It’s graduation season, which means that all across America young people are gathering to be recognized for their academic achievements, and to listen to advice from their elders, in the form of speeches and exhortations. At Columbia University in New York City, what this year’s graduates will remember is not the details of the speech they listened to, but the behavior of their university’s president, who shook the hand of every graduate but one — Emma Sulkowicz, the mattress girl.
You’ve probably heard of her by now — the girl who accused another student of raping her during their sophomore year at Columbia and who, when the charges against the alleged rapist were dropped, decided to enact a symbolic protest by carrying around with her on campus the mattress on which she said the rape occurred.
Carrying around a twin mattress takes strength and dexterity, but even more so, it takes determination. For the past year, Ms. Sulkowicz has refused to do what so many other young women in similar circumstances do — just let it go. She has carried her mattress through snow and rain, up and down stairs and all over the campus, to remind everyone who sees her of the complicated, messy politics of sexual violence, and how rarely justice is served to those brave enough to cry rape.
Her protest became the focus of her senior project, entitled “Carry That Weight,” which Roberta Smith described in an article for The New York Times as analogous to “Hester Prynne and her scarlet letter, albeit an extra heavy version that Ms. Sulkowicz has taken up by choice, to call attention to her plight and the plight of other women who feel university officials have failed to deter or adequately punish [sexual] assaults.”
According The New York Times, Ms. Sulkowicz has said that “On the evening of the first day of classes of her sophomore year…she was anally raped in her dorm room by a fellow student with whom she had had consensual sex twice before, according to the police report.
“In the aftermath, Ms. Sulkowicz suffered in silence, then filed a complaint with the university. This led to a hearing before a panel that found him not responsible…a decision that was upheld upon appeal. After that disappointment, she said, a trip…to file a report with the police was so upsetting she didn’t follow through.”
Anyone who follows the news related to sexual assault in America will recognize this as a familiar story.
A 2007 Justice Department study found that around 1 in 5 women are targets of attempted or completed sexual assault while they are college students, compared to about 1 in 16 college men. College-aged women are four times more likely than any other age group to face sexual assault and in 90 percent of reported cases, the victim is acquainted with his or her attacker. But reported cases are in the tiny minority: the Justice Department study found that less than 5 percent of rapes and attempted rapes of college students are reported to campus authorities or law enforcement.
In other words, there are many young women (and a few young men) like Emma Sulkowicz graduating from college every year, but most are staying silent about what they have endured.
Why the silence? Sexual assault, especially between acquaintances, is usually complicated. Alcohol or other substances are often involved, and can cloud both parties’ judgment about whether consent was asked for and given. Too often, victims are blamed for “asking for it,” while perpetrators are given the benefit of the doubt.
It’s only recently that a strong movement has emerged on college campuses to protest the widespread climate of tolerance for sexual assault, aided by a new White House-backed campaign to encourage more victims to file charges through the federal civil rights law known as Title IX. However, as a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education noted, between 2003 and 2013 “about three-quarters of Title IX complaints involving alleged sexual harassment, a category that includes assault, were dismissed or administratively closed.”
Hence, Emma Sulkowicz’s frustration.
I applaud Ms. Sulkowicz for having the guts and the determination to carry out her very visible year-long protest, standing up to the university officials who did everything they could to dissuade her from carrying her mattress up on to the stage at her graduation from Columbia earlier this month. She stood in line with her mattress waiting to receive her degree, just a short ways down the line of graduates from her alleged attacker, Paul Nungesser. According to The New York Times, Columbia’s president, Lee C. Bollinger, “turned away as she crossed in front of him, failing to shake her hand, as he did with the other graduates.”
That President Bollinger shook Mr. Nungesser’s hand but not Ms. Sulkowicz’s speaks volumes about the different treatment awarded to perpetrators and victims of sexual assault. Ms. Sulkowicz was blamed and shunned by Mr. Bollinger for speaking up, while Mr. Nungesser was treated as just another ordinary student.
This graduation season, as we send another generation of young people out into the world with their newly minted degrees, let us turn away from the kind of callous behavior exhibited by that university president. Let us show the kind of active compassion called for by the It’s On Us pledge, which calls on each one of us to make a personal commitment to do whatever we can to keep women and men safe from sexual assault. You can take the pledge publicly online, agreeing:
- To recognize that non-consensual sex is sexual assault
- To identify situations in which sexual assault may occur
- To intervene in situations where consent has not or cannot be given
- To create an environment in which sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported.
President Bollinger and other higher education officials all over America should be required to take this pledge — and to live up to it. Our young people deserve no less.