Columbia University senior Emma Sulkowicz was allegedly raped in her university residence hall on the night of August 27, 2012. When Sulkowicz filed a complaint with the university in April 2013, the suspect was investigated by Columbia’s conduct council and, ultimately, found not responsible for the incident. In response, the visual arts major made her senior thesis a work of performance art that addressed the difficulty she had experienced in reporting her case to the university.
For the past two months, Sulkowicz has been carrying a standard issue, dark blue twin XL mattress of 50 pounds around campus. Her project, called Carry That Weight, will continue “until the man she accuses of attacking her is no longer on campus, whether he leaves or is expelled or graduates,” according to an article in the New York Times. Sulkowicz does not ask for help as she carries her mattress, although she does accept help from others when they offer.
Wednesday, Oct. 29 was a national Carry That Weight event, during which college students were encouraged to carry mattresses and raise awareness of sexual assault on their own campuses. At Emory, Feminists in Action (FIA) had a table at this week’s Wonderful Wednesday, where the organization encouraged passersby to write a few words about how they could stop sexual assault on campus on a piece of paper. The notes were then taped on three mattresses, which were then carried around campus. Additionally, the Alliance for Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP) and Sexual Assault Peer Advocates (SAPA) held their annual event, “Take Back the Night,” allowing survivors of sexual assault to share their stories anonymously, or otherwise, in order to increase awareness on the realities of sexual assault on college campuses and in society as a whole.
We at the Wheel feel that Sulkowicz’s project takes a major step in raising public awareness about sexual assault, an experience that many survivors take great lengths to conceal. By carrying her mattress, Sulkowicz invokes imagery similar to Jesus carrying the cross or Atlas with the world on his shoulder, a symbol of the great weight she is forced to bear as a result of the sexual assault she experienced. We feel that her project is a very effective way to shed light on a typically hidden issue and a successful use of performance art to raise awareness of a salient public issue.
In light of Sulkowicz’s project and Emory’s involvement in a federal investigation, we are also taking the opportunity to examine Emory’s own method of handling sexual assaults. According to Emory’s sexual misconduct policy, sexual assaults can be reported either through the Emory Police Department (EPD) or the University’s Title IX coordinator. If students wish to remain anonymous – as survivors of sexual assault are often (justifiably) hesitant even to discuss their ordeal, let alone press charges – they may also report the incident to Emory’s Respect program.
Once an incident has been reported to the University, the Title IX coordinator begins an investigation and determines if there is “sufficient information to support charging a student with a violation of [the sexual misconduct] policy.” The investigation includes interviews with the involved parties, gathering of documents and “other appropriate steps in conducting an investigation.” The misconduct policy is very careful to note that this process is “independent of any criminal investigation or proceeding [… and] will not wait for the conclusion of any criminal proceedings to commence its own investigation.” Simply put, the EPD and the Office of Student Conduct hold independent investigations, even if they are working on the same case.
However, we find this separation of the criminal and conduct processes to be counterintuitive. Many sexual assault cases, including Sulkowicz’s, fail to move beyond the investigation stage of the process for lack of evidence, regardless of whether police or the university conducted the investigation. We understand that it is necessary to offer survivors multiple ways to report their incidents, but we feel that each entity could benefit from the assistance of the other in collecting evidence and deciding to press charges.
Furthermore, while the list of sanctions available to the conduct office ranges from community service to expulsion, nowhere does the sexual misconduct policy mention the possibility of criminal repercussions. We feel that this separation of criminal and conduct procedures limits the degree of justice that can be levied on perpetrators.
While the number of sexual assaults reported at Emory has increased noticeably over the past few years – thanks in part to programs like the Respect Program that facilitate anonymous reporting – these numbers give no indication of the efficacy of the conduct office’s investigations or hearings. Are investigations being conducted diligently? Are perpetrators subject to the consequences they deserve? Since private universities are under no obligation to reveal details about conduct incidents, there is no transparency in the conduct process and no way to account for the outcomes of sexual assault cases. The University should clarify the consequences of being found guilty of sexual assault and send out emails informing the community of expulsions or other consequences when they take place.
Additionally, we would like to see a separate conduct process for hearings concerning sexual assault with a distinct board who is educated about how to talk about sexual assault. This would minimize the trauma involved for survivors of sexual assault who choose to go through the process.
We applaud FIA for bringing Sulkowicz’s message to campus, “Take Back the Night” for allowing often unheard stories to be shared and Creating Emory for insuring that every first-year student is introduced to the issue. Though tiring work, we encourage such advocacy groups to continue reaching out to non-activist organizations and students. We invite faculty to also participate in such campus dialogues, as the classroom can be another site of social change. Finally, we urge all members of the Emory community to use inclusive language in their daily lives and recognize sexual assault as a hate crime. We as a community must stand in resistance to sexual violence and in solidarity with all survivors. We must fight ceaselessly to create a society that categorically rejects all manifestations of sexual assault.
The above editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel‘s editorial board.
If you or someone you know has been affected by violence, students can get free, confidential advocacy and support by calling CAPS 404.727.7450 and asking to speak with the Respect Program Advocate.