Rape On Campus: Why Emma Carried Her Mattress All Around Columbia University

Posted on May 21, 2015 in Gender-Based Violence, Society, Taboos

By Abhishek Jha

Emma Sulkowicz started carrying around a 50lb mattress everywhere she went on campus at Columbia University in September 2014, after Paul Nungesser, her rapist, was acquitted. She said that she would carry it every day until he left the campus.

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At the recent graduation ceremony for her batch, Columbia University, probably aware of Sulkowicz’s “Carry That Weight” project, asked graduates to not bring “large objects” into the ceremonial area. Such an instruction had not existed for the Columbia College Class Day in previous years. However, Columbia Spectator reported that she was later allowed to bring her mattress to the stage.

Sulkowicz took up this form of protest as her visual arts major’s senior thesis, hoping to make peace with her own experience and to draw attention towards the flaws in the University’s handling of such issues, the sentence pardoning the defendant being upheld even when she appealed. Paul Nungesser responded by filing a lawsuit against the University, some members of the administration, and the supervisor of Sulkowicz’s thesis. Titled “Columbia Student: I Didn’t Rape Her“, Cathy Young published an article in February this year in ‘The Daily Beast‘, defending Paul’s story against allegations of sexual assault by students of his college. Posters have now started appearing on the Columbia campus, where Commencement Week is in progress, and in its vicinity showing Emma with her mattress and calling her a “pretty little liar“.

The Daily Beast article, which tried to defend Paul, stands refuted by Jezebel and Cathy Young is found wanting in her process of defending Paul. Yet the recent developments (as much as the rest of it) in Sulkowicz’s story shows how much patriarchy feels scared of being brought to justice, of being even slightly questioned, of being denied even a morsel of its privilege pudding. In what is now becoming more and more prominent on social media (what with the ubiquitous “Feminazi” and other such gelatinous scum), any individual case where the victim’s version can be questioned is used to portray men as victims of “alleged sexual assaults“.

The Jezebel article trashing Cathy Young’s “exclusive” accepted despondently that those who said that the “real” victims of rape would get affected after the Rolling Stone fiasco were right. Although they have been proven correct, it is appalling that people are so opaque to the notion of structural violence. Rapists not getting convicted and victims being put through invasive questioning is the result of centuries of patriarchal thinking that plagues every aspect of our lives. A single exception- which Sulkowicz does not appear to be- does not discount the structural violence inflicted upon women. Similarly, men getting raped and not being able to speak about it (a point which men’s rights activists rally behind), does not mean that it is because of women being privileged. It is the result of patriarchy deeming men “speaking out” as – guess what – being feminine, which is something undesirable for men in a patriarchal world.

Emma Sulkowicz, who was sexually assaulted by a friend, is (alas!) not alone in this world. There could be countless such women in our country who were/are/will be raped by husbands, in fact, as marital rape is not punishable here. All of them carry the weight that Emma Sulkowicz carried all through her college life and will probably carry all her life.

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