"Till It Happens To You"... And When It Does?
"You tell me it gets better, it gets better in time
You say I'll pull myself together, pull it together, you'll be fine
Tell me, what the hell do you know? What do you know?
Tell me how the hell could you know? How could you know?
Till it happens to you, you don't know how it feels, how it feels
Till it happens to you, you won't know, it won't be real
No, it won't be real, won't know how it feels..."
Lady Gaga's song "Till It Happens to You," co-written with Diane Warren, has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song. No upbeat, catchy Disney soundtrack here. Unless you know the context -- that Lady Gaga wrote it for "The Hunting Ground," a statistically-challenged but otherwise compelling documentary on campus rape -- the subject matter might not even register.
But, let's take the premise of "Till It Happens To You" and review what "It" may involve. Because, really, Lady Gaga is right: "What the hell do you know..."
So, here's a little of what you can expect, if and when it does happen to you...
1) You'll likely know the guy. About 80 percent of rapes are by men that women know. So, you go to the police and say, "It was George and he lives at such-and-such address." But then George says, "Yeah, we had sex, but she wanted it." If George has half a brain, he says, "It was consensual, sir," to the officer asking him, showing he is respectful, articulate, and aware of the concept. With that one word, "consensual," all the evidence from your hospital examination, the rape kit, the meticulously gathered semen samples and pubic hairs, the notation about a vaginal tear or thigh bruises? All moot. So, be prepared to hear, "We're sorry but there is insufficient evidence to proceed."
2) A movie-version rape is most likely to get attention... and an indictment. The crime of "rape" that we visualize when we hear the word is an attack by a total stranger, with a deadly weapon, in an alley (or coming through a bedroom window). And the victim bravely defends her honor, by resisting the strong, hostile man with a weapon, until she is very bloody and really messed up. And, unfortunately, despite fighting the good fight, she still gets raped. Police detectives then hunt down the perpetrator by diligent detecting, and DAs get convictions with DNA and "evidence"... blood, black eyes, bruising, choke marks. This is what district attorneys and juries still crave in a rape case. (For a searing but pragmatic account of her own rape by a stranger when a college freshman, read Alice Sebold's Lucky.)
3) You'll think about how much easier it would have been to have your car stolen. Let's try an analogy. Your car is stolen. Now, nobody hesitates to report a stolen car. Police don't ask you if it was really stolen, or if maybe you meant to share it with the guy who took it, maybe just loan it for a few weeks? Or imply that you asked for your car to be stolen by not locking it, or leaving it in that dark garage? Your car is still considered stolen even if nobody witnessed it being stolen. Or if you didn't fight with a maybe armed, dangerous thief to prove he was really stealing it. If your car is gone, and you say it was stolen, the police take you at your word.
I know. I am being overly simplistic. And it's insane. Which is how you may feel after being raped by someone you know, perhaps trusted, who lied to you, forced or coerced or intimidated you into compliance, and then violated your body and spirit. Who took you by force, or surprise, or when you were too inebriated to protest. Because, after going through the add-on trauma of a rape exam, making a police report, doing everything good girls are supposed to do, it will come down to his "word" against your "word." Because he says you (metaphorically speaking) gave him the keys, or at least didn't tell him (loudly enough so he could appreciate the seriousness of your position) that you were not about to give him your fucking car.
And it will be up to you to prove you didn't hand over the keys and say, "Go for a joy ride on me, big boy."
5) You will need to decide for yourself whether or not to report being raped to the police, or your university, or both. Each choice comes with its own challenges. Whichever decision you make, you may end up second-guessing yourself. Victim advocates at your local Rape Crisis Center can help. But this is your decision.
6) The lines "You tell me it gets better, it gets better in time" are pretty accurate. You may never trust as you did before, may always have an edge of PTSD vigilance, but, if you get help, not deny it ever happened, it does get better. You do not have to be defined by "It."
So, that's a little heads up, because "How could you know..."
For more statistics and data on sexual assault, go to the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (www.RAINN.org), the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (www.NSVRC.org), the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (www.bjs.gov), the Sexual Assault Response Services (www.sarsonline.org). Those are good starting places.)
Susan Kraus is a therapist, mediator and writer. She first started working with victims of sexual assault in the mid-1970s. She is writing this from Panama, where she is working on her third novel, which centers on campus rape and consequences. For info on her other work go to www.susankraus.com.