A woman walks through Columbia’s gated campus, following the throng of other students as they walk to class. The day is bright. The students move lightly between each other in this microcosm of a city, all stone, all cement. A statue of Athena sits on her bronze throne. The woman moves slowly. The weight she carries is heavy. She walks, arms wrapped lengthwise around a blue mattress. She plans to carry the mattress until her rapist is expelled from the university.
The student’s name is Emma Sulkowicz. Her demonstration, part performance art and part protest, transitions the trauma of sexual assault from the intensely private domain of the bedroom to the public. The piece, titled “Carry That Weight,” functions as her art thesis. Over the past few weeks, she’s become a campus celebrity.
The reactions to Emma Sulkowicz’s performance protest have been nearly unanimously positive. Students at Columbia and beyond have rallied alongside her, protesting the university’s mishandling of sexual assault and even physically sharing her burden by helping to carry her mattress. The New York Times, the Columbia Spectator and Democracy Now, if not the Columbia University administration, has supported her efforts, continuing to document and spread awareness of her movement.
A few days before Emma Sulkowicz first demonstrated her thesis, four undergraduates at North Carolina State University created a nail polish that would change color when exposed to certain date rape drugs. The boys were celebrated. The nail polish was hailed.
This much is true: the invention reflected progress in the way in which we think about sexual assault; no longer is it relegated to masked and villainized evildoers (although those do exist), but instead there is a growing realization of the insidious and indiscriminate nature of sexual assault as a phenomenon.
However, as much commentary would be quick to note, nail polish that works to protect the potential targets of sexual assault also puts the blame on those same targets. In the same way it has been easy to shift the blame of sexual assault onto women for “asking for it” (if they were found wearing provocative attire, or if they were intoxicated), many worry that this nail polish will only further perpetuate victim-blaming culture. In a wary future, it’s uncertain whether or not a woman would be faulted for allowing sexual assault had she not been wearing protective nail polish.
The celebration over this invention should be observed with clear eyes. The praise is warranted, but so is the backlash. The invention will allow a necessary safety precaution, and hopefully can serve as a successful defense mechanism. However, the idea that progress in rape culture necessitates women to implement more defense strategies is inherently problematic. (This invention also reflects the misconception that women are the only people who are assaulted on college campuses, but that is another article entirely.)
Both stories, Emma Sulkowicz’s thesis and the creation of “Undercover Colors” nail polish, have recently gone viral. Both reflect progress. This generation of college students has come of age in a world where sexual assault is widely accepted as an issue, and not simply an unfortunate but pervasive fact of campus life. Both stories also reflect a growing understanding of the deeper, societal issues that underscore the issue of sexual assault on college campuses, and both are troubling in their own right.
Part of why the video footage of Emma Sulkowicz’s performance piece shocks us is because it takes place at Columbia. In her interview with the Columbia Spectator, Emma Sulkowicz speaks to us from the main quad of an Ivy League University, the supposed bastion of American triumph and wisdom. The footage lingers over the campus architecture. Emma Sulkowicz’s interview was shot outside, in daylight, in the middle of campus.
Rape happens here, the video stresses. Here, under the grand archways traced with ivy and hundred-year-old brick. The institution itself is not exempt, although it claims to be. According to an article by the Post Standard, Columbia University has still declined to reach out to Emma Sulkowicz.
Columbia University is not the only university with a rape problem. Neither are Amherst or Yale or USC or Dartmouth, although their scandals are much more widely known. Nationwide, one in four college students have survived rape or attempted rape. According to a 2013 article in the Daily Princetonian, which used the data from a 2008 survey, around 15% of female undergraduates have reported non-consensual penetration, while a much larger amount reported harassment.
Princeton University is currently in the process of changing its policies regarding the management of sexual assault cases. The faculty has unanimously accepted a new set of recommendations. Under these guidelines, writes the Daily Princetonian, “both the accuser and those found guilty” of sexual assault would be allowed “equal rights of appeal” as well as “an adviser from outside the University community,” and the standard of proof was lowered from the former burden of “clear and persuasive” evidence. These changes were made to comply with Title IX. According to a statement the Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity Michelle Minter made to the Daily Princetonian, had Princeton not implemented these changes, the university would have “potentially lost all federal funding.” Beyond university policy, the influence of a changing public consensus has become apparent in our student body. According to Junior Eliza Mott, president of Speak Out, a sex-positive consent activist group, the student interest in the club increased more than threefold in the past year.
Yet at Princeton, the idea that sexual assault “shouldn’t” happen here still thrives. We are the future leaders! Princeton students should be better than that!
But we aren’t and we’re not. Instead, in a trend perhaps more insidious than victim-blaming, we engage in the kind of self-absolving patterns of thought that allow us to consider our campus as extraordinarily safe, while still telling our friends that they should avoid going out to certain eating clubs if they wish to avoid unwanted sexual attention.
Princeton’s campus is insulated from the dangers of a city. It teems with P-Safe cars. But for much of the community, in the privacy of our dorm rooms and our own mattresses, it is not safe. Every semester, P-Safe offers self-defense classes for women to protect themselves against violent assault. No classes like this exist for men. Neither, conversely, do classes with the primary focus on the education of men to prevent sexual assault. I don’t know what it will take for this to change. But I do know this:
Sexual assault is an evil that spans well beyond the gates of our universities, and is a problem that goes well beyond what a truly brave artist and a smart little nail polish can combat. Victim blaming is systematic. The English language has more female-specific synonyms for “temptress” than ones that can be applied to males. Parents will continue to tell their daughters to be careful. Daughters will learn to cover up. Celebrities will commit more violent offenses against women. They will continue to be acquitted. Emma Sulkowicz will carry her mattress until her rapist is expelled from campus, where he is no longer able to harass her. The statue of Alma Mater watches her university, overseeing the campus with blind, bronze eyes.