Have you heard about Emma Selkowicz? She’s a student at Columbia University in New York. She was raped. And even after bringing her rape to the attention of campus authorities, it was and remains unaddressed. She still sees her rapist around campus and in her classes. For about a month now, she has been carrying her mattress around as a symbolic representation of the burden she is carrying in protest of the school’s failure to take her and others’ claims of sexual violence seriously. Today is a national day of solidarity and support across university campuses both for her and for other survivors of sexual violence.
10:14am i’ve now said this twice: to people in this discussion section curious about the sheet-covered lump i’m sitting on.
one person has helped me thus far – Danielle: who walked with me the last arduous uphill block, where she left me with a hug.
several people walked past me without stopping with so much as a backwards glance. i wonder what’s going through their heads. are they in a hurry? would they react differently if it was a box? perhaps a bed seems too private and intimate an object to lay your hands on without knowing a person. Danielle asked before she touched it, popping her head around the sagging corner of my mattress, “do you want some help?”
i would love some.
but perhaps that’s because this is a representation of someone else’s burden and not my own.
11:18am my TA holds the door open for me. “thank you for carrying our burden for us.”
11:45am “have people been helping you carry it?”
i’ve had one person help me so far.
she blows her lips out, scattering her bangs upward, “good luck” she says, and as she disappears into the library, “for us all.”
12:35pm “that’s so cute!”
a petite woman with strikingly dark eyebrows
have you heard of Emma Selkowicz? …
“i really honor what you’re doing. i’m really invested in women’s empowerment and this really speaks to me.”
12:40pm “can i take a picture of you? i’m in performance studies. i have a professor who’s writing about this and civil disruption…”
silence reigns in the cool shade cast by the stoic facade of the ancient library. the sky is an empty blue.
12:52pm “awareness is the first step to actually getting change, so… yeah. thanks.”
awareness of what?
1:06pm a man stares at the sign i’ve written in fluorescent green: ASK ME WHY I HAVE A MATTRESS
he breaks into a small smile
“hello.” he walks.
2:11pm 15 minute conversation with two fellows who stop individually to talk: about rape and rape culture.
one sits beside me at my invitation. he asks what i think about relying upon the preponderance of evidence in court rather than “beyond reasonable doubt”.
the way he frames the question compels me to begin with a clarification: i don’t speak for all women, nor can i represent anyone’s views but my own.
“that’s true. good point.”
i don’t have a clear-cut answer as to which should be legally institutionalized, because both can be problematic. but we would do well to shift away from the latter towards taking more seriously claims of sexual violence.
he then asks whether i think defense attorneys should be permitted to mention the survivor’s dress or level of intoxication as a way of implicitly or explicitly discrediting her (or his) claims of sexual violence.
i think they should say it. say it by all means. “her skirt was too short.” “she had gotten herself drunk.” “he was flirting earlier.” <they had it coming.> say it. put it before everyone in the courtroom and let them stare their own assumptions in the face. these statements reflect and thereby reveal a pervasive cultural tendency to blame survivors for the acts of violence committed against them. instead of trying to bury these vicious assumptions, everyone – but prosecutors in particular – should be educated and prepared to address and dismantle them.
just shook my hand.
as you know, i said, sexual violence is a very serious problem on this campus as well.
“oh, not just on college campuses, but everywhere. no, we don’t tolerate that here. nope. if someone comes to us… it’s full service. we will investigate that.”
“that’s good to hear.”
4:19pm a man with a gap in his smile
“i want to be a prosecutor (and if they make me a supreme court justice – don’t say i didn’t tell you) i wanna prosecute people who abuse women. domestic abuse, and sexual… and i’m gonna be really tough.” a strong black line appears between his upper front teeth.
“that’s what we need,” i say.
4:55pm a mother and a towheaded princess in stripy tights
“look, her sign says ‘ask me why i have a mattress’” mama says, looking down at her chubby little hand. “why do you have a mattress?”
well… (the girl can’t be much older than two.) …i’m carrying it in support of a Columbia student…
“i know“, she says
they walk on.
thanks for asking.
“thanks for doing that!”
some folks sitting nearby say, “that one’s locked. you have to use the other door.”
and mama, having opened the door that so many people have walked around me to circumvent, says “you just have to pull it hard enough. she knows.” she and her daughter walk in, hand in hand.
the folks sitting on the wall try it themselves.
“that’s crazy,” they say.
4:59pm “uh, i really wanna ask… i do.”
“stoppppp”, her friend says.
they continue walking down the stairs.
5:34pm red hair and an olive shirt
“that’s awesome. that’s so great. thank you. i mean, i don’t know if that’s the right thing to say…”
i know, it’s awkward… it’s easier when people don’t know what it’s for and i just explain haha
we start talking
she wants to know how it’s been going, if people have been helping
a few. there was Danielle. several friends in my last lecture helped me move it to the steps where we’re now talking.
there’s an interesting parallel, perhaps, between the way people perceive the mattress and the experiences with sexual violence that it symbolizes. who knows how many of those who walked past me all day empathized with my struggle, but didn’t know how to help without encroaching upon a very intimate, personal space.
maybe if it was a box…
i worry about initiatives that seek to “raise awareness”. i worry that they allay prematurely the individual frustrations that drive them without truly improving anything besides participants’ sense of self-satisfaction. but if not the awareness of campus or state powers, i hope that the sight of me lugging a mattress around inspired self-reflection and sparked conversation around the topic of sexual violence. because rape and sexual violence are rooted in a culture that engenders embarrassment, shame, and internal conflict in survivors and thus smothers their trauma and silences their struggles, an essential step towards the elimination of sexual violence is the confrontation and eradication of pernicious discourses that attach masculinity to sexual domination; that denigrate sexual experiences to “dirty” acts; that place blame for sexual violence on survivors. this mattress is a claim upon the rights of Emma and every other survivor to seek institutional justice against the perpetration of sexual violence. it is a physical manifestation not only of the weight and pain that must daily be carried by survivors, but also of a refusal to remain silent in the face of shame, blame, and institutional failure to stand alongside them and defend their human dignity. this mattress is a symbol of their courage, and of their right to freedom from abuse.