The burden of rape: Emma Sulkowicz carries that weight

EMMA Sulkowicz, a senior visual arts student at Columbia University in the US, has been lugging a 50 lb mattress around her college campus for months in a protest against the college’s failure to expel the man who raped her.

Emma was raped in her college dorm’ in her sophomore year. As part of her degree thesis, she is re-examining the rape and its emotional consequences in a piece of living art titled “Mattress Performance” or “Carry That Weight”. The protest has captured the imagination of students worldwide and last week third-level students in over 100 colleges across the US and Europe supported Emma by dragging mattresses around their campuses.

Emma says she will drag her mattress everywhere until her rapist is kicked off campus or leaves.

Meanwhile for the first time in Cambridge University’s 800-year history, all new students will be obliged to attend a 30-minute workshop on sexual consent.

These workshops, which will involve up to 30 students, are intended to start discussions on rape, sexual assault and the importance of consent with the statement “Consent is active and willing participation in sexual activity. It means that both parties had the freedom and capacity to make a choice.”

Amelia Horgan, the woman’s officer at Cambridge Student Union, says that they are “sending out a very clear message, with these workshops, that sexual violence is not welcome within the university community.”

Cambridge is not the only university in the UK that is implementing these measures.

Oxford University has also introduced mandatory sexual-consent sessions in 20 of its colleges and it is hoped that other universities will follow suit.

The concept of ‘rape culture’ has been hotly debated in recent years; and while our society does not seem to openly promote rape and sexual assault, there are ways in which we excuse or tolerate sexual violence. For example, the word ‘rape’ being used in jest, pop music that tells women ‘you know you want it’ regardless of any ‘blurred lines’, a priest shaking the hand of a rapist as a show of support, the fact that one in five women will experience rape or sexual assault but only 3% of rapists will be jailed.

Forty one percent of Irish people believe that a woman is partially or totally responsible for being raped, if she was drunk or had taken illegal drugs — all of these are examples of rape culture. But it seems that nowhere is rape culture more prevalent than at university.

Fiona Smailes, who works with ‘It Happens Here’ a campaign that hopes to raise awareness of sexual assault in universities, says rape culture is such a problem at third-level because socialising is accompanied by excessive drinking and a ‘lad culture’ which is seen as not only normal but desirable.

“The alcohol, nights-out culture, is specific to universities,” she says. “It feels like it’s getting worse. It’s [rape culture] getting more overt and obvious. It was always there, but the stuff the younger students are saying, and the pressure on them to be sexual, and in a very demeaning way, and the pressure to say ‘I enjoy it and accept it’ [is worse].” ‘Jelly wrestling’ competitions for female students, ‘finger a fresher’ competitions, and drinking parties named ‘Caesarean Sunday’ result in an environment that Horgan describes as “at best sexually aggressive, at worst openly misogynistic.”

The experience of many Irish students has been similar. The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) launched a study last year on harassment, stalking, violence, and sexual assault.

It surveyed 3,000 students (of mixed gender and sexuality) from all over the country. They found that one in five female students experienced some form of unwanted sexual experience at their current educational institution while one in 10 experienced unwanted sexual contact, yet only a staggering 3% of respondents who had endured an unwanted sexual experience had reported it to the college authorities or to the guards.

When asked if the university would consider emulating Cambridge and implement mandatory workshops on sexual consent, Dr. Michael Byrne, head of student health at University College Cork (UCC), said “at orientation, each incoming first-year student is asked to reflect on their social choices, including their relationship with alcohol, the consequences of drunkenness and the desirability of making an active choice as to if, and how they might become sexually active. The university has noted the emerging efforts in the UK to try to address difficulties arising from a ‘lads’ culture’, and will consider adopting examples of best practice.”

Ian Mooney, the welfare officer at Trinity College Dublin, said the university plans to “do a more Trinity-specific survey to see to what extent the situation is at. It’s great to see universities like Cambridge and Oxford take such a big step to prevent this issue. Hopefully, the results will show that it does make a big difference .”

Mary Crilly, from the Sexual Violence Centre, in Cork, is in no doubt about the urgency of tackling this problem. “Forty two percent of all victims who come to the Sexual Assault Treatment Unit (SATU) are students. Alcohol is not the problem.

“The problem is a culture in which sexual assault is tolerated and excused. That is what needs to change,” she said.

Crilly said that she would welcome the introduction of similar workshops to Irish universities and while it is doubtful that a 30-minute workshop can undo years of cultural conditioning that reduces women to mere sexual objects, at least it will raise awareness about consent.

Often, students may not know the definition of consent and because of this gap in knowledge, people may not understand that they raped or were raped. Nicole Westmarland, co-director of Durham University’s centre for research into violence and abuse, says, “A lot of people assume getting women drunk, having sexual conquests, sleeping with as many people as possible, is part and parcel of being a fresher. It’s seen as scoring points and [even if it becomes non-consensual, it’s] not necessarily labelled as rape.”

The law states that in order to consent to have sex, the person must agree by choice and have the capacity to make that choice. If someone is drunk, they may not have the ability to make that choice.

A simple “hey, is this OK with you?” and an understanding that no means no, could go a long way in helping to confront this problem.



Why is campus life such a high risk for sexual assault?

‘Boys will be Boys’: as a culture, we hold girls up to far more stringent standards of behaviour than we do boys. Sexual promiscuity for boys is encouraged, resulting in a ‘lad culture’ that teaches young men that sexual aggression is acceptable.

Websites such as ‘The Lad Bible’ and ‘UniLad’ are popular among male university students, and post jokes, such as “It’s not rape. I like to call it a struggle cuddle.”

An emphasis on teaching female students how to avoid being raped, rather than educating young men not to rape.

A lack of awareness about consent. The prosecution of rape under Irish law rests heavily on proving whether consent was given, which is difficult to do, when either or both parties have been drinking or taking drugs. If someone is incapicated, they cannot give consent.

Heavily gendered theme parties, such as ‘CEOs and Corporate Hoes’. Guess which gender is which?

Female students who feel afraid to express their discomfort at the misogyny they encounter, because they don’t wish to appear humourless.



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