Standing With Lady Gaga as a Queer, Black Survivor Activist at the Academy Awards

**this post was originally published on huffingtonpost on March 7, 2016**

I was finally in bed at 3 a.m. trying to fall asleep when I got the email:


I opened it immediately.

“Exciting news! Lady Gaga has invited you all to join her on-stage at the Academy Awards to stand together as she performs her Academy Award-nominated song ‘Til It Happens to You.’”

I was invited to participate because the documentary The Hunting Ground — for which the song was written — had featured my activism and personal experience with sexual assault. I was overwhelmed with emotions:

1. It had been a dream of mine since I was a child to attend the Academy Awards. I was a child actor, joined the Screen Actors Guild around age four, and watched the Oscars every year. Although this was not how I imagined it happening, this was a dream come true.

2. I have been a huge fan of Lady Gaga since 2008 when her music first came out and I dressed up as her for Halloween.

Nastassja dressed as Gaga in 2009

Nastassja dressed as Gaga in 2009

3. All I have been hearing about the Academy Awards is #Oscarssowhite; in fact I have participated in tweeting and tumbling about #Oscarssowhite since one of the things that infuriates me the most as an independent media creator is the way the media celebrates hetero-white mediocrity while erasing or tokenizing the rest of us.

4. While The Hunting Ground brought a lot of attention to the issue of sexual assault, its depictions of survivors’ stories felt tokenizing and upheld stereotypes of rape that alienate many survivors. How would this performance be any different?

I debated whether or not I should go; whether my appearance within this performance would also be tokenizing and uphold the idea that the Oscars and media depictions of rape are “more diverse” than they often are. My parents told me I was being ridiculous; obviously I had to go. And the reality is that I wanted to give myself this experience, but not to let my expectations get too high. I was excited that my fiancee was also invited to attend and thought it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience to have together.

Nastassja and fiancée Lea Roth at the Academy Awards

Nastassja and fiancée Lea Roth at the Academy Awards

Upon arriving at Dolby Theater a few days before the show for our first rehearsal, I saw a large crowd of people, and found out there would be 51 of us participating. I saw friends, people I knew online but had never met in person, activists and artists I had admired from afar, and friendly strangers. There were men, women, genderqueer and trans* people of many races. I was shocked. It wasn’t until we were all in one room waiting for rehearsal that it really hit me that this was the largest group of survivors I had ever been around. Our backgrounds and experiences were diverse in a way that felt authentic and pluralistic, not tokenizing. Yet there was almost an immediate sense of understanding.

As I got to know the different survivors I was astounded by their passion, empathy and brilliance. What united us all were experiences of violation and the willingness to speak up about it. What was most powerful was that we made few assumptions about anyone else’s experience. The context and unique betrayals surrounding each survivor’s experience are their own, but the themes of trauma, and trust; healing and the many forms of activism were where we found plenty of common ground. I didn’t feel judged, or questioned. And that means a lot. Multiple people asked me what gender pronouns I go by (they, them, theirs by the way). To me, meeting these survivor activists, getting to know them, and bonding (including getting matching tattoos!) was the highlight of my weekend.

Nastassja pictured back left, with Lady Gaga and the other survivors from the performance

Nastassja pictured back left, with Lady Gaga and the other survivors from the performance

There were also moments of tension, like the numerous times people working on the performance or the show referred to the group as “ladies” or “girls” despite our continued protest that these labels did not represent us as a group, and honestly made many of us uncomfortable. I don’t think people even realized what they were saying, and although some tried to shift their language, it was obviously awkward and unnatural. They were very affirming and supportive of us (much more so than many administrators at our universities), but I bring this up to say that this language is the norm when discussing sexual assault. With this, a crime of power implicitly becomes a “women’s issue.” This contradiction manifested in my life when I started doing activism around sexual assault, and another black campus activist confronted me saying I was dealing with a “white woman’s issue” despite the fact that women of color are twice as likely to be assaulted. Even when Vice President Joe Biden made his speech and spoke to us afterward he continued to use this gendered language, as well as implying that all perpetrators are men. That “boys” and “guys” take advantage of “girls” and “ladies.” But both my partner and I were assaulted by women. And while I think an analysis of masculinity is necessary in discussing rape culture, I think simplifying language that implies one universal rape narrative distances far more survivors than it unifies.

