Columbia student turns her campus rape into performance art

By Caitlin Kelly


Artist, and Columbia undergrad, Emma Sulcowicz has been dragging a 50-pound mattress around the campus of Columbia University for the past few months — to protest a fellow student rapist she says has not yet been disciplined or expelled.

From The New York Times:

Ms. Sulkowicz spoke of her interest in the kind of art that elicits a powerful response, whether negative or positive. Freshly painted on the walls around us loomed big black letters spelling out the “rules of engagement,” the guidelines to her performance: One states that she will continue the piece until the man she accuses of attacking her is no longer on campus, whether he leaves or is expelled or graduates, as she also will next spring. (If need be, she plans to attend commencement carrying the mattress.) She said the performance is giving her new muscles and an inner strength she didn’t know she had, and is attracting many different kinds of attention, some of it hard to take.

“Carry That Weight” is both singular and representative of a time of strongly held opinions and objections and righteous anger on all sides, a time when, not surprisingly, political protest and performance art are intersecting in increasingly adamant ways.

Her decision to make the alleged attack public, ongoing and physically demanding — of her and her bystanders — forces others to engage with her, intellectually, emotionally and physically. Many rape survivors choose to remain silent and hidden, fearing insensitive response from friends, family and authorities.

Her protest, having made the front page of the NYT arts section (a spot many established artists would kill for!) also won her the cover of New York magazine:

A few years ago, an Ivy League student going public about her rape, telling the world her real name—let alone trying to attract attention by lugging around a mattress—would have been a rare bird. In America, after all, we still assume rape survivors want, and need, their identities protected by the press. But shattering silence, in 2014, means not just coming out with an atrocity tale about your assault but offering what Danielle Dirks, a sociologist at Occidental, calls “an atrocity tale about how poorly you were treated by the people you pay $62,500 a year to protect you.” By owning those accusations, and pointing a finger not only at assailants but also the American university, the ivory tower of privilege, these survivors have built the most effective, organized anti-rape movement since the late ’70s. Rape activists now don’t talk much about women’s self-care and protection like they did in the ’90s with Take Back the Night marches, self-defense classes, and cans of Mace. Today, the militant cry is aimed at the university: Kick the bastards out.

According to this HuffPo story, 10 Columbia undergrads were accused of sexual assault  in 2013-14 — and none have been disciplined:

Columbia released the data following months of pressure from student leaders and activists. Meanwhile, a federal complaint accusing the school of mishandling rape cases has grown to include 28 current or former students.

The Ivy League university announced in January that it would release the aggregate data, starting with the 2013-14 school year.

“Over the past year, the issue of sexual assault has gained a new level of attention and engagement on campuses around the country,” Columbia Provost John Coatsworth said in an email to students. “We are committed to providing a national model of the best policies and practices to help ensure that members of our University community feel safe and respected. As one part of that commitment, we are publishing Columbia’s first annual Report on Gender-Based Misconduct Prevention and Response.”

Few universities disclose such information. Some Ivy League schools, including Yale University, Brown University and Dartmouth College, release data on sexual assault punishments in some form.

College offers students a wealth of exciting opportunities — to learn new subjects in depth, try new sports and activities, take on leadership roles, gain intellectual confidence and emotional maturity.

For some, it becomes an overwhelming maelstrom of sexual assault, often in concert with consciousness, memory and physical condition altered by drugs and/or alcohol.

This Slate piece, from 2013, raises some powerful questions and received 60,000 Facebook shares:

A 2009 study of campus sexual assault found that by the time they are seniors, almost 20 percent of college women will become victims, overwhelmingly of a fellow classmate. Very few will ever report it to authorities. The same study states that more than 80 percent of campus sexual assaults involve alcohol. Frequently both the man and the woman have been drinking. The men tend to use the drinking to justify their behavior, as this survey of research on alcohol-related campus sexual assault by Antonia Abbey, professor of psychology at Wayne State University, illustrates, while for many of the women, having been drunk becomes a source of guilt and shame….

The 2009 campus sexual assault study, co-authored by Krebs, found campus alcohol education programs “seldom emphasize the important link” between women’s voluntary alcohol and drug use “and becoming a victim of sexual assault.” It goes on to say students must get the explicit message that limiting alcohol intake and avoiding drugs “are important sexual assault sex protection strategies.” I think it would be beneficial for younger students to hear accounts of alcohol-facilitated sexual assault from female juniors and seniors who’ve lived through it.

Of course, perpetrators should be caught and punished. But when you are dealing with intoxication and sex, there are the built-in complications of incomplete memories and differing interpretations of intent and consent. To establish if a driver is too drunk to be behind the wheel, all it takes is a quick test to see if his or her blood alcohol exceeds the legal limit. There isn’t such clarity when it comes to alcohol and sex.

This group, End Rape on Campus, offers nine additional resources; these women are fighting several prestigious schools — UNC Chapel Hill, Columbia, Berkeley — for sexual assaults against them while they were students.

