Carry That Weight: Addressing Campus Sexual Assault

November 14, 2014

In this lesson, students learn about a performance art piece by Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz that dramatizes her reactions to the handling of her campus sexual assault case. Then students consider the wider issue of sexual assault, particularly on college campuses. 

To The Teacher:

On September 2, 2014, 21-year-old Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz began a performance art piece called Carry That Weight. The project is a response to what she calls the university’s and the New York City’s Police Department’s mishandling of her sexual assault case. Ever since the performance piece began, Sulkowicz has carried around a mattress with her wherever she goes. The mattress physically represents the emotional burden carried by survivors of sexual assault. It also represents an effort to bring into public view matters that are often left private.

Sulkowicz calls the act an "endurance piece" and says she is committed to carrying the mattress until graduation, or until the person who raped her, a fellow student, is no longer attending Columbia University. Sulkowicz’s project has drawn international interest, refocusing attention on the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses in the United States.

This lesson consists of two student readings. The first reading profiles Sulkowicz’s performance art, explains what it is meant to represent, and gives students a chance to discuss the artist’s creative approach to raising awareness. The second reading addresses the wider issue of sexual assault, particularly on college campuses. Questions for class discussion follow each reading.

 


Student Reading 1:
Performance Art and Awareness of Sexual Assault

On September 2, 2014, 21-year-old Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz began a performance art piece called Carry That Weight. The project is a response to what she calls the mishandling of her sexual assault case by the university and the New York City Police Department. Ever since the performance piece began, Sulkowicz has carried around a mattress with her wherever she goes. The mattress physically represents the emotional burden carried by survivors of sexual assault. It also represents an effort to bring into public view matters that are often left private.

Sulkowicz has indicated that she will carry the mattress until the person who raped her, a fellow student, is no longer attending Columbia University, or until she graduates. She calls the act an "endurance piece" and says she is committed to carrying the mattress until graduation. Sulkowicz’s project has drawn international interest, focusing attention on the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses in the United States.

In a September 4, 2014, interview with New York Magazine, Sulkowicz discussed her project and explained why she believes university administrations need to do a better job of addressing sexual assaults:

Q: How did you get this idea initially?

A: Over the summer, I was lucky enough to get into the Yale Norfolk Residency, and I worked on a video where I had to move a mattress out of the room. The idea of carrying a mattress got stuck in my head the way a song gets stuck in your head, and I unpacked why carrying a mattress is an important visual for me. I thought about how I was raped in my own bed at Columbia; and how the mattress represents a private place where a lot of your intimate life happens; and how I have brought my life out in front for the public to see; and the act of bringing something private and intimate out into the public mirrors the way my life has been. Also the mattress as a burden, because of what has happened there, that has turned my own relationship with my bed into something fraught...

Q: How have students responded?

A: So far students I have never met before have helped me carry it. As I was walking across campus last night I heard someone shout, "Go, Emma!" and I’ve gotten such an overwhelming positive response on the internet. One girl seems to be organizing some sort of website that will allow students to organize and figure out how to help me carry it to all my classes...

Q: What do you see as the main issue that campuses, both students and administrators, face in handling these crimes?

A: Right now the policies are defunct. Columbia just released a new policy, but in the new Columbia policy it is even harder than it was before to try a serial rapist, and have him expelled. Now they have explicitly stated that each case will be treated separately until the first one has closed. If one person rapes three girls in one night, those girls won’t be able to testify at each other’s cases, the way it currently stands. That to me is really sickening. In my case, the biggest problem is there is no retroactive motion to open closed cases and to get our rapists off campus, which would be admitting that they’ve done wrong, which is what they need to do right now.

Q: Do you think that the college is capable of handling these cases?

A: ... It is going to take an administration that is willing to admit that they have done wrong, and make real tangible changes.

 

As she notes in the interview, Sulkowicz has received much support from fellow students. Classmates often assemble to help her carry the mattress. Others held a public demonstration urging the Columbia administration to reform its policies concerning sexual assault on campus. The student activists delivered a letter to the administration outlining the reforms they would like to see instituted.

On October 29, 2014, students around the country participated in a National Day of Action inspired by Sulkowicz’s work. They carried mattresses or pillows around their campuses in a show of solidarity for sexual assault survivors. AlterNet associate editor Alyssa Figueroa described the demonstrations in an October 28, 2014 article:

Thousands of students from more than 100 campuses are taking part in National Carry That Weight Day of Action to support survivors of sexual assault....

At Columbia, there will be 28 mattresses carried throughout the day to symbolize the number of students who have filed a Title IX complaint against the university. A rally will begin in the afternoon, with sexual assault survivors joined by public figures like NYC public advocate Letitia James.

"We really wanted to stress showing support for survivors and trying to start conversations in communities," said Allie Rickard, one of the event coordinators and founder of Carry That Weight Together. "We wanted to create a space where survivors feel like they can talk about their experiences and they know that there are allies there for them."

The article explains that activists at Columbia University have created an organization called No Red Tape, which is advocating for better policies around sexual assault:

Their pressure on the administration has made national headlines and has seen some success.

For one, the university opened a second rape crisis center. The center, which used to be run by mostly student volunteers, now has six new professional staff members. In addition, No Red Tape successfully waged a campaign pressuring Columbia to offer free emergency contraception. The university also is hoping to launch mandatory sexual assault education programming for all students....

