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Students get creative to confront rape culture with Carry That Weight

Students at Penn State University (Facebook / Carrying the Weight Together)

Students at Penn State University participate in a “collective carry” in solidarity with sexual assault survivors. (Facebook / Carrying the Weight Together)

Ever thought of creative non-sleeping uses for a vinyl-covered, extra-long twin mattress? Students at 130 colleges across five countries did just that on Wednesday, when they used their university-issued bedding to participate in Carry That Weight Together, an international day of action to confront sexual assault.

The driving forces behind the day of action were Columbia University student groups Carry That Weight Together and No Red Tape, founded this past year by Allie Rickard and Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, respectively, along with other students. No Red Tape’s Facebook page states that it seeks “to end sexual violence and rape culture at Columbia University, and [fight] for transformative, sustainable, survivor-centered solutions.” The group’s name refers to the administrative hurdles survivors go through when attempting to report their assaults to the university. No Red Tape, formed in January, pushes for university-level policy changes with actions like the ones this week, while also providing direct services related to sexual violence: a survivor support group, bystander training for staff at local bars, and consent education workshops to name just a few.

While there has been work around sexual assault on Columbia’s campus for decades, the most recent wave began last winter when Anna Bahr, then a senior at Barnard College, published a two-part expose in a campus magazine revealing — from the perspective of those assaulted — the gaps between college policy, the law and survivors’ needs.

“We are organizing at Columbia because this is where we are and this is what we know,” said Michela Weihl, a sophomore at Columbia who started working with No Red Tape when it began in January. “But this is not only about Columbia having a rape problem. It’s about living in a world where rape culture pervades everything. That’s something people experience every day.”

Carry That Weight — also known by the more literal name“Mattress Performance” — began in early September as a project by Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz for her senior thesis. Drawing comparisons to the aesthetics of Jesus Christ, Hester Prynne and Marina Abramovic, the ongoing “endurance performance art piece” comes with its own publicly posted “Rules of Engagement.” Sulkowicz must carry the mattress around at all times while on Columbia’s campus, and leave it in a secure location before she leaves university property. While onlookers can volunteer to help carry the mattress, the rules stipulate that Sulkowicz cannot solicit assistance. She intends to carry on the piece until her alleged assaulter is expelled, or until they both graduate next spring.

Since the project began, survivors and their allies at Columbia and around the country have organized “collective carries” in solidarity with Sulkowicz. Rickard, another Columbia art student, told Think Progress about how quickly the concept caught on: “Pretty much every day I’ve been finding new pictures of students, faculty and staff doing their own versions of the project — carrying mattresses around, holding rallies, doing speakouts.” This week, a group from the Central European University in Budapest posted photos from a #CarryThatWeight action in Hungary.

Mattresses carry considerable symbolic weight for Sulkowicz, who has been one of many survivors to share her story with the media. She went public only after unsuccessfully reporting her rape to university administrators, who, after a seventh-month long process, found her alleged assaulter “not responsible.” She told the Columbia Spectator in September, “I was raped in my own dorm bed and since then, that space has become fraught for me. I feel like I’ve carried the weight of what happened there since then.” The piece adds a collective and highly public element to an issue that’s so often considered a private matter.

Columbia students presented the administration with a list of 10 demands on Wednesday, calling for greater administrative transparency and a comprehensive policy review process that would incorporate feedback from survivors. One demand was to re-open Sulkowicz’s case. Weihl said, “I hope that she doesn’t have to carry that mattress on stage with her when she graduates.”

Columbia students, however, are by no means the first to expose universities’ mistreatment of survivors. Wednesday’s actions are the latest spike in a national, multi-year effort to change the way colleges deal with sexual assault. Organizers — working as individual campus groups and with national networks like Know Your IX and Ending Rape on Campus — have kicked off federal investigations at over 55 colleges and universities, according to a list released by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights last May. The schools represented on the list speak to the widespread nature of the problem — from Ivy League universities like Dartmouth and Princeton, to elite liberal arts colleges, to massive state institutions like Penn State University and Ohio State University. Since May, the number of schools being investigated has jumped from 55 to 79.

Six months ago, Sulkowicz and Ridolfi-Starr were among 28 students to file a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights against Columbia for violations of Titles II and IX, as well as the Clery Act — all of which relate to gender-based misconduct in education. As of October 9, they had yet to hear back from the Department of Education as to whether the Office for Civil Rights will pursue a formal investigation. Similar complaints have been filed at Swarthmore, UCLA, Kansas State University and Harvard, among others. While 76 schools are currently undergoing investigation, some administrations chose to initiate federal review processes without having received a complaint.

Columbia made national headlines again last spring when anonymous students posted lists of four perpetrators of sexual assault — Sulkowicz’s alleged assaulter and three others that the university found officially “responsible” — in public places around campus. Such actions show that students’ efforts are changing — or even starting — the conversation about sexual assault on college campuses. As Weihl put it, “That people are talking about it at all is a change.” In no small part thanks to the prestige of the schools where complaints have been filed, the campaign has gained national and international media attention, and forced many universities to undergo lengthy overhauls of their institutional policies.

Responses have also come from the federal level. “It’s Not Us” is a White House initiative to involve more bystanders in the prevention of sexual assault. Affirmative consent laws, like the one passed recently in California, define consent as an active “yes” rather than the absence of a “no,” with jurisdiction specifically bound to the state’s college campuses.

Neither of these efforts are perfect; there remains a long way to go in confronting rape culture on the national and international scale. That said, new regulations and actions like Carry That Weight are emblematic of a broader cultural shift to put survivors’ needs above their schools’ reputations.

Now, taking a short “breather” after weeks of planning to catch up on schoolwork, Weihl explained that “the point of our policy push is to make cultural change happen, and to make it so that the systems in place at the university are constantly working towards that culture rather than relying on a set of passionate students to push for that cultural change. We want it embedded in the school.”