How It Felt to Be a Sexual Abuse Survivor on Stage at the Oscars with Lady Gaga

Two survivors, Robbie Woodsum and Stephanie Feldman, open up about their emotional decision to come forward as part of Lady Gaga's Oscars performance of "Til It Happens to You" for the It's On Us campaign to end sexual assault on college campus.

Mar 1 2016, 10:15pm

Screengrab via YouTube

Although many aspects of Sunday's Oscars ceremony left something to be desired, one thing most viewers, both in the audience and watching at home, could agree on was the impact and importance of Lady Gaga's performance that night. Called "powerful," "overwhelming," and possibly "the most emotional moment of the Oscars," Gaga's performance of her nominated song "Til It Happens to You" from The Hunting Ground, a documentary about sexual assault on college campuses, ended with over 50 survivors of sexual assault coming forward on stage. They were holding hands, and their forearms bore phrases like "Not your fault" and "Unbreakable."

In the days since the performance, which was introduced by Vice President Joe Biden, who talked about the It's On Us initiative to end college sexual assault, many musicians, actors, and other people in the entertainment industry have come forward to share their own stories of sexual assault; yesterday, the Bachelor star Jane Roper wrote a blog post detailing how she was raped when she was a teenager, and today the model and actress Jaime King also posted her story about being abused for years on Instagram and Twitter.

The purpose of the performance, says Annie Clark, the executive director of End Rape on Campus, was to highlight sexual assault as a systemic issue and not just something that happens to a small group of people. "Something like this is completely unprecedented at the Oscars," Clark told Broadly. "To present the topic of sexual assault in such a public way has never happened before.

"I hope that any survivors watching—in the audience there and people at home—know that they are not alone in their experience and we believe them," Clark continued. "In the future that people should not have to stand on an Oscars stage to be believed and supported; I want the automatic response to be, 'We believe you.'"

Indeed, although the performance was incredibly moving, it's important to remember the work still left to do. We spoke to two survivors who participated in the performance—Robbie Woodsum, who appeared as an interview subject in The Hunting Ground, and Stephanie Feldman—about their decision to appear on stage with Lady Gaga, the impact they believe it had, and what they hope will happen next.

BROADLY: How did you get involved with It's On Us and the Oscars performance?
Stephanie Feldman: The invitation to join the performance was extended to me only days before, through a friend who was featured in The Hunting Ground. The concept [was initially] a simple idea, having 12 of the survivors in the film standing alongside Lady Gaga; then [it expanded to] 50 of us standing together in solidarity. They realized the stage was too big to have so few and decided to extend the opportunity to others, hoping to include those who weren't featured in the film so they could give them the opportunity to be a part of the experience. I am grateful to them for this; I was not in the film but very much wanted to be a part of it in some way shape or form.

What was the rehearsal like?
Feldman: We had rehearsal throughout the entire weekend. Rehearsals mostly involved working on stage placement (practicing choreography) and wardrobe assembly. Everyone involved in coordinating this performance was so incredibly helpful and supportive and constantly making sure that all of the survivors participating felt comfortable. There was a real sense of commitment to the fact that what we were doing was important; it was really a special experience to work with such wonderful people.

I was happy to be one of many, because the survivor population is not small. I don't think I could have done it without them.

Robbie Woodsum: Rehearsal was actually a lot of sitting around waiting for our turn on stage. The first day we got to meet Gaga and went over our initial stage placements and movements. We got to listen to Gaga live, up close and personal for each run through, which was amazing. Even with no one in the audience, it was still incredibly emotional for all of us involved. Thankfully we all had each other's support.

Feldman: There was a lot of waiting around, of course, which was actually OK because it gave all the survivors the opportunity to be together and to connect, and that in itself was really amazing.

How did it feel to be up there with so many other survivors?
Woodsum: Originally it was going to be myself and 11 other survivors that had appeared in the documentary. That number was pushed by the executive producers to 50 survivors, which included local activists and others currently in suits against their schools for mishandling cases of sexual assault on campus. I was happy to be one of many, because the survivor population is not small. I don't think I could have done it without them. There was such incredible strength resonating through those women and men.

