I find Lady Gaga’s new music video ‘Til it Happens To You a distressing watch. Shot in black and white, the video depicts three female students at an American university, all of whom are sexually assaulted. Whilst the graphic portrayals of the three rapes are in themselves harrowing, what upsets me most is watching the period of self-blame that all three characters go through, before each becomes reconciled with the fact that their victimhood wasn’t their fault. At the beginning of the video, the girls are all fresh-faced, naïve and happy; one bashes out tunes on a keyboard with her would-be attacker, blissfully unaware. It’s this naivety that catches me.
When I first arrived at Exeter two years ago, I too was wide-eyed and innocent. I’d grown up in Yorkshire, and attended an all-girls school from the age of thirteen to eighteen. I had male friends, but overall was utterly unprepared for the lad culture that waited at university. Never before had I walked into a room and felt quite literally like a piece of meat. Having worked so hard in the run-up to A-Levels and university applications, the focus on my brain and academic ability had been displaced onto my cleavage.
However, it wasn’t until later into my first term of university, when I was spiked, that the wider implications of lad culture crystallised for me. The night I was spiked remains a frightening haze for me, but luckily I have friends who were with me. I wasn’t assaulted; a friend got into a physical fight with my would-be attacker, who’d followed me out of the club before trying to grab me.
Unfortunately, the ordeal wasn’t over. At my student accommodation, I received sympathy, yes, but also a barrage of inappropriate and upsetting comments. In one instance, I was asked what I’d been wearing on the night. In another, a guy told me ‘Well, I’d spike you, Flora’, in what he clearly intended to be a compliment. I felt tainted somehow. I was Flora, the girl who got spiked. It felt shameful, as if the sexual nature of the attack was now bound up with my own burgeoning identity. I began to make light of the event. I didn’t want to become ‘that girl’.
Now I realise that my shame wasn’t a product any misdemeanour on my part, but of the lad culture which permeates our university. Because “lad culture” is simply a euphemism for rape culture. It’s rape culture with a few more trimmings, a few more E-Gs and yells of “down it, Fresher!” But at its crux lies the notion that girls at university are there for the taking. Sexual assault has been normalised in universities across the country; using the term “lad culture” instead of rape culture furthers this. This trivialisation means girls rarely speak up, so that when they do, they’re remembered as the ones who did, their identity sexualised by the crime inflicted on them. It’s a spiral of shame and self-blame. Campaigns like last year’s #NeverOK can make local differences, but it’s a battle being fought across the country and, as Lady Gaga has highlighted, across continents. ‘Til it Happens to You? We shouldn’t have to wait ‘til then for us all to understand what needs to change.