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Egan: Carrying the weight of sexual assault

BY ALEXANDRA EGAN | SEPTEMBER 12, 2014 5:00 AM

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Universities are large places in which a lot happens in one day. Some of these things don’t require attention, but others fail to receive the attention they deserve.

On the first day of her sophomore year, Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz was raped in her dorm room by a fellow student. But when this young woman reported the incident to her university’s disciplinary board, she was dismissed quickly despite two students reporting assault by the same attacker. The board failed to address the growing problem on its campus or help the victims, and the student responsible for this heinous crime was allowed to continue his education at Columbia.

But after two years of injustice, the brave young woman who reported the crime years ago has decided to take action. Sulkowicz, now a senior, has started this academic year with a performance-art-style protest she is calling “Mattress Performance” or “Carry That Weight.” She carries a twin-sized mattress with her across the New York City campus to every class she attends, and she has no intention of leaving the mattress behind until she no longer must attend school with her rapist. This protest is a way for her to convey exactly how the assault affected her.

Her protest-performance has brought a lot of attention to Columbia, attention I am sure university officials did not foresee. Sulkowicz’s strength in speaking out for herself and her fellow women is an inspiration to all victims across the nation. She is sending the message that no victim needs to stand by while her or his attacker is allowed to continue without punishment. Sulkowicz, along with her mattress, is determined to make her university understand all that it did wrong when handling her case and the cases of the other two women.

For Sulkowicz to have the courage to report the assault two years ago, as many victims do not, was a feat itself. And now, this protest is a real testament to her strength and her belief in her safety and that of all the women attending school with her. She has recognized what happened to her as a worldwide cultural problem that we need to address, even if it is just one student at a time.

I support her fully and unwaveringly in her protest and hope (just as she does) that this will change the way universities all over the country handle sexual assault. No university will tell you rape and sexual assault are OK, but it will fall silent when the problem arises, and that is just as bad. But if every person can feel the weight of what happened to Sulkowicz, we may be able to change the way we view sexual assault.


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