Zero tolerance for sexual assault
‘Carry That Weight’ emphasizes failure to address rape appropriately
Columbia University senior Emma Sulkowicz has been lugging a twin-sized mattress around with her on campus since September to make a statement about her experience with sexual assault on campus, and she’s not putting it down until her attacker is expelled.
Sulkowicz is a visual arts major, and her project, “Carry That Weight,” has become her senior thesis. There are rules to the project: She has to carry it around with her wherever she goes on campus, and she can’t ask anyone to help her with it. But if she is offered help, she’s allowed to accept — and plenty of students have been carrying the weight with her. She is using her experience to bring attention to the issue and make clear that she is shattering the silence that victims of rape are so often confined to. It’s a bold move to make, especially when there is so much of a stigma unfortunately attached to those who dare to speak out about their experiences with rape.
Sulkowicz filed a complaint with Columbia last April, accusing another Columbia student of raping her in her dorm room on the first day of their sophomore year in 2012. Like many victims of rape, she didn’t initially want to report the incident. But when two more classmates told her that the accused rapist had also assaulted them, they decided to press charges. The alleged rapist, known as Paul, denied these charges and was found not guilty at the hearing. Paul and Sulkowicz had consensual sex in the past. In fact, this particular incident started out as a consensual act as well — until, according to Sulkowicz, she struggled and very clearly told him to stop, and he didn’t.
But according to Sulkowicz, the university has done an extremely poor job of addressing her complaint and has generally mishandled the entire situation from the beginning. There is a very fine line between consensual and non-consensual sex, and it’s important to understand how easily that line can be crossed. In Sulkowicz’s case, however, Paul was cleared of the charges and continues to attend Columbia University. Without a clear verdict, we don’t know who’s telling the truth in this case, and we can’t say what happened for sure. Regardless, the statement Sulkowicz is making is garnering national attention and forcing the university to take a hard look at its handling (or mishandling) of on-campus cases of sexual assault.
It’s instances of rape like this one that are rampant on college campuses. The threat of sexual assault isn’t just in the danger of being raped by a random stranger in a dark alleyway — it’s in being forced into unwanted sex by a friend, a boyfriend or a trusted partner. It includes being taken advantage of by someone familiar, which is all the more dangerous. It includes sex that starts out consensual, but then becomes unwanted. It includes sex without any consent at all. It’s actually not that complicated: No means no (whenever and however it’s expressed), and ignoring that is what makes someone a rapist.
As prestigious as they are, universities from Columbia to Stanford are falling into a pattern of sweeping issues of assault on campus under the rug. For all of the progress we’ve made as a society when it comes to appropriately dealing with rape, it’s still being mishandled in these institutions, where one in five women is likely to be a victim of sexual assault. Seventy-eight colleges across the country, from Harvard to UCLA, are under an investigation by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for their handling of complaints of violations.
Rutgers University has made it clear both at the administrative level and from the general attitude of the student body that there is no tolerance for sexual assault. While there have been reports of abuse and assault even from within our own campus community, we think there is a relatively more transparent environment at Rutgers that allows victims to come forward about their experiences, and we hope that the University is equipped to handle such situations appropriately and without any attempts to cover it up for the sake of maintaining a certain image. There are many resources on campus for those who might need it, including the Office for Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance and Rutgers Counseling, Alcohol (and Other Drugs Assistance Program) and Psychiatric Services.
We hope that through the efforts of students such as Sulkowicz, more attention is given to the issue. Columbia might try to ignore allegations of rape to protect its image, but in this age of social media and generally widespread information, everyone now knows that it has something to hide — so how’s that image now?