Nastassja on stage at the Academy Awards

Nastassja on stage at the Academy Awards

LGBTQ students are twice as likely to experience sexual violence than heterosexual students. Rates of domestic violence are also higher within the LGBT community, but less reported. Narrow legal definitions used in some universities and states make it particularly difficult for queer and gender non-conforming survivors to seek justice; from defining only vaginal penetration as rape to directly excluding same sex assault. This is why the gendered language was so triggering as it was used over and over again. It is this framework that makes it harder for us to come forward or be believed.

Historically, sexual violence has also been used as a widespread tool of power and genocide against people of color as well as queer people, so the dueling activist narratives of sexual assault awareness, LGBT visibility, and #oscarssowhite around the Oscars also left me as a queer person of color with the feeling that some potential to name the huge ways these issues overlap was being missed. It’s time to stop siloing our movements; to develop a language and framework to name the ways violence operates interpersonally and structurally along the lines of identity and power in society. Yes, #oscarssowhite. Yes, #oscarssostraight. Yes, #itsonus, and yes #tilithappenstoyou, you won’t know how it feels. But some of us- many of us- are affected by all of these issues and are tired of having to pick a single issue on any given day depending on what’s trending.

Rape Education

**This post was originally published on huffingtonpost March 18, 2016**

Two weeks ago, millions of people watched as 51 survivors - including myself and my fiancée- standing alongside Lady Gaga delivered an unforgettable performance of “Til it Happens to You,” an original song from the campus rape documentary The Hunting Ground. Introducing the performance, Vice President Joe Biden made a powerful statement against victim blaming, inviting viewers to join him and student activists in pledging to change the culture surrounding campus sexual violence. The Hunting Ground was just made available for streaming on Netflix, so people who haven’t yet had the opportunity to see the film- which screened on CNN last November and has been screened at over 1,000 colleges and universities in the last year- will be able to see it and learn more about the issue. I challenge anyone to watch the film, or Lady Gaga’s performance, and not come away sharing the Vice President’s belief that something, something needs to change.

Survivors on stage with Lady Gaga at the Academy Awards on February 28th, 2016

Survivors on stage with Lady Gaga at the Academy Awards on February 28th, 2016

So what is that something?

It’s tempting- and perhaps just- when we hear about the rape epidemic on campuses to want to focus on finding and punishing the perpetrators. A bill proposed last fall, the so-called “Safe Campus Act”- sought to address this problem by instituting “mandatory reporting”- demanding that if survivors turn to their school for support, they must also go through with filing a formal report to the police. Dubbed the “(Un)Safe Campus Act” by activists, dialogue over the bill showed that focusing on prosecution and punishment rather than support and healing raises questions of believability and probability of conviction for all survivors, who are held up to the myth of the “perfect victim” and are often re-traumatized in the process.

A side effect is that this focus on prosecution and “justice” causes us to minimize the vast majority of rape and sexual assault cases that do not result in conviction and punishment of a “bad guy,” asking survivors, “Well, did you report? Were they found guilty?” If not, doubt emerges. Legally, every perpetrator deserves due process. But every survivor deserves to be believed. The two are not in conflict if our response to hearing about rape does not require that we go out and find “the bad guy,” but instead, that we support the survivor in their healing process. The truth is that “solutions” to domestic and sexual violence do not occur in a vacuum, and can cause more harm if they do not account for the real root causes of violence.

My professor once told a story about prevention that I think is applicable here. She said, “if you were standing next to a river, and saw someone in the water, drowning, you would help that person. But if another person, and another, and 10, then 100 more appeared, you would no longer be able to help them all. And after a while, you would ask why all these people were in the river, drowning. If you asked them, and they told you that someone just upstream was pushing them it, you’d solve the problem not by finding a way to rescue them all, but by stopping the person pushing them in.”

How can we prevent rape, not just prosecute and punish those responsible? One policy change that has resulted from lobbying to address this issue is “Bystander Intervention” in which students are trained to intervene in situations that look “risky.” This runs the risk of confirming stereotypes about what assault looks like, and ignores the fact that over 60-80% of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows- a friend, or a dating partner. Someone who doesn’t look ‘suspicious’- someone the victim trusts.

“Yes Means Yes” chalked on the sidewalk at University of Michigan

“Yes Means Yes” chalked on the sidewalk at University of Michigan

Many activists would point to Affirmative Consent legislation, which was signed into law by the California legislature in 2014 and is becoming the standard policy on many college campuses. Just like the White House’s “It’s On Us” campaign, affirmative consent and “Consent Education” inform students of a shifting standard from “no means no,” to “yes means yes,” which means “If you don’t get affirmative and ongoing consent, it’s rape.” Sex is pretty complicated, though, and ‘doing it’ right- consensually, pleasurably- requires some pretty advanced communication and an understanding of issues from consent to anatomy, power dynamics to protection. Yes means yes... but yes to what? Anyone who’s had sex will tell you that “yes” is where the conversation begins- not where it ends.

