From the red carpet to the dorm room, survivors take the lead
Less than two weeks after my 24th birthday, at the end of the cold winter of 2016, I was packing my backpack for a last-minute trip to Los Angeles, a place I called home for almost three years before moving to Washington, D.C. I arrived at the Dolby Theatre and found myself surrounded not by tuxes and gowns, but by 20-somethings in sweatpants and graphic T-shirts, jeans and combat boots, beanies and overalls whose faces were torn between keeping composure and jumping for excitement with the anticipation of attending the 88th Academy Awards.
I joined hands with these 50 other survivors of campus sexual assault and walked on the Oscars stage as Lady Gaga performed “Til It Happens to You” from The Hunting Ground, the feature documentary that chronicled the student survivor movement of our generation. We moved the world with the powerful image of survivor solidarity. In 2016, we stared at the faces of the nominees in the Dolby Theatre — the heroes we grew up with on screen — and felt the pain and relief of knowing that there were other sisters and brothers in the room who could say, “Me too.”
It was in 2016 that Academy voters chose to celebrate Brie Larson, a long-time advocate for sexual assault survivors, as Best Actress for the role of a fearless sexual assault survivor, and that Best Picture went to Spotlight, a film that chronicled the systematic cover-up of clergy sexual abuse. We believed then that we were at the precipice of a movement that would finally allow all survivors the stage to come forward.
Yet in 2017, even as more survivors came forward, alleged abusers like Casey Affleck shared the same stage survivors had stood on only a year before. In 2017, America Ferrera, Reese Witherspoon, and Daenerys Targaryen said #MeToo, feminism was the “word of the year,” and sexual assault survivors adorned the Time person of the year cover. But, it was also the year Education Secretary Betsy DeVos retracted the Title IX guidance that was in place to protect thousands of survivors at schools across the country, and a person who bragged about assaulting women entered the Oval Office.
Sunday was the 90th Academy Awards, and this week is the fifth anniversary of the week my Title IX complaint against the University of North Carolina was officially opened and the sixth anniversary of my sexual assault in college.
Last night, while watching the Oscars with other survivors, I felt more emotions than I could fully process at once. I felt an immense sense of pride when hearing Ashley Judd say, “The changes we are witnessing are being driven by the powerful sound of new voices, of different voices, of our voices joining in a mighty chorus that is finally saying, ‘Time’s up,’” while standing alongside her sister survivors, Salma Hayek and Annabella Sciorra, who only a year ago did not feel safe coming forward. Yet, within the same hour, I felt an insurmountable anger at seeing Kobe Bryant stand on the stage where we survivors had stood, after having been accused of brutal rape in 2003, an incident that our country seems to have completely forgotten. And before I saw Frances McDormand win her award for playing a mother who had lost her daughter to rape and murder, I felt a deep betrayal when I saw Gary Oldman win his Oscar after having been accused of domestic violence by his ex-wife, Donya Fiorentino.
In the face of these contradictions, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the lack of progress we see in spite of all that survivors have accomplished in recent months. A recent study conducted by the national nonprofit Stop Street Harassment found that 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men said they had experienced sexual harassment or assault over their lifetimes. At the heels of #MeToo, these numbers validate what we’ve known for a long time — that sexual assault is a national epidemic that impacts every industry and faction of our society.
Five years ago, I would have felt like giving up after seeing two alleged perpetrators win Oscars, but after witnessing the results of our efforts to reform universities, I know now that the Time’s Up coalition to combat workplace sexual harassment and assault will face the same barriers we faced — and they will overcome them. While the media fail to connect the recent activism of the Time’s Up coalition of celebrity survivors to the stories of campus sexual assault that student activist have been sharing for almost half a decade, the patterns in our movements are strikingly similar.
When our film, The Hunting Ground, premiered at the 2015 Sundance film festival, I heard from men and women all over the country that our experiences with sexual assault and institutional betrayal mirrored their own. I am only one of thousands of former students who came forward to hold our universities accountable, and even just three years ago, survivorhood was a very isolating journey, making our film revolutionary for many who never thought they could speak out. To my surprise back then, I heard from women in the film industry who told me that they had been abused in film school and that their abusers had gone on to prominent roles in the industry, and stories from men who felt coerced by directors in their theater programs in grad school.
Although our film dealt with the stories of student survivors, it was impossible to ignore that most of the people who committed these crimes graduated and predictably went on to abuse again. They became our doctors, our lawyers, our infantrymen, and yes, our politicians and our directors. Despite more and more survivors coming forward than ever before, we asked ourselves, when would our numbers finally be enough?
Why was the sight of 50 survivors on the 2016 Oscars stage not enough?
In many of our favorite films and shows, sexual violence, whether a single rape scene or a season arc of domestic violence, is used as a plot device to develop female characters or their male counterparts. From the rape of Carol Danvers to the rape of Sansa Stark, images and stories of sexual violence have permeated American homes for generations, and the way we script survivor stories and the way we deny them has a profound impact on how our society continues to enable abuse, whether it be in the green room or in the dorm room. In the face of these contradictions in progress and the frustration of knowing we’ve come so far and yet still have much to change, there is one thing I am certain of: It’s time to let survivors lead us.
Five years ago, when giving an interview to the New York Times for one of the first pieces that covered the national student survivor movement, I asked the reporter — who had already written about Title IX for a few years — why it had taken him so long to connect the dots and report on campus sexual assault as a national rather than individual university problem. He didn’t have an answer for me then, and when I ask reporters now why they don’t connect the dots between the recent activist efforts of the Time’s Up coalition and those of student survivors, I’m told that this framing “doesn’t fit [their] story.”
Sexual violence isn’t exclusive to the red carpet or to the frat house, and reporting about it episodically, reducing it to a single media cycle, allows us to absolve ourselves from responsibility. It is easier to report on sexual violence as an isolated issue, as an unfortunate tragedy that impacts very few, rather than as an epidemic that involves all of us.
The institutional barriers that we faced when trying to hold our universities accountable are the same barriers that survivors have faced when holding Hollywood accountable, and that our soldiers face when holding the military accountable for covering up sexual assault. They are the same barriers that Anita Hill faced when she told her story of enduring harassment to the world, and the same barriers that thousands of survivors faced when they came forward against the Catholic Church. Despite being in different sectors, we have all faced these barriers of not being believed, of having to choose our career and our survival over sharing our truth, and of having to see those who have harmed us be celebrated in spite of their actions. Sexual violence and survivor activism are not new phenomena, and it’s time we talk about survivors as the unstoppable force that we are.
As of 2018, thanks to the courage of student survivors who have come forward, there are over 300 active investigations into Title IX violations at universities across the country, an over 600 percent increase in investigations since the Obama administration released the first public list of investigations in 2014. I have no doubt that the Time’s Up coalition will change the industry and one day make the Academy Awards an event that rather than excuse abusers, celebrates survivors and elects them to lead the film industry. I believe in the power of their voices, because I have seen what survivors can accomplish when we band together to take on those who defy our truth.
More articles by Category: Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Activism and advocacy, Campus rape, Oscars, Sexual harassment, Women's leadership