author – activist – faculty – mom
Columbia University senior, Emma Sulkowicz was raped as a sophomore, in her own dorm room bed. When she took the bold and brave step of reporting it to the authorities, the alleged rapist was found not guilty. This, despite the fact that two other women had also come forward accusing him of sexual assault. Sulkowicz was also denied an appeal. Unfortunately, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about this story. College campuses across the nation report a similar pattern of what has become known as “rape culture,” where sexual assault is common and unchallenged by authorities. According to WNYC, “Currently, 76 colleges are under investigation, including Harvard, Dartmouth, Berkeley [where I teach] and Ohio State” for their questionable handling of sexual assaults.
However, Sulkowicz, who is a visual arts major, decided to use her creativity to fight back in an innovative way. According to Think Progress:
as her senior thesis project, she’s embarking on a performance arts piece that requires her to tote her mattress everywhere she goes. But she doesn’t have to do it alone.
Under the terms of Sulkowicz’s thesis — entitled Carry That Weight or Mattress Performance — she’s not allowed to ask for help carrying her mattress. She is allowed to accept help if other people offer on their own, however, and that inspired her fellow students to get organized so they can assist Sulkowicz in a meaningful way.
“Carrying The Weight Together,” a group founded by another senior at Columbia, is organizing “collective carries” to ensure that the community will work together to help bear the weight of Sulkowicz’s symbolic burden. They’re committing to helping carry the mattress every day.
Her individual act of boldness has done something unprecedented in the history of college sexual assault, it has inverted the aftermath of rape on campus. We have often seen young men bragging to other young men (or making videos) about their sexual “conquests.” We have rap artists glorifying rape: “put molly all in her champagne…Took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain’t even know it.” Sulkowicz is equally bold. But this time the survivor of assault is the one publicly drawing attention to the situation. Certainly other women have come forward and told their story or reported the crime, but Sulkowicz has actually turned the tables. Rape survivors are conditioned to be ashamed. Decades of television and movies have told us how it’s done: we are supposed to hide and cower and tell our stories reluctantly on the stand. But Sulkowicz is unashamed and unapologetic. And after dragging her mattress around for days, people are coming to help and she’s rarely carrying it alone. The isolation that rape survivors feel in carrying that burden is, if not lifted, at least shifted and shared. I wonder how the young man who allegedly assaulted her must feel. Does he walk around campus in fear of seeing a gang of students carrying a mattress? Does he walk past mattress protests with red words like “carry that weight” and “CU has a rape problem” and duck his head and walk faster? Sulkowicz has vowed to carry the mattress until he is expelled from school.
But even if he’s never expelled, she is still victorious. And this is the crux of the inversion, the alleged rapist and Columbia University is being publicly shamed. And they should be ashamed. Every university that has permitted a thriving rape culture should be ashamed.
Columbia, like many universities, was originally founded as an all-male educational institution in 1754. It didn’t go co-ed until 1983, nearly 230 years later. Its original mission was to secure the futures of privileged young men. Starting in 1889, Barnard, an affiliated college right next door, began to educate young women. In the old days, strict rules protected young women from sexual contact as well as sexual assault. However, when the so-called sexual revolution meant that colleges no longer acted like chastity protectors for female students, sexual assault flourished alongside consensual sex.
The remedy for this is simple: create a welcoming and sensitive climate and process for reporting assaults, protect victims, and prosecute young men who rape. However, most universities have defaulted to their original mission of protecting the futures of privileged young male students. Previously, any so-called townie or barmaid who reported sexual misconduct by their students would be summarily dismissed, based on her subordinate class position. The class hierarchy has always protected privileged young men’s sexual access to poorer women and women of color. But in contemporary co-ed schools, the university has had to contend with young men raping women of their same class position. And the verdict is clear. The boys will be protected. Their futures must be assured. The girls’ status is revealed for the interlopers they are. Why wasn’t it good enough for us to stay home and be wives? Why weren’t we happy at girls’ schools with limited facilities? If we want to play with the boys, they will show us how much we are not boys. Survivors are left to feel humiliated, defeated, and alone.
For decades, individual women and women’s organizations have been fighting back by all available means. According to WNYC, “In the spring, 23 Columbia and Barnard students filed a federal complaint with the Department of Education.” Emma Sulkowicz is one of those students.
I regret Emma Sulkowcz’s assault, but I celebrate her bravery. In her shameless act, she’s returned the shame to its rightful owners, the rapist and the university.