These interventions are trying to resolve a symptom, without looking deep enough into the cause.They presume that it’s rapists who are pushing all these survivors in, and administrators and law enforcement who are neglecting their duties to identify and remove these perpetrators from campus. Or the government failing to enforce equal access legislation. Or careless students failing to look out for one another. All these may play a part in the problem- but to truly prevent this epidemic, we need to look at where young people- perpetrators and survivors alike- are learning about sex.

An “It’s On Us” commercial I’ve been seeing a lot of lately involves a variety of celebrities informing me, “There’s one thing you can’t have sex without- and that’s consent. Without consent, it’s not sex. It’s rape.” We are learning more and more about rape, but where are young people learning about sex? Primarily abstinence only educational programs that encourage students to “just say no,” to wait for marriage (even though 95% of Americans don’t)- and then engage scare tactics, or share medically inaccurate information. Meanwhile there is no shortage of sexual content in the media, never mind what young people can find on the internet. Beyond the movement to address sexual violence, other millennial feminists are raising awareness of a “bad sex” culture- in which hook ups look more like conquests, and intimacy and mutual pleasure are rare.

Me (on the right) with my fiancée/co-author, Nastassja Schmiedt, and Vice President Joe Biden holding our book Millennial Sex Education at the Academy Awards

Me (on the right) with my fiancée/co-author, Nastassja Schmiedt, and Vice President Joe Biden holding our book Millennial Sex Education at the Academy Awards

Legislation in Virginia last week mandated education about healthy relationships and consent at the high school level. After talking to young people and activists on campuses around the country, we believe that the best intervention to prevent rape is not just more education about rape- it’s comprehensive and inclusive sexual education. Without it, there is no way for young people to communicate and tell the difference between good sex, bad sex, and rape. We need to have conversations about what rape looks like and how to support survivors, but also conversations about how to have sexThat’s why my partner and I wrote a curriculum- entitled Millennial Sex Education- that models fictional stories about people engaging with the sexual culture with questions for reflection and dialogue. And that’s why we’re making an ebook of the curriculum available for free download on our website. Join us in this movement for comprehensive, inclusive sex education- and let’s end rape culture together.

Hunting for the Perfect Victim

**this article was originally published on huffington post Nov. 22, 2016**

Think of the most convincing, beyond-a-shadow-of-doubt, believable rape story you can imagine. One that could even be won in court, although less than 2% of cases are.

Who is the victim? She is a cisgender woman; young, and sexually inexperienced — even a virgin. Perhaps she is religious; perhaps she doesn’t drink. She is probably white. Probably middle or upper class. Perhaps she was just out with her friends, or walking home, or attending a party when she was approached, attacked or drugged by a man she didn’t know. She said no, she tried to escape, but he was stronger than her and overpowered her, probably violently.

Thus, we introduce our rapist. A stranger. A criminal. A bad guy. There are two common mythical rapists. Both are men. The first is intelligent, calculating, even sociopathic, although he seems like a “good” guy. This rapist premeditates his crime, he uses date rape drugs, identifies a target who will be likely to succumb to his strategies, and makes his move — isolating her, incapacitating her and committing the act. He comes from a privileged background and thinks he is above the law. He is probably in a fraternity. The other likely suspect is more impulsive. He sees a woman and attacks. He is less cautious, driven by lust and often violent. Typically athletic, strong; often a man of color.

Do you recognize these characters? They are the archetypal rape victims and perpetrators that populate media narratives about rape on campus, particularly the recent documentary The Hunting Ground, which premiered on CNN on Nov. 22nd.

When many of us hear the word “rape,” certain scripts and myths spring unbidden to the forefront of our minds. Although rape and all forms of sexual abuse are disgustingly, soberingly common in all their forms in our present culture, there are certain stories, certain rapes that resonate more strongly with our cultural preconceived notions and assumptions/scripts about what rape looks like, who is affected by it and who commits it (Susan Brison: Aftermath, Chapter 6). There is, for lack of a better word, a “perfect victim,” a “perfect perpetrator” and a “perfect crime,” at least when it comes to which stories are seen as believable and relevant by the media.

