EDGE WISE: It’s On Us — Reflections on campus sexual assault

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By Thursday, May 28 Viewpoints  7 Comments

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.

rainn“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.



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7 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Laury epstein says:

    The behavior of the university president at graduation enrages me. How dare he?!

    1. Jennifer says:

      There are some interesting comments on the Facebook discussion thread of this post, including one defender of President Bollinger’s behavior.


  2. E.H. says:

    Nungesser v. Columbia court documents reveal the email communication between Sulkowitcz and Nungesser. If you read what she wrote to him, it will make you sick. The posts clearly show why nobody believed Sukowitcz and her claims were not credible.

    1. Steve Bohrer says:

      Unfortunately, many matters of this sort come down to some extent of “he said/she said”, especially when charges arise from what started as a consensual sexual encounter.

      Keep in mind that the “Court Documents” referred to here are merely what “he said”, when he entered his complaint. They get no special status as “actually true” merely because a lawyer wrote them up nicely.

  3. David Smith says:

    Wow! What an unbalanced article with no mention of issues surrounding Ms. Sulkowicz’s credibility. I suggest readers refer to Paul Nungesser’s complaint against Columbia University https://kcjohnson.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/nungesser-complaint.pdf.

    For example the article states:

    “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.”

    Here is the version of events in the complaint:

    61. Having gained some traction in denouncing Paul by name, Emma proceeded to
    the New York Police Department (“NYPD”) to criminally charge Paul with rape. Her goal was
    to publicly brand Paul as a rapist. She stated as follows:

    One of my main goals was to have his name somewhere so if he committed
    another crime in New York City it would show up on his record so the next
    person he might assault would have a better time than I did in prosecuting him.

    62. Having failed to get Paul expelled, Emma’s next goal was to have Paul withdraw
    from the University. Emma was impressed by the actions of Lena Sclove, a Brown University
    student who had publicized the name of a male student suspended by Brown University for
    sexual misconduct. Like Lena Sciove, she intended to publicize Paul’s name such that he would
    withdraw from Columbia. Emma stated as follows:
    I was recently friended on Facebook by Lena Sciove, who has been such an
    inspiration for me, and to see the way that she was able to create a safe space for
    herself definitely made me realize that after I had made the police report I had that
    as an option to me as well.

    63. In May 2014, Emma succeeded with her plan to publish Paul’s name. The
    Columbia Spectator (the University’s student newspaper) published Emma’s false rape allegation
    and included Paul’s name.

    64. On August 11, 2014, the New York County District Attorney’s Office
    interviewed Paul for three hours. Immediately upon hearing of the police report, Paul (who was
    abroad at that time) had a criminal lawyer contact police and the District Attorney’s office on his
    behalf, expressing Paul’s intent to speak to the District Attorney to clear his name. Although
    Paul was never summoned, he returned to the United States and voluntarily spoke to Assistant
    District Attorney Kat Holderness and Assistant District Attorney Martha Bashford.

    65. Immediately thereafter, Kat Holderness informed Paul’s criminal lawyer that no
    charges would be brought against Paul, as there was a lack of reasonable suspicion to proceed.

    66. Three weeks after Paul’s criminal attorney was informed that rape charges would
    not be brought against him, Emma falsely announced that she personally decided not to pursue
    criminal charges against Paul:

    I decided I didn’t want to pursue it any further because they told it 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, so I decided not to pursue it.

    Emma conveniently omitted the fact that the Sex Crimes Unit refused to bring any charges
    against Paul following its investigation, due to a lack of any reasonable suspicion.

  4. E. H. says:

    The question for the editors is why something like the above is allowed to be published in the paper with the main premise based on a total reversal of reality? Why didn’t anyone fact check Ms. Browdy vis a vis the publ;ic court documents? Did you read the lawsuit? Bollinger had the emails. Now you know why Bollinger avoided physical contact with Sulkowicz. Men stay away from women who send emails discussing STD’s. This is a bad start for a new newspaper. You might get a call from Mr. Nungesser’s NYC lawyers. Maybe Ms. Browdy has an axe to grind. Consider a retraction or correction.

  5. Gabriel Lord Kalcheim says:

    •”… create an environment in which sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported/”
    It is easy to say this, but what so many, including the author, have totally overlooked is what social and cultural factors have created the enivironment is which sexual assault is all to common. You can’t just plaster “just say no to sexual assault” stickers around” and hope things will change. The fact of the matter is that the culture on campuses surrounding casual sex has got to change, as I have written in this paper. It is the elephant in the room.

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