What It’s Really Like Being A Survivor In The Public Eye

Two weeks ago, I was among the 50 sexual assault survivors who stood on stage with Lady Gaga during her 88th Academy Awards performance. The response to my participating was overwhelming: I got so many messages from friends, family, and acquaintances that I couldn’t keep up. Everyone had only the kindest things to say and it was great to feel so supported — but I also saw a number of people commenting across the Internet on how “lucky” we survivors were to participate. And this phenomenon, one much broader than the Oscars performance, rubbed me the wrong way.

The invitation to the awards show came about because I was interviewed for and briefly appeared in the documentary The Hunting Ground, which highlights the issue of colleges covering up and/or mishandling sexual assault cases. The film’s theme song, “Til It Happens to You,” earned the co-writers of the song — Diane Warren and Lady Gaga — an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song. As preparations for Lady Gaga’s performance were made, her team decided that it would be a lot more powerful if 50 survivors joined her on stage to show the magnitude of campus rape culture. Thus, through the simple act of being willing to talk about my abuse, I was offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

I realize that after sharing the stage with one of the world’s biggest pop superstars and taking selfies with the vice president of the United States, I should feel like I’m on cloud nine. But as I trudge through yet another calendar year that started off on a horrible foot — marked by unexpected unemployment, living back home with my parents indefinitely, etc. — I think it’s time for some real talk about life as a public survivor.

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While there is a lot of power, as a survivor, in being seen, there is also an often-invisible cost to being among the few who are willing to share their story publicly. Since 2009, when I was expelled from Tufts for low grades after they refused to assist me in the wake of me reporting my assaults, I’ve been writing and speaking publicly about campus sexual assault. The issue has gotten an increasing amount of attention since then, which has created a lot of great opportunities — from attending the Oscars to receiving invites to the White House. Such opportunities, understandably, help perpetuate a lot of misperceptions about life as a public survivor — but it’s far from being all rainbows and ponies.

lady gag twe

This last statement may make many readers roll their eyes. I know how my life must come across to the people who only engage with me on a superficial level online. Indeed, some people I’ve grown close to have admitted that they used to see my life as near perfect; watching me travel across the country to give lectures at colleges and universities, meeting fans, and having the occasional brush with famous people create the veneer that being a low-level pseudo-celebrity is glamorous. And since these are experiences that most people will never have, many make assumptions that I have few worries that “average” people face — about money, health, a social life. So I know how easy it is for me to come across as an out-of-touch privileged person when I dare to publicly complain about anything.

But if I’m honest, I almost didn’t want to go to the Oscars.

Typing this out feels like confessing a dirty little secret. Perhaps because, as a public, outspoken survivor of gender-based violence, I believe that one of the most powerful ways to combat rape culture is through survivors simply demanding to be seen.

And yet, when I got the email inviting me to join Lady Gaga on stage, I was standing in the living room with my boyfriend and my father, laughing at a joke. I was having such a regular afternoon — and it felt damn good. It was a situation I only envisioned as possible “Before The Rape,” one I had long given up on having again — on being “normal.” The Oscars invite quickly yanked me out of my warm fuzzy haze and reminded me that “Hey, you’re best known for enduring the worst experiences of your life.”

So here’s what I’ve been dying to say for a very long time:

The Relationship Between The Media And Survivors Is . . . Complicated

The media can be deeply problematic. For one, it plays a big role in perpetuating rape culture. Not only that, mainstream media as an institution is inherently racist, sexist — and every other -ist in the book — and still unfairly amplifies the voices of the most privileged in our society. In the years immediately following my expulsion from Tufts, I was largely ignored by the people who make up this institution. At first, I didn’t realize how tough it is for the media to give airtime to someone like me: a low-income woman of color. It wasn’t until campus sexual assault got an increasing amount of attention and I noticed the media focused overwhelmingly on one type of victim — women who appeared conventionally attractive, white, thin, and middle- to upperclass — did I connect the dots: The media only wanted to help drive the outrage machine when rape culture was hurting the women that society valued most.

