Last Wednesday, hundreds of Columbia University students gathered on the steps of the Low Library hoisting hand-made signs and shouting into bullhorns, to protest what they say is the administration’s shoddy handling of the very serious issue of campus sexual assault.
They carried mattresses in solidarity with Columbia senior Emma Sulkowicz, who has been lugging one around campus since the beginning of the semester. It’s a symbol, she says, of the dorm mattress she was raped in as a sophomore. “I’m no less afraid [now] of seeing my rapist every time I leave my dorm,” Sulkowicz told the crowd at the end of the rally. “I don’t need to say his name. You know who it is.”
The mattress stunt is part of Sulkowicz’s senior thesis, a performance art protest, for which she has pledged to haul the mattress around campus as long as her alleged rapist remains a student at Columbia. (The administration adjudicated the case in 2013 and ruled in favor of the young man.)
The image resonated, and Sulkowicz quickly became the face of a burgeoning movement.In late September, Sulkowicz and her mattress were featured on the cover of New York magazine. Artists like Marina Abramović have endorsed her performance, applauding her “willpower to stick to something no matter what.”
Media attention had been building since last May, after Sulkowicz was featured prominently in a New York Times story as one of 23 students who had filed a federal complaint against Columbia that month for violating Title IX, a 1972 federal law banning gender discrimination in education programs. (Rape hearings are currently not mentioned anywhere in the Title IX text.)
The complaint accused the school of failing to accommodate rape survivors and repeatedly mishandling sexual assault cases, thrusting Columbia in the center of a national debate—and Sulkowicz with it.
But as the “Carrying the Weight Together” movement goes international (students at some 130 universities around the globe participated in last week’s demonstration, from Arizona State to Central European University in Budapest), its figurehead has gone silent.
Sulkowicz only made a brief public appearance at last week’s rally, where she was shielded from the press by her supporters. (Sulkowicz did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
Indeed, Sulkowicz has become something of a movement celebrity. Students rush to help carry her mattress around campus. Members of the “Carrying The Weight Together” group work around Sulkowicz’s schedule to help with “collective carries.”
“It’s rare for a symbol to capture the attention of so many people on issues like this and to resonate so powerfully for people who have experienced it themselves,” said Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, who launched the activist group “No Red Tape” with Sulkowicz last January (the group’s mantra is “Red tape won’t cover up rape”).
Starr, who helped organize last week’s National Day of Action and is herself a leading voice in the movement, said she “cannot speak on Emma’s behalf, but I think the public attention has been a lot for her and she’s feeling stressed out trying to focus on graduating.”
Starr says she has a background in political organizing (“I used to work for Planned Parenthood, so it’s a terrain I feel comfortable in”), and that Sulkowicz is “coming at this from the perspective of a creative performance who made a very intentional, intelligent, powerful piece of political protest art.” Starr is “more comfortable doing the public speaking part and interacting with the press. Emma has a different way of feeling empowered and empowering others.”
Starr also criticized the administration’s “hostile” response to last week’s protest. “They fined us $1500 in clean-up fees. How could you hear someone like Emma speak and do that? They were far more concerned with the media presence and the presence of elected officials than they were with the content of what we were saying.”
Columbia President Lee Bollinger declined to speak with the Daily Beast, but in a statement released the same day as the protest, the school said it has “made substantial new investments to further strengthen our personnel, physical resources, and policies dedicated to preventing and responding to gender-based misconduct.”
When speaking to the Daily Beast on campus, students were deferential to Sulkowicz’s cause and quick to voice their support. “I think people have a lot of respect for what she’s doing and are grateful to her for bringing light to this issue,” said Nadine, a sophomore who participated in last week’s protest.
She blamed the administration for mishandling cases like Sulkowicz’s, and said the school’s newly implemented Gender-Based Misconduct Policy (PDF) is “not nearly drastic enough” to affect change.
Other students stressed that authorities should invariably be involved in cases like Sulkowicz’s and that Columbia doesn’t have the resources to judge violent criminal behavior. “The university should hire lawyers and other professionals to deal with this stuff,” said Kate, a junior, adding that a handful of girls in her sorority say they’ve been sexually assaulted by other students on campus. Jake, also a junior, agreed that “the potential for problem comes when you decline to work with the police but work with the university.”
