.
“Despite significant progress over the last few years, too many women and men, on and off college campuses, are still victims of sexual abuse,” Biden said, calling for people to take a simple pledge: “I will intervene in situations when consent has not or cannot be given.”
Gaga took to the stage to sing, the emotional nature of the song visible on her face.
She began her performance alone, seated at a white piano, with a stark black backdrop.
Then, as the song built and the music swelled, Gaga was joined on stage by dozens of survivors of rape and sexual assault.
It was raw, heart-wrenching, positively earth-shaking, and while “Til It Happens to You” didn’t take home the award for Best Original Song (that honor went to Sam Smith’s James Bond theme “Writing’s On The Wall”), it was a moment that spoke to something much, much bigger.
While Gaga’s performance was emotionally and visually captivating, the issue at its core is frighteningly invisible.
The song was written for the critically acclaimed documentary “The Hunting Ground,” a film that takes an intimate and startling look at sexual assault on college campuses in the United States.
The film focuses mainly on two students at the University of North Carolina who were sexually assaulted and later became strong anti-rape activists while filing a lawsuit against their school.
“The Hunting Ground” raises many difficult and important questions about the issue of sexual assault. Why does it go underreported? Why do the alleged rapists get away with it? And, importantly, why do universities often go out of their way to protect students who are accused of rape, while ignoring and often blaming the victims?
In a survey of more than 150,000 students, 23% of the women said they have experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact.
That’s just about 1 in 4. If that doesn’t shock you, maybe this will: 34% of female seniors at the University of Michigan reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact, 32% at Yale, and 29% at Harvard.
The survey reveals that even the best schools in the country aren’t immune to this tragic and horrifying occurrence.
“The results warrant the attention and concern of everybody in our community,” Drew Faust, president of Harvard said in a statement. “Sexual assault is intolerable, and we owe it to one another to confront it openly, purposefully and effectively. This is our problem.”
Sexual assault might seem like the sort of crime that should always be reported, but it’s actually severely underreported.
That’s partly because of institutional efforts at universities that make things worse for the victims who report incidents instead of helping them get justice. Sexual assault is one of the only crimes where the victim often ends up on trial, their whole sexual history and personality laid bare and combed through by people looking for any shred of evidence that they brought their assault on themselves or were somehow to blame for it. Guilty until proven innocent.
Unfortunately, while sexual assault on college campuses remains a huge problem, as Gaga sang in front of millions of viewers at the Academy Awards, survivors who want to speak out have to do so while swimming against a current of guilt, isolation, and shaming peers who tell them to simply get over it.
Not to mention they have to go up against institutions seemingly committed to, at best, ignoring their pleas for help and, at worst, covering them up.
A study published last year found that university reports of sexual assault increase by approximately 44% after the university is audited, which means that these institutions may be covering up, underreporting, or otherwise downplaying an astonishing number of cases.
Corey Rayburn Yung, a law professor at the University of Kansas who helped conduct the study, told Vocativ how she interprets the data:
“When it comes to sexual assault and rape, the norm for universities and colleges is to downplay the situation and the numbers… The result is students at many universities continue to be attacked and victimized, and punishment isn’t meted out to the rapists and sexual assaulters.”
Problems as systemic as this one don’t get solved until enough people are talking about it and it reaches a breaking point.
Last night’s performance was a new venue in which to talk about it. A big one.
Campus sexual assault affects all of us.
Even if it hasn’t affected your life personally, it’s probably affected the life of someone you know, even if you aren’t aware of it. And none of us should be OK with the number of women who report being sexually assaulted at institutions of learning that should be safe spaces for everyone.
When some of us are unsafe, we’re all unsafe. Colleges and universities are where people go to make themselves better, to learn and grow as people. Not to have their lives upturned by trauma and their education compromised by an institution (that they pay thousands of dollars to attend) working against them.
The message that booms from Lady Gaga’s lyrics is a stark and simple one: “You simply don’t know what this is like, how bad it is, how painful it can be, until it happens to you.”