I feel self-conscious carrying my pillow down Lexington Avenue. I feel like everyone is staring at me.
I bring it everywhere, to the bathroom, to the cafeteria. I don’t get a break. But neither does she. This is what it means to carry your rape with you everywhere you go.
Ever wonder what it’s like to carry a rape? Columbia University senior, Emma Sulkowicz, has been carrying around her dorm room mattress as part of her visual arts senior thesis and will continue to do so as long as her alleged rapist goes to Columbia. Her art is a protest against sexual assault and the status-quo policies that surround it, and her, on her campus.
Inspired by Sulkowicz’s bravery and activism, students around the world have mobilized to demonstrate on their campuses, most notably on Wednesday, October 29, on the National Carry That Weight Day of Action.
Allie Rickard, a fellow senior at Columbia/Barnard, started the campaign. “I got involved in anti-sexual violence events in Columbia when I heard about Emma’s art piece. As a fellow artist and classmate, I wanted to help survivors,” Rickard said in an interview. Her campaign organizes collective mattress carries. Every week, 20-30 students show up and help Sulkowicz carry her mattress. Rickard also organizes people to help Sulkowicz carry her mattress whenever she leaves her dorm, and from class to class.
Being a part of this campaign has transformed Rickard’s relationship with her university. “I feel special to be a part of a passionate group of students who are disappointed with the university’s failure. For myself and many others, this activism in holding the administration accountable is powerful in that it’s about education and learning about healthy and proactive consent,” she said.
When asked how Rickard thinks students can help change the reality, she said, “Every student can do something to help survivors. The most powerful thing you can do is talk to friends and family about dismantling rape culture. We can come together as a community through saying, ‘we won’t tolerate this.’”
Rickard thinks universities should be involving students more in legal proceedings surrounding domestic violence. “Our administration needs to be more transparent and involve the students in this. As long as they refuse to take action they aren’t serving the community and that’s unacceptable,” she said. “Nationwide there are over 75 colleges being investigated for Title IX infractions with the Department of Education. This points to the systemic nature of the problem. No school is doing all that can be done to keep students safe.”
Nevertheless, Rickard is hopeful for the future. “Over 500 people came to our rally. Nationwide over 130 schools participated in 30 states and 5 countries. We are very excited to work with students and support change in other schools.”
Another Columbia/Barnard senior, Talia Lakritz, discussed her experience participating in the events as one of the leaders of Hillel’s Jewish Women On Campus. “I was moved by the sight of so many student groups coming together in solidarity with victims of sexual violence – Hillel and Students for Justice in Palestine,” Lakritz said. “I don’t know how Emma carries that weight every day. I brought my dorm mattress to the first rally, and had to enlist all of my suitemates to help me. That was when I really felt how powerful her statement is. Carrying the weight together is the only way to move forward.”
Lakritz believes the best thing students can do is to educate themselves about what constitutes sexual violence or domestic abuse, as well as push members of university administrations for policies that aid victims instead of protecting perpetrators.
“It’s important to be proactive and make our voices heard in a firm but ultimately respectful way,” she said. “Universities should be talking to students who have experienced sexual assault and addressing their concerns about the adjudication process. They should not let convicted rapists back on campus. They should realize the urgency of the matter and ensure a safe campus for their students instead of waiting for the furor to die down.”
SCW senior, Sarah Robinson, co-president of the Beit Midrash Committee and a SOVRI (Support for Orthodox Jewish Victims of Rape and Incest) sexual abuse helpline volunteer, also weighed in.
“When I saw [Rivka] Hia’s photo on Facebook, it was hard not to contrast her lone photo with the photos of the groups from other colleges. Other colleges gathered large groups to carry mattresses around campus, but Hia was alone with just one pillow. What does it say about us, about our campus? Are we afraid to talk about sexual abuse?” Robinson asked. “I considered carrying that weight, but I didn’t want to be alone. On other campuses there was a formal invitation to join the cause. But our campus culture does not support victims of sexual violence – so that’s why Carry That Weight didn’t make waves in Stern,” she said.
Robinson further asked, “Why is this [Barry Freundel voyeurism] scandal causing change? The arrest opened up the floodgates for conversation. Having female leaders, Yoetzot Halacha, Maharat, Immerse NYC, women advocates, makes it time to talk about Jewish sexuality.”
Although disappointed by my ultimate solitude during my own pