For over a week now, a student at New York’s Columbia University has been carrying a heavy burden in full view of the public. As part of her visual arts thesis, called “Mattress Performance: Carry That Weight,” Emma Sulkowicz, 21, has been carrying a dorm mattress with her while on campus, just like the mattress she says she was raped on in 2012. She plans to carry this mattress until her attacker, who may have raped two other students, is expelled. This performance demonstrates not only how victims of sexual assault carry their experiences with them, but the extreme lengths that some victims must go to in order to get people to believe them. Most horrifying, though, is that she has had to resort to such extreme lengths to get any attention at all.
Sulkowicz and 23 other plaintiffs are involved in an ongoing federal complaint, as they believe Columbia and its sister college, Barnard, has repeatedly violated federal laws for allowing alleged perpetrators to remain on campus, discouraging reports of sexual assault, and discriminating against queer students in counselling. However, her story only gained traction after she began her performance piece. Her very public statement has finally attracted national media attention, but the story has already gone on far too long, with no positive end in sight.
Columbia’s student newspaper, The Spectator, has been reporting on Sulkowicz’s case since May, recounting intense and disturbing details about the circumstances of the assault and the university’s response, one that she says is horribly incompetent (in Columbia’s investigation, one panelist repeated asked Sulkowicz how the particular form of rape she endured could physically occur).
Here at UVic, we are in the midst of a prominent public awareness campaign about sexualized violence. To some, it may be the first time this uncomfortable topic is addressed so openly. We would encourage everyone to attend the events, or at least do some research and reflect on this serious issue.
If anyone thinks this campaign is unnecessary, simply examine the reactions to Sulkowicz’s allegations. Police officers were openly skeptical of her claims as she had consented earlier in the night, but then asked to stop (forgetting that consent can be withdrawn at any time). They even neglected to spell her name correctly in the police report. Columbia administrators did not allow Sulkowicz to submit her own written testimony; the person who transcribed her verbal statement overlooked key details that she provided, undermining her case when it was presented to school officials.
It is heartening that at UVic, institutions like the UVSS and the Vikes are participating in a campaign against sexualized violence, but to truly make a difference, all people, including students, faculty, administrators, and community members at large, must seriously consider the damaging cultural norms that pervade our society regarding sexualized violence, norms that incite people to disbelieve or ignore the injustices around them.
While Sulkowicz said she will not ask for help to carry the mattress, students have stepped up to help her, so after all this, she no longer has to go it alone. But here lies the issue: she should never have had to go this far to get the help and support she clearly deserved in the first place.