Luckily, other college survivors who’d heard of my activism invited me to join them in a national campaign, which is now known as Know Your IX’s ED ACT NOW. Our campaign garnered a lot of media attention and invitations to be featured on radio, television, and in print rolled in. This happened not only because of the organizers’ intelligence and innovation, but also because many of them fit the mold of what the media looks for in a spokesperson — attractive, eloquent, etc.

It wasn’t until my co-activists used their privilege to defer some of their media invites that I got the chance to finally show that I, too, have something to offer. Thanks to these feminists who understood the institutional racism and classism of the media, I was able to become a regular contributor to the the platforms that had ignored me for years.

I wish I could have just refused altogether to participate in the institution that had so ignored me, but I felt compelled to do what I can to break the existing mold and help increase the representation of black college survivors, even if it’s just a little bit. In short, the media is flawed, but represents a powerful way to sway hearts and minds, and thus can be a tool in dismantling the rape culture and oppression it often perpetuates.

Doing This “Cool” Stuff Doesn’t Make What I Went Through — And Am Still Going Through — Worth It

Going into the Oscars, I had low expectations about how much time we’d get to rub elbows with Gaga. I feared she’d be too busy to give us personal greetings and I decided I’d be happy if I got a glance of her. Fortunately, as you probably have read elsewhere, the other survivors and I got a lot more. She greeted each of us personally during the first rehearsal, promised to get matching tattoos with us to commemorate the moment, and came backstage after the Oscars to take photos with us. It was, as you can imagine, pretty amazing.

And the raw passion that she, a fellow survivor, exuded during rehearsals and the performance reminded me that the emotional impact of sexual violence transcends class, income, fame, etc. But it also reminded me that belonging to a higher socioeconomic class, being famous, and/or having millions of dollars in the bank opens the door to a lot more resources to recovering after rape and can shield some survivors from the economic impact of sexual violence.

Watch Lady Gaga perform Til It Happens to you at the #Oscars here https://t.co/ptBYEAIKqq
— Lady Gaga Facts (@LGMonsterFacts) February 29, 2016

Since I wasn’t one of the main subjects of The Hunting Ground, I was part of a broader invite that said that I would have to pay my own way to Los Angeles. From across the country. At the last minute. As an unemployed person, money is tight and I knew that paying my own way across the country would be no small sum. I knew could technically afford it because I have money saved from my short few months of full-time employment last year and the privilege of living for free with my parents. But there was a time — a few years ago, right after my expulsion from Tufts — that I wouldn’t have been able to even think about getting the funds to do this, even if I desperately wanted to.

While I am better off financially now and was privileged enough to fund the trip to LA, the impact of being a survivor still haunts me. I’ve recently started coming to terms with the fact that I likely will never be financially independent. Battling depression, anxiety, and ADD — all exacerbated by the assaults and having gone untreated for many years — not only costs money out of pocket for health care, it also costs money in my inability to hold down a full-time job. Unfortunately, many employers don’t walk the walk when it comes to accommodating or understanding individuals with mental health issues. So, yeah, standing a few feet from Leonardo DiCaprio and hugging Brie Larson was cool, but I’d trade all of that just so I wouldn’t have to deal with the depressive episodes and hundreds of dollars of month I pay just to become marginally functional.

It’s Tough Being An Inspiration Pornstar

I think this has been the hardest part while I feel like my life is — and never will be — even vaguely in order. I had no idea how finally getting heard in the media would stir so many feelings within me. In the beginning, regularly speaking my truth had the impact that I originally sought: I got the validation that I never got from the Tufts administration when I reported my abuse. And it felt good; it had a healing effect that I think was vital to my journey.