"I felt such a deep connection with it because Emma really was one of those people that lifted the weight off my shoulders," [Zoe] Ridolfi-Starr [one of No Red Tape’s founders] said. "She was one of the first people to say, ‘That’s not right. It was not your fault for drinking. Your experience counts.’ All of those things I wish someone would have said to me before. And now I have the opportunity to say those things to people."
 

For Discussion

1.  How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?

2.  Why does Sulkowicz call her art project an "endurance piece"? How does this and the piece's title, "Carry That Weight," relate to its purpose?

3.  Do you think art pieces like this one are good ways to raise awareness of an issue? Why or why not?

4.  What are some advantages to using an artistic project to make a political statement rather than using more conventional forms of advocacy? What are some disadvantages?

5.  How does Carry That Weight relate to groups like No Red Tape? How do you see the different roles of these projects?
 


Student Reading 2:
Combating Sexual Assault on College Campuses

Sexual assault is an issue on campuses across the country. Sulkowicz’s performance piece has drawn attention to widespread problems in how universities handle reports of sexual assault. Eighty-five universities are currently under federal investigation for their handling of sexual assaults, under Title IX - a federal law mandating gender equity on college campuses. These include prestigious colleges such as Amherst College, Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, and Brown. As a result, many colleges are reviewing and reforming their sexual assault policies.

In an August 26, 2014 article, MSNBC reporter Meredith Clark wrote: 

One in five women will face sexual assault while attending college, according to a government report. But beyond that rough estimate, there is so little reliable information about the prevalence of sexual assault and gender-based violence. In April, the White House released a list of 55 colleges and universities under federal investigation for possible violations of Title IX, the 1972 federal gender equity law that requires schools to investigate all reports of sexual assault. [Another 30 colleges have since been added to the list, bring the total 85.] The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is facing separate lawsuits from students, which, as of August 8, includes 76 schools.

As students prepare for the fall semester, MSNBC asked schools currently facing investigations to make public any changes in policy regarding the handling of sexual assault complaints. ... 

[S]ome measures are notably absent from proposed changes: climate surveys, which are designed to elicit honest responses from students about assault and harassment on campus, and consistent transparency about how schools punish students found responsible for sexual assault. Some schools are providing online information in plain language but others continue to rely on complicated legal wording to explain how sexual assault cases are handled. And while all schools emphasize a commitment to eliminating sexual violence on campus, that commitment will be put to the test when survivors come forward seeking help.

Dana Bolger of the survivor activist group Know Your IX told MSNBC the current spotlight has to intensify for real progress to take shape. "A lot of schools aren’t feeling the heat and aren’t feeling the urgency to change," Bolger said. 
 

On September 28, 2014 California adopted a new law stating that only "an affirmative, unambiguous and conscious decision" qualifies as consent, as USA Today journalist William M. Welch explained in a September 29, 2014 article:

Rather than using the refrain "no means no," the definition of consent under the bill requires "an affirmative, unambiguous and conscious decision" by each party to engage in sexual activity....

The proposal requires all colleges taking student financial aid funding from the state to agree that in investigations of campus sexual assaults, silence or lack of resistance does not imply a green light for sex, and that drunkenness is not an acceptable defense, the San Jose Mercury-News reported earlier in August....

"With this measure, we will lead the nation in bringing standards and protocols across the board so we can create an environment that's healthy, that's conducive for all students, not just for women, but for young men as well too, so young men can develop healthy patterns and boundaries as they age with the opposite sex," de Leon said before the vote.

 

In an October 10, 2104 article ThinkProgress Health Editor Tara Culp-Ressier elaborated on the potential impact of the policy change:

[T]he policy doesn’t necessarily change the way that the vast majority of people are already interacting with each other. When it comes to sexual assault cases, a "yes means yes" standard just ensures that the line of questioning is centered on the perpetrator’s behavior (did you get consent?) rather than on the victim’s behavior (did you withdraw your consent?). Outside of the adjudication process, however, it isn’t actually a dramatic departure from the way that people have sex.

"Anyone who has had sex knows what a yes is," [feminist activist and co-author of the essay collection Yes Means Yes Jessica] Valenti pointed out. "Grabbing someone closer and moaning, that’s a yes. Lying there and doing nothing with a blank look at your face, that’s a no. I think that we all know that. We have a certain amount of sexual literacy."

"It’s being sold as this legalistic thing, where you have to get a signature for everything at each step — and it’s just not like that," [co-author of Yes Means Yes Jaclyn] Friedman said. "It’s a basic human standard. If you can’t show up for your partner, if you can’t stay present during sex and make sure that your partner is actively into what’s happening between you, then you don’t have any business having sex with another human being."

 

On the heels of the new California law, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also charged the State University of New York (SUNY) with reforming its sexual assault policies to incorporate affirmative consent. Cuomo said that this policy change should eventually be instituted across the state.

Although these recent changes show progress in altering campus culture and policies around sexual assault, reports are still coming out about university administrations that are hostile or indifferent to reports of sexual assault on campus.  As federal investigations progress, student activists continue advocating for further reforms. 
 

For Discussion

1.  How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?

2.  What positive reforms might colleges make to their policies on sexual assault, according to the reading?

3.  Can you think of other constructive changes that student groups and university administrations might call for to reduce incidents of sexual assault?

4.  According to the reading, what is affirmative consent, also called "yes means yes"? How does it differ from a "no means no" policy? What might be the benefits of this new policy?

 

-- Research assistance provided by Yessenia Gutierrez.