In defense of Emmas everywhere

June 1, 2015

Susan Carroll and Jen Sluka report from Columbia University in New York City where Emma Sulkowicz's bold stand continued the fight for rape survivors everywhere.

EMMA SULKOWICZ carried their mattress across the stage of their graduation from Columbia University in May--the culmination of a school-year-long pledge to carry the dorm-room mattress with them as long as the student who sexually assaulted them remained on campus.

Throughout the year, Sulkowicz faced indifference from Columbia administrators, who failed to reopen the case against the student who raped them, and a vicious, sexist backlash from those who claim they are lying about the assault.

On May 19, their brave testament to the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses was once again met with official disinterest and outright hate.

At the ceremony, Columbia President Lee Bollinger didn't shake Sulkowicz's hand--another university decision among many that demonstrates how Columbia's supposed commitment to improving its response to sexual violence fails to go beyond rhetoric. Bollinger did shake the hand of Sulkowicz's assailant, Paul Nungesser, who also graduated.

Meanwhile, the day of the ceremony, large-scale posters--with a photo of Sulkowicz and their mattress, and the ugly words "Pretty Little Liar" across the top--were plastered all around campus and the surrounding New York City neighborhood. The comment sections of every article about Sulkowicz were riddled with anonymous commenters labeling them a "slut," "whore," "bitch" and "cunt"--and portraying Nungesser as a persecuted victim.

Emma Sulkowitz (left) graduates from Columbia University
Emma Sulkowitz (left) graduates from Columbia University

This has been one side of the response since September, when Sulkowicz began carrying the mattress as part of a senior art thesis, a performance piece called "Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)" that aimed to raise awareness about Columbia's systemic mishandling of sexual assault cases.

On the other hand, Sulkowicz also received strong support from many classmates. Some helped them "carry the weight" of the assault that took place during their sophomore year by helping to shoulder the mattress, as a group of fellow students did at the graduation ceremony. Others joined in protests and speak-outs to make the university accountable for denying justice for rape survivors.

Among those abusing them, Sulkowicz is portrayed as carrying out a personal campaign against Nungesser. But this purposefully distracts from the point of the performance. Sulkowicz's "Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)" isn't about personally shaming Nungesser, but shaming Columbia's inability to properly respond to students' claims of sexual assault. Sulkowicz didn't release Nungesser's name to the press--the Columbia Spectator decided to publish it after Sulkowicz filed a police report, making his name a part of public record.

The contrast between the two sides is striking--while Sulkowicz has offered clear critiques of the university's adjudication process, Nungesser's supporters have focused on personal attacks on Sulkowicz, designed to shame and victim-blame.

THERE ARE many more "Emmas" at Columbia and colleges nationwide--countless survivors whose assaults have been met with ignorance, dismissiveness and even outright hostility by campus administrations.

These survivors continue to carry that weight every day, with many attending class alongside their attackers. In fact, it's a major achievement that Sulkowicz graduated--many survivors are unable to do so because of their schools' failure to adequately address their claims.

Sulkowicz's protest should be seen in the context of emerging organizing against sexual violence on Columbia's campus and at colleges across the country--symbolized recently by the wave of federal Title IX and Clery Act complaints filed by groups of students at over 90 universities in the U.S.

The sexist backlash, unfortunately, also fits into this broader picture. It's hard enough for survivors to come out and talk about rape and sexual assault, but to then face abuse and re-traumatization--which are already routine in legal battles and campus adjudication processes--is contemptible and misogynistic.

The "Liar" posters, though deemed a "counterprotest" by many, were explicitly intended to silence survivors for daring to speak up. As another woman, who also reported Nungesser at Columbia for sexual violence, wrote in an anonymous op-ed article for Jezebel:

It's safer to be quiet. The reason I'm writing this anonymously is because of what happens to people like Emma, who speak out. Their names are plastered on disgusting posters on their graduation day. They're inundated with violent threats and graphic comments every time they log into their e-mail and check their Facebook.

Many politicians--from conservatives to liberals--insist that a university adjudication process isn't equipped to handle sexual violence cases. But what they seem to be unaware of is that the purpose of Title IX isn't to prosecute rapists, but to ensure equal access to educational opportunities, regardless of gender. Being a survivor of sexual assault or intimate partner violence at the same educational institution as the perpetrator is an impediment to learning that must be dealt with by the school.

As Alexandra Brodsky and Elizabeth Deutsch wrote at Politico:

The criminal justice system does not and cannot respond to [concerns of equality]...Schools are undoubtedly failing survivors, but, rather than abdicating responsibility to a system with different ends and different means, they should face the challenge of educational equality head on. Colleges should build disciplinary procedures focused on a victim's ability to continue to learn, nestling sexual misconduct policies within broader antidiscrimination protections. As a first step, school administrations should turn to the real experts: victims, who know better than anyone what support students need to continue their educations in the wake of violence. And that, in many cases, will not look like a criminal trial.

IF COLUMBIA had taken Sulkowicz seriously and re-evaluated their case, it would have set a precedent and helped force the university to address other mishandled cases deemed to be "closed," as well as future cases.

Therefore, it's not surprising that Bollinger refused to shake Sulkowicz's hand. Acknowledging their protest would have meant acknowledging that there is a growing movement against sexual violence at Columbia and other schools, which is exposing university administrations and their corporate, rather than educational, priorities on maintaining the reputation and donors to the institution.

One way that the Columbia administration did acknowledge Sulkowicz was in an e-mail sent to graduating seniors before commencement. It warned students not to bring "large objects...that could create discomfort to others" to the ceremony, since "everyone who attends––especially graduating students, their families and friends––participate with a well-founded expectation that they will enjoy what is one of life's more meaningful milestones."

While never specifying which "large object" might create "discomfort," and for whom, it's pretty clear the communication was directed at Sulkowicz.

This e-mail reveals how it is in Columbia's interest to portray Sulkowicz's performance as an act of unfounded bullying. In this way, the university and the accused rapist have a shared interest in making it appear as though a woman's calls for justice were a vindictive personal attack, rather than a damning indictment of an institution and a system that failed them. President Bollinger's choice to shake Nungesser's hand, rather than Sulkowicz's, is a dramatization of that fact.

Of course, Sulkowicz didn't follow the e-mail warning. While they may have created discomfort, they were met with loud cheers as they crossed the stage, carrying their mattress with the help of their classmates.

Every movement that catches public attention has been the target of a backlash. While this has definitely been true for the movement against sexual violence, thousands of survivors are nevertheless coming forward and denouncing the institutions that failed them--universities, workplaces, hospitals, psychological services, the criminal justice system, and the list goes on and on.

If we are to fight the rampant sexism and violence that not only excuses but also sustains assault and intimate partner violence, now is the time to continue building and strengthening the movement on college campuses and everywhere else.

Further Reading

From the archives