Unfortunately, as time has passed, I’ve felt an increasing pressure to perform as the “happy, strong, inspirational survivor.” When my depression and anxiety were severe and untreated towards the end of my Tufts career and right after my expulsion, I was incredibly alone — my former so-called friends and acquaintances could not get away from me fast enough. Almost everyone I knew in real life avoided me, all at a time when a supportive ear would have meant the world. It wasn’t until I started to get published, go on TV, and travel the country to talk about my activism did people start to reappear. The attention and encouragement I craved started rolling in and it felt great.

uncle joe

But I know what it’s like to carry a deep pain within me and have absolutely no one to call a friend. I never want to feel that again. So the pressure to keep up the performance — and thus the positive words and human connections — doesn’t just follow me on stage, in print, or on TV, it’s bled into every part of my life, including my personal one.

What happened at Tufts still haunts me; there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t think about the institutional betrayal I endured. And yet, not only do I feel like I have to be “on,” feeling this weird pressure to perform as the “happy, successful survivor,” I also want to assure people that I am not your inspiration pornstar. As the number of people who are kind to me has vastly expanded, so, too, has the number of times genuinely well-meaning people have insinuated that both my past and present pain is “worth it” because I am helping so many others. I am, of course, glad that what I endured has not been in vain, but that doesn’t make me feel any less empty when I feel like I’m living for others and not myself.

Don’t survivors deserve a shot at genuine fulfillment, too?

Sometimes Survivors Need To Be Reminded That We’re Great In Spite Of What Happened To Us, Not Because Of What Happened To Us

As I mentioned, I’m now fortunate enough to have a much bigger network of both loved ones and supporters who are vocally in my corner. However, having this following opens the door for a lot of praise and compliments that just focus on my sexual violence activism. While this is understandable, the cumulative effort can cause doubts about my capabilities to seep in: Am I only “extraordinary” because I felt like I had nothing to lose by admitting I’ve been raped? Was Tufts right when they insinuated I was not as smart or hardworking as I had originally thought — capable of doing anything I put my mind to? I still don’t know sometimes, but I do know that it’d be incredibly comforting to be recognized for my capabilities — if, indeed, I have any — beyond just telling my story. Survivors are more than just what they’ve chosen to do after what’s been done to them.

As Lady Gaga said during a Howard Stern interview in 2014, “I’m going to take responsibility for all my pain looking beautiful. All the things that I’ve made out of my strife, I did that.” I’d like to think that I could say that about myself, too.

The stigma around speaking out as a survivor of gender-based violence is definitely decreasing, but it has created a new set of situations that survivors and our communities are now navigating without any precedent. Most people don’t mean to gloss over or ignore the complexities of longstanding trauma, but considering that it’s the upbeat things that do well on social media, it’s understandable that this frequently happens. In the age of new media, it can be really easy to have life look really good while reality is a lot more stark. Who would “like” a post about hoarding my ADD meds because I don’t know when I can afford a refill on Facebook, when I can post a selfie with my bunnies instead?

The Takeaway

Please don’t get me wrong. I am grateful; I know that despite a lot of the struggles I have, I am really fortunate. I finally got my bachelor’s degree, I travel the country to speak at conferences and colleges, and I can safely talk about my experience as a survivor. I am glad I got to meet Lady Gaga and be a part of her powerful performance. But as these opportunities continue, it’s gotten increasingly important to say that it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. As a society, we need to examine how we can better support survivors who are fighting the good fight in the public eye.

Watching and acknowledging survivors is an important part of creating a better society, but we can’t just stop there. If you’re among the many people who are touched by Lady Gaga’s Oscars performance and this piece, I encourage you to support organizations doing work on the ground to make it better for survivors of campus sexual violence — like SurvJustice and Know Your IX. Spread the word about them, donate, and volunteer. Research how to be a good friend to survivors and tell the ones in your life that you are there for them. These are all small, yet effective steps we can all take to counter rape culture and hopefully lead to a time when we won’t need victims to publicly tell their stories for positive change to happen.

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Images courtesy of the author

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