Students express solidarity with sexual assault survivors

by Priya Ramaiah | 10/29/14 6:46pm

Students gathered on the Green Wednesday afternoon as part of a national day of action.

Undeterred by rain, about 20 students carried pillows and a mattress onto the Green to show solidarity with sexual assault survivors Wednesday afternoon. The event was part of a national day of action coordinated by activist coalition Carrying the Weight Together.

Emma Sulkowicz, a senior at Columbia University who reported being raped to the Columbia administration in April 2013, inspired the movement with her senior visual arts thesis protesting the university’s response. After a disciplinary process that found her alleged assailant not responsible, Sulkowicz began conducting a performance art piece she called “Mattress Performance: Carry That Weight.”

As part of the project, Sulkowicz carries a standard twin XL dorm mattress everywhere she goes on campus for as long as she and her alleged rapist both attend Columbia. The mattress symbolizes both the location of her assault as well as the emotional weight carried by rape survivors.

While Sulkowicz sparked the national campaign, her close friends formed the Carrying the Weight Together website and planned the national day of action, coordinating with students at over 130 campuses internationally.

Jessica King Fredel ’17 and Yobiel Kelati ’15, both student coordinators at the Center for Gender and Student Engagement, organized the meet up on the Green along with other interested students.

King Fredel said that while the gathering at the College was put together very quickly, showing solidarity with Sulkowicz and other survivors was important.

“It was really wonderful to have a physical presence for a moment,” she said. “To know that that’s happening at colleges across the world is really powerful.”

College survivor advocate Benjamin Bradley, who attended the gathering on the Green, said it was nice to see students take a visible stance on the issue.

“People who experience sexual violence can feel isolated, silenced and alone,” Bradley said. “It is so important that we all take steps to support them, both personally and visibly, to the greater community and to acknowledge the role each of us has in ending sexual violence.”

At other colleges, students and activists organized meet ups, distributed educational materials and posted pictures of themselves carrying mattresses or pillows using the hashtag #carrythatweight. At Columbia, students lined the steps of Low Library with mattresses bearing slogans written in red tape, a symbol protesting the bureaucratic barriers to addressing sexual assault.

Kayla Neumeyer, a senior at Vassar College who helped organize the day of action on her campus, said the Vassar event reached about 150 people by setting up a photo campaign with a mattress in a high-traffic area of campus.

Harvard University junior Kara Lessin said she and her co-organizers distributed newspaper articles and op-eds around dorms and dining halls to increase awareness of sexual assault on campus and of Sulkowicz’s project. In addition to students carrying mattresses and pillows, a vigil was held for sexual assault survivors.

Lessin said the number of students who showed interest in the campaign’s various events was incredible.

“I’m really hoping that the dialogue will be sustained and that this will also make room for other narratives that are different from Emma’s,” Lessin said.

Carrying a pillow all day was a meaningful exercise, said King Fredel, who also carried her own mattress out to the Green. In the future, she said she hopes to continue collaborating with other schools.

“Sexual assault isn’t a single college issue,” King Fredel said. “There’s a feeling of cohesion with this day.”

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