But women’s rights activists say the criminal justice system isn’t much better, and that universities should be better equipped to adjudicate accusations of rape.
“Schools have disciplinary processes in place for theft and academic dishonesty, and I think the response to rape should be similar,” says Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women. “Right now, the vast majority of student rapists graduate with a four-year degree with virtually no interruption in their education, while the vast majority of rape victims drop out of school. So whatever college campuses are doing, they need to flip that script. If there’s no clear and convincing evidence that the victim is lying, then get the accused off campus.”
But others say serious crimes should not be in the hands of an administration that normally deals with minor infractions. Rape is a difficult crime to prosecute in criminal court, but that doesn’t mean colleges should be pressed to punish these crimes under some sort of ersatz legal system.
In an op-ed responding to a campus rape task force launched by the White House last spring, Robert Shibley, senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, noted that “rape is perhaps the most serious felony other than murder,” adding, “Serious crimes call for serious procedures and the consistent involvement of law enforcement professionals.”
And when one considers that sexual assaults on campus almost always involve alcohol, even the most well-run campus tribunal will be hard-pressed to reach a clear verdict.
But to question Sulkowicz’s narrative, her decision to not seek legal redress in the courts—and one quickly discovers in off-the-record conversations with students that many do—is often framed as disrespecting her views as a rape survivor.
Sulkowicz has likened run-ins with aggressive reporters to being assaulted, telling The Cut of a reporter who “opened up my backpack and threw his business card in, which was a real violation of my space and made me really upset and triggered a lot of memories of being raped.”
She maintains that her mattress-carrying stunt is an “art piece,” not a protest. In an op-ed published in The Columbia Spectator on October 26, three days before the National Day of Action, Sulkowicz told students that carrying pillows—and not a mattress—was insufficient.
“Pillows are ‘light,’ ‘fluffy,’ and may detract from our message,” she wrote. Images of people carrying them could undermine the “gravity of sexual assault, and imbue what should be seen as a serious crime with ‘cute’ and ‘celebratory’ connotations. If we flood the Internet with images and the inevitable ‘selfies’ that look like they came from a slumber party, we will fail to communicate what I think we all believe: Sexual assault is neither a ‘light’ nor ‘fluffy’ matter, and we cannot treat it as if it were.”
Sulkowicz is fully prepared to haul a mattress around campus until she graduates: raising awareness for her cause is her objective, rather than securing a criminal conviction against her alleged attacker.
After the school ruled in favor of her alleged assailant, Sulkowicz filed a police report against him, but was distraught over her treatment at the hands of the NYPD. In an interview with The Nation last June, Sulkowicz said one officer scolded her for not calling 911 the night of her alleged rape and told her a defense attorney would “rip her apart.”
Her case was transferred to the special victims unit, but they “told me it would take nine months to a year to actually go to court, which would be after I graduated and probably wanting to erase all of my memories of Columbia from my brain anyway,” she told The Cut in September. “So I decided not to pursue it.”
Starr defends the decision, arguing that “a survivor’s number one priority is not necessarily to get their perpetrator arrested, it’s about moving forward and feeling safe in one’s community and healing.”
Sulkowicz only wants her alleged perpetrator expelled, and like many in the growing movement thinks that universities, for all of their grievous failings, are better equipped to deal with campus sexual assault than police.
“I feel like it would take that much longer for [the police to] change, but the universities are filled with people who are progressive thinkers, and who can come up with creative strategies to solve these problems,” she told The Cut.
Starr stresses that universities are required under Title IX to investigate and intervene in sexual assault cases. If schools handle these cases properly, she says, they can “respond to these kinds of acts of violence in a way that the criminal justice system will never be able to, with immediate, campus-specific safety and support.”
Until they’re capable of doing so, radical activists will continue to pursue justice outside of the system, to name “rapists on campus,” and empower sexual assault survivors to take action in their own hands when the system fails them.
But is it really “empowering” to name alleged rapists—people who have not been convicted of any crime in a court of law? What aids the victims of sexual violence, shaming those systems of redress that have failed them, does not necessarily serve balanced justice. As can be seen in the controversy at Columbia, so far all sides have failed to sensibly—and sensitively—address this most charged of crimes.