These assumptions do not occur in a vacuum. They are intimately tied to very intentional stereotypes and scripts with a long and ugly history. Historically, rape has only been taken seriously when to do so is politically advantageous to those in power.

Spousal rape, for example, has really only been taken seriously legally since the 1970s; before then, it wasn’t considered possible, echoing legacies of archaic English law in which a woman’s body was considered the property of her husband. Evidence of past sexual activity can be used by the defense in a rape case to undermine a victim’s “credibility.” Even today, the “stranger danger” paradigm means that widespread domestic violence and relationship abuse is all but ignored.

Despite the explicit usage of rape as a tool of colonization and genocide, Native American women have not legally been able to prosecute rape and abuse by non-Native perpetrators until a provision in the 2013 Violence against Women act finally made it possible.

White slaveowners intentionally cultivated the stereotype of the “Jezebel” — the wantonly, uncontrollably sexual black female — to justify the forced breeding of black women throughout slavery (Stephens, Dionne P. “Freaks, Gold Diggers, Divas, and Dykes: The Sociohistorical Development of Adolescent African American Women’s Sexual Scripts.” Sexuality & Culture (2003). This stereotype is the foundation of ongoing fetishization, objectification, and hyper-sexualization of black female bodies that continues to justify sexual violence and harassment of black women to this day. Young Latina and black girls are seen as “chronologically older” than their white peers in order to justify their sexualization and abuse. Rape of women of color is deemed “less traumatic” by juries.

LGBT people have also been targeted for sexualized hate crimes, including “corrective rape,” and experience higher rates of sexual assault but receive less support — and indeed are frequently victim blamed because their very identity is seen to be sexualized.

These dynamics shape the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses. A University of Michigan study found that LGBT students and students of color were at least two times as likely to be raped as their straight and white classmates.

Another internal survey conducted at Harvard echoed the finding that LGBT students are twice as likely to be assaulted. And yet women of color, LGBT people — and even sex-positive women — are seen as “unrapeable,” their stories are sidelined and disbelieved. Paradoxically, these are the people most likely to experience rape due to the tendency of perpetrators of sexual assault to target victims who are hyper-sexualized and therefore less likely to be believed.

While privileged perpetrators of rape have historically been protected, other communities have been scapegoated with scripts of sexual violence. When Donald Trump says that Mexican immigrants are “rapists,” he links into a longstanding tradition of scapegoating men of color for rape. In the United States, this dynamic has grievously affected Black men, who have been subject to rampant lynching, arrest and accusations of rape for hundreds of years, particularly due to how stereotypes of their sexual uncontrollability have intersected with stereotypes of white female vulnerability.

Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was brutally lynched in 1955 by two white males. His crime? Flirting with a white woman. His adolescent black male sexuality was perceived as a threat, and he was killed for it.

Although it is simpler to believe rape is committed by strangers and “bad guys,” 80-90% of rapes are actually committed by someone the victim knows . In a sex-negative, consent-illiterate hook up culture where substance abuse is rampant and sexual communication is impoverished, coercive and opportunistic rape are rampant.

The media tells stories, and “stories help us make sense of the world,” but too often serve to validate our own perceptions, “reinforc[ing] the status quo, serving particular interests without appearing to do so” (Bonilla-Silva, Racism without Racists p. 75). Rape myths are therefore inseparable from the larger power dynamics in our society. Which rapes are covered in mainstream media, and which rapes are sidelined — which we have shown are at odds with the actual prevalence of rape — are not only informed by, but also replicate historical patterns of erasure and “believability.” Stereotypes have the power not to tell you what to do, but who to be in order to be heard. The tendency of media — even, and especially media intending to help “solve” rape — to fall back on stereotypes to create a simpler narrative of rape minimizes many, if not most survivors’ experiences of rape.

Within a simplified myth of “rape culture,” other types of rape- intimate partner violence, same-sex violence, any scenario that strays far from the “perfect victim” and “perfect perpetrator” — which is, after all, a myth — are viewed as add-ons. This is a form of tokenization, and links into a disturbing trend of “disaster porn,” evoking pity towards and alienation of survivors of “complicated rape.” When media falls into stereotypical oversimplifications it alienates the majority of survivors, making our stories less believable, making it harder for us to get support and even to believe ourselves. When we re-write the stories of survivors to fit into preexisting myths that link into dangerous stereotypes, we erase and rewrite history, thereby reinforcing the problem.