Feldman: I don't know if I can put into words exactly what it felt like to be up there. It was so empowering, and I was really proud to be there. The energy was palpable, and I hope that those who were watching could see that. So often we say things like, "You are not alone," and I think that of course it has meaning when you say it, but at a certain point, there is this disconnect. But really truly experiencing it, standing next to others who you relate to on such a profoundly personal level, you begin to have a new understanding of what not being alone means. My hope is that we were able to extend that connection to survivors watching and to maybe open the eyes of those who don't yet understand or haven't tried to.

Were you nervous or hesitant about participating?
Feldman: I was definitely nervous before going on stage, I think mostly because it was so surreal and so emotional. But they were mostly excited nerves. It's hard to put yourself out there, especially with something this personal, but I've made that decision not just for myself but for the cause, and I don't regret that for a second.

I was hesitant about participating and skeptical about whether this was something I wanted to be a part of, but probably not for the reasons one would assume. Yes, it is daunting to come out so publicly about being a survivor, but I was more concerned with the intention behind it. Of course I had heard that Lady Gaga was a survivor and that she truly cared about this issue, and I had hoped that was the case, but unfortunately in the world we live in there are a lot of people who are solely politically and personally motivated; it's hard not to have your guard up. So I didn't know what to expect, and I was worried that I might find myself being used as a human prop. But it turns out that could not have been further from the case, and I'm so happy that I was open and I didn't allow those initial concerns stop me from giving this experience a chance.

When we were together she wasn't a superstar, she was a comrade and a fellow survivor.

Woodsum: I don't think I was hesitant about participating; it was an exciting opportunity. I've already been involved in activism and done public speaking on the issue, so why not be a part of a global message? There was a lot of hype for the song, and with films like Room and Spotlight on the Oscar ballot, sexual violence issues have been a common theme. These nominations, Vice President Biden's message, and our presence only reinforced the message that sexual violence is still a prevalent issue facing our nation.

Over the phone, Annie Clark mentioned to me that a big part of the performance was about highlighting sexual assault as a huge issue that doesn't just affect a small group of individuals. What do you see as the main goals of the campaign?
Woodsum: I think the performance was an excellent way to bring light to the issue by highlighting individuals. Friends of mine have stepped forward to publicly share their own stories of sexual violence based on my involvement and the involvement of the other survivors. I believe it's our individuality and personal connection that inspired this. Yes, it's an issue that needs to be spotlighted, but I also think it's important to show just who has been affected.

Feldman: I completely agree with Annie's statement that it is about the issue and not the individual. These truly are shared experiences, and it's a systemic issue. I think most survivors feel this intense need to implement change because how our culture currently deals with [sexual assault] is so backward; I think it not being about the individual is really empowering. When it's just about you, it's easy to feel incredibly alone, but it being about everyone creates a sense of community in a society where survivors typically feel isolated. I know that isolation, and I don't want others to have to experience it. I don't want others to be wronged like I was; I want to help build a world where that's not still happening. I think a lot of survivors can relate to having those become their priorities.

Read More: The Survivor Saving Untested Rape Kits from the Trash

What was Lady Gaga like?
Feldman: I was so blown away by Lady Gaga. As I said, I didn't really know what to expect, and I sort of had my guard up. But then she walked into our rehearsal crying, and she hugged every single one of us and expressed how appreciative she was of us for being there. She was honest and forthcoming, and she opened up to us on such a personal level—I truly didn't see it coming.

Woodsum: Gaga was incredible. Her staff: incredible. All so caring, unique, talented, thoughtful, and respectful. When we met her for the first rehearsal, she stopped to hug each of us individually. She showed a vulnerable side that made her a human like the rest of us. When we were together she wasn't a superstar, she was a comrade and a fellow survivor.