Columbia Journalism School
Columbia Journalism School

Gratefully, I never suffered any such assaults while an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, and, yes, I did attend some parties at male fraternity houses. But there was not, then, (and I suspect still), a culture of female binge drinking.

For a variety of reasons — maybe coming of age during second-wave feminism? — drinking myself into vomiting, staggering oblivion, let alone while surrounded in a large house by young men whose morals, ethics or sexual notions of decent behavior were unknown to me just never appealed to me in any way. So I just didn’t do it.

For me, and my friends, sex was fun, plentiful — and best enjoyed while sober. And, as someone who lived all four years off-campus living solo in an apartment, I was also acutely aware that whatever (lousy) choices I made were mine alone, as were the consequences of same.

I had no RAs, nearby friends or room-mates or campus security to turn to for advice or possible protection. Cellphones — and an emergency text or IM — did not yet exist.

California has just passed a bill, “yes means yes”, to make drunken campus rapes (one hopes!) a thing of the past.

I often wonder how much of young women’s “need” to drink themselves into virtual unconsciousness is a quick, easy and socially-sanctioned way to dodge the many complicated feelings and negotiations around safe, enjoyable, consensual sex.

Is this an issue that has touched you or someone you love?

21 thoughts on “Columbia student turns her campus rape into performance art

  1. I don’t know anyone who has been assaulted (and I thank God for that), but over this past weekend, three women at Ohio State were sexually assaulted, and there have been other problems. I have to applaud the men and women fighting against these horrific acts. It’s time something’s done and people stop blaming women or trying to minimize the problem. Hopefully we’ll see some good results from all this.

  2. themodernidiot

    This is a very interesting event. Love how the nearby college came to help. I suggest they all throw them out their dorm windows, and set them on fire. Not necessarily in protest, but just to wreck shit like school policy is wrecking college youth

  3. Steve

    So let me get this right. A girl goes to a party, drinks herself silly, flirts, cajoles and entices a roomful of verile young men doing the same and then cries rape after she gets what she’s advertising for and that’s rape? Sorry, I’m not buying it. To me it’s just one more poor life choice that a person makes that doesn’t want the responsibility or consequences of their choice. I think it’s very unfortunate but what did she think was probably going to happen when she made the choice to go to a party like that? This is completely different than a girl walking home from the library and pulled into a doorway and assaulted. To me anyway.

    1. I think flirting is fair and drinking is fair. I think drinking yourself into oblivion is absurd — and “virile” doesn’t mean “unable to control yourself”….I’m sure you taught your boys to be gentlemen!

  4. i never blame the victims, regardless of their less than stellar choices. the schools need to take a tough stand and zero tolerance policy in this area, with real consequences. yes, i know 2 people who have been victims of a sexual assault. i think that probably each of us have a few people in our lives who have been touched by this crime, though not all are willing or able to discuss their experience.

  5. I am so glad that women are finally speaking up about this! My sister was date raped only after two months at college. She was watching a movie and the guy stuffed a pillow over her head and raped her. She went to the ER, dropped out of college and took years to recover. The guy never was charged or convicted. She was horrified and embarrassed. I look back and I recall many times when I had to push guys off that were not listening to me saying no. It is a miracle I was never raped in college. Drinking and partying breed hormones in young guys and I am fearful for the day my daughter goes to school. I know way too many girls who have been raped, some even friends of mine in high school. We need to do a better job raising our boys in this country so they don’t treat them like conquests. No means no. It is a sad world.

  6. I wonder about two things and would be interested in your response –

    Do you think that the “pornification” of society today (the proliferation of pornography – so easily accessible on mobile phones – which objectifies women and excites men) might be a contributing factor to campus rape?

    Did campus rape always exist in the same numbers but it is only now that we’re talking about it?

    1. Great question….but I have no idea! It seems like a logical co-relation that the more you objectify women as things to use/discard as/when needed/desired the less likely a man would be to treat us as something valuable in and of ourselves. There’s a “hookup” culture that also seems to add to this…although casual sex is hardly a brand-new concept.

      Also…not sure. I think, thanks to 3rd wave feminism and the passage of the Clery Act (which was passed in 1990, named for a student who was raped and murdered) have forced colleges to even acknowledge such problems exist on campus.

  7. A commenter asks: Did campus rape always exist in the same numbers…? Rape ‘numbers’ (campus or elsewhere) are so skewed as to be useless. The problem is reporting, of course, which was and is an index of nothing except individual tragedy. Once, rape was hardly reported. Now, it is reported somewhat more than once it was, we believe. So, does rape happen more now? How much more? Obviously, less is possible, too — but we have no idea less than what. The number of rapes we want is zero. But the likelihood of our getting to that good place also is zero — for reasons that have come up in this conversation, and for others. But most of all because the likelihood of achieving reliable statistics remains nil.

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