“I Don’t Think You Understand”: How the Weeknd Advocates for Victims of Sexual Violence

By Gaby Germanos ’18

At the moment, sexual assault and abuse on college campuses are getting a lot of media attention, and justifiably so. It’s an especially germane topic for students and administrators at Harvard, one of the over 150 colleges and universities under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education for mishandling sexual assault cases. While political organizing and writing are popular methods of protesting and educating about sexual violence, music remains an underutilized tool, not only as an avenue for advocacy and activism but also as a means of sharing survivors’ stories.

It might come as a surprise to pop music fans that one of the most vocal advocates for sexual abuse survivors in the music industry is—perhaps unintentionally—none other than Abel Tesfaye, a.k.a. the Weeknd. He hasn’t engaged in rallies around sexual violence, nor has he contributed music to a documentary to raise awareness (as Lady Gaga did for The Hunting Ground in 2015). Instead, he indirectly used his latest hit single, “In the Night,” as an implicit platform for speaking out on the issue, packaging intense imagery in a slick Michael Jackson-esque dance number. In the song, Tesfaye describes a woman who works as an exotic dancer to overcome past sexual abuse, and he approaches the narrative from a remarkably thoughtful and multifaceted perspective.

Though writing from the point of view of the survivor’s current lover, Tesfaye delves into the survivor’s mind. He begins by explaining the circumstances that led to her abuse; by labelling her young self as a “baby girl” living “all alone” in the city, he frames the story in a way that makes us empathize with her, rather than shame her. Unlike the narrator and the listener, she does blame herself, viewing the abuses she suffered as “wrongs she committed.” This guilt is common in people who remain in abusive relationships, and Tesfaye acknowledges the survivor’s feelings without reinforcing them.

Despite the survivor’s physical distance from her abuser, Tesfaye demonstrates that her abuser is never fully removed from her mind. An abuser is often manipulative, creating a strong bond with the victim so that the victim has difficulty leaving or fighting back. In “In the Night,” the survivor associates a particular song with her abuser, and she suffers a visceral, traumatic reaction when she dances to it at work. Tesfaye portrays her attempts to forget her abuse as futile, as she still “hears [her abuser] calling” in her mind every night.

Tesfaye’s decision to make the survivor an exotic dancer has interesting implications, as his illustration of her experience dancing can be read as either conventional or subversive. On the surface, he paints her work as a cry for a help: “she’s dancing to relieve the pain” as “dollar bills and tears keep falling down her face.” This leaves little room for interpreting her work as a legitimate form of sexual expression. I would argue that, especially in third-wave feminist circles, many people see exotic dancers as manifestations of sexual liberation and body positivity. By reverting to a perhaps more conservative view of dancing, Tesfaye challenges the popular neoliberal assumption that dancing is a choice women make, independent of any social pressures, subconscious or otherwise.

The complicated nature of the song is further intensified by Tesfaye’s imperfect narration, which is peppered with lines that re-center the narrative on his irrelevant opinions and desires. For most of the song, he speaks about the survivor’s experience from the point of view of an omniscient narrator. However, this narration breaks down when he tries to compliment her, saying that he “[doesn’t] mind” that she has suffered abuse and “know[s] that she’s capable of anything,” and these remarks place a premium on his personal judgment of the situation. Similarly, he comments that after spending the night with her, “she’s always gone,” as if their problematic sexual relationship—marked by a lack of both physical and emotional commitment—is one of the most significant consequences of her abuse.

Tesfaye’s treatment of the topic is flawed yet noteworthy, considering that his albums are brimming with egocentric and misogynist songs. Simply releasing a song about sexual abuse might not be as impactful as more direct forms of activism, but in doing so, he’s achieving far more than many of his musical contemporaries. Amid a slew of current chart toppers that celebrate objectification (Fetty Wap’s “679”) and slut-shaming (Drake’s “Hotline Bling”), Tesfaye’s willingness to tackle such a difficult topic with complexity is a breath of fresh air.

Editors’ Note: Listen to “In the Night” here.

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