These past couple months have been filled with discussions about women’s rights, especially after the release of the Ray Rice video and countless private photos of female celebrities. While many have been railing against the NFL’s treatment of the situation and their overall domestic violence policy, a similar discussion has been quietly simmering in our college campuses. Earlier this May, the Department of Education (DOE) published a list of 55 colleges and universities under federal investigation for misconduct in their sexual violence and harassment cases. Institutions are of varied location and reputation, from Harvard University to the University of Virginia to Knox College in Illinois. In my opinion, investigations must have been severely mishandled to attract attention of the DOE. This federal investigation is highlighting the misconduct of reports that were actually filed; there is no way to accurately measure the severity and frequency of assault that occurs as a total at a particular institution. However, The Washington Post provides a great table of data regarding reported forcible sex offences between 2010-2012, calculating the number of offences per 1,000 students. Knox College, which I have never heard of before, appears again with 3.50 offenses reported per 1,000 students in 2012. Do keep in mind that the process of reporting may be more/less difficult depending on the institution, thus drawing accurate conclusions from these data is quite complicated.
Although Columbia University is not one of the 55 institutions listed by the DOE earlier, 23 students have filed related a federal complaint in April stating that the University “discouraged students from reporting sexual assault, failed to adequately discipline perpetrators, and retaliated against rape survivors and student activists for speaking out.” One student, Emma Sulkowicz, has been attracting attention due to her bravery, tenacity, and self-expression. Since the start of her senior year this fall, Emma has been carrying her mattress with her everywhere she goes. Emma says she will be able to forgo the mattress once her alleged rapist is removed from campus. In a step of great bravery and significance, Emma has transformed her protest into her Senior Thesis entitled Mattress Piece/Carry That Weight. Watch her describe her project below. [Please note that two additional students have filed reports against this same student.]
By the rules of her piece, Emma is not allowed to ask for help to carry the mattress, but she is more than welcome to accept help when it is offered. This community involvement has spread to what are now entitled “Collective Carries” and on-campus protests. Last week a protest was held, including the presence of numerous mattress and roughly 50 individuals sharing their stories. Emma indicates that for the most part, she has not needed to carry her mattress solo. However, I am sure her experience has not been entirely positive. It only took me a quick glance at the comment sections of relevant articles for me to feel disheartened.
In total, I feel Emma’s work is an astounding piece, a complete inversion of Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter. She is incorporating her experience, her expression, and her emotions into a potent non-violent demonstration. As this op-ed writer noted, the collective carries “dramatically transform part of her performance art into a collaborative protest (feel free to brave this comments section).” Finally, Emma’s piece is a fantastic visual representation of metaphor. As she explained in her video, objects of the bedroom, especially the bed, signify privacy and security. How do we feel when we are forced into someone’s private space? How do victims feel when someone else forces themselves into the victim’s private space? The physical weight and awkwardness of the mattress reflects the pain and weight carried every day by those struggling with traumatic events. The collective carries indicate how much easier the experience can be when there is community support.
This piece is fantastic. While I hope she will be able to put the mattress down soon, I look forward to more news and discussion that will serve to amplify its powerful message and community involvement. Even if you are not geographically located near enough to help Emma carry that weight, the piece still challenges you find ways to carry that weight for those nearby who you know need the help.