Sofie Karasek remembers clearly what was going through her mind as she waited with 51 other sexual assault survivors behind a screen while Lady Gaga sang at the Academy Awards.
Karasek’s thoughts played out during the quiet moment before the screen lifted and she walked into the light. Before she stepped onto the platform to take her spot alongside Lady Gaga’s white piano. Before all the celebrities in the audience were roused to their feet. Before Best Actress winner Brie Larson hugged her and the other survivors as they walked off the stage.
And then, when all was quiet again, Karasek shared those private thoughts with Vice President Biden, who had been waiting backstage to meet them after introducing Lady Gaga’s performance.
Karesek, 22, told the vice president that before she went on stage she had been thinking about all the women and men who weren’t there because they’d taken their own lives after being sexually assaulted. Karasek began to cry, her eyes fixed on the floor, as she told him she hoped the performance would make others feel less alone, that it would save even just one life.
That’s when Biden stooped down, clasped her hands and rested his forehead on hers. He told her that was why her bravery that night had been so important.
“He had a really emotional reaction,” Karasek said in an interview. “I was surprised.”
Karasek, who lives in New York, is one of many survivors featured in the documentary “The Hunting Ground” about the epidemic of sexual assaults on college campuses. The song Lady Gaga sang at the Feb. 28 Oscars, “Till It Happens to You,” was written for the film.
In February 2012, Karasek was a freshman at the University of California at Berkeley when, during a weekend retreat with a club she had just joined, an older male student groped her while she was sleeping, she said. She recalled waking up to him touching her. When he finally left, she couldn’t sleep. The next day she kept leaving the group to cry in the bathroom. He was a prominent leader in the group, she said. Who would believe her?
But another person in the club sensed that Karasek was withdrawn on the ride back to Berkeley and told the club president. The president then reached out to Karasek told her that the same person had assaulted other women. Karasek first sought to have him removed from his leadership role at the club. He was, but then, a month later, she learned her assailant had assaulted another woman. She, and three other women who had been assaulted by him, met with college administrators, and Karasek later submitted a statement about what happened to her.
No one from the school followed up with her, she said. About eight months later, she was told that the matter had previously been resolved. Two days later, her attacker graduated early. She pressed for further information and it wasn’t until September 2013 that she found out that he had been put on probation and sent to counseling.
“It was particularly disturbing because I heard from other students that this was a recurring problem that sexual assault wasn’t taken seriously,” she said. “The university was systematically sweeping sexual assault under the rug for decades.”
She filed a federal complaint with the Education Department against Berkeley on behalf of more than 30 students. Later, she and two others, sued the school in federal court for mishandling their sexual assault complaints.
A Berkeley spokeswoman, Janet Gilmore, said the university couldn’t comment on the individual case but added, “We, of course, are always saddened to hear when any student feels she or he did not get the support sought.”
She said the university has “expanded support from a new confidential survivors’ advocates office, a one-stop website where information on reporting and, currently, expanded staffing.”
For Karasek, the trauma of the assault was exacerbated by the betrayal she felt from Berkeley, she said. The idyllic, progressive university she loved had let her down. Then, in the midst of fighting the institution, she learned that her high school classmate in Cambridge, Mass., Jahar Tsarnaev, had set off a bomb at the Boston Marathon.
“I had this complete identity breakdown that I’m still recovering from,” she said. “What does it mean to be from Cambridge? What does it mean to go to Berkeley? I didn’t feel like I could trust anybody.”
Karasek is now the education director of the D.C-based nonprofit End Rape on Campus. In her role she helps students prepare Title IX complaints against their colleges, alleging the sexual assaults on campus are a failure to enforce the gender-equity law, which requires schools to address sexual violence complaints.
As of this month, 167 colleges and universities were being investigated for violating Title IX, according to EROC’s website.
A Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll last year found that 1 in 5 women say they were sexually assaulted while at college. In September 2014, the Obama administration launched an awareness campaign, “It’s On Us,” which Biden mentioned when he introduced Lady Gaga at the Oscars.
Karasek still hasn’t watched the Oscars performance. She’s barely been able to process that it happened.
Since her own assault, Karasek has steeled herself to stay focused on what is now her life’s mission: helping other college students who were assaulted get their universities to take notice and take action.
It’s a mental defense strategy she has perfected in her four years as a survivor and an advocate.
Before the Academy Awards, about 20 of the survivors got matching tattoos of a rose emerging from a flame. Karasek got it on the middle of her back. Several days later, Lady Gaga got the same design on her shoulder.
It may seem enviable to have this permanent connection to Lady Gaga, but they are bonded for a terrible reason.
“I would much rather give up the Oscars performance and not have gone through everything I’ve gone through,” Karasek said. “I would much rather have not met Lady Gaga or Brie Larson if it meant I didn’t have to experience what I have. We’re not lucky — we have survived and that’s why we were there.”
(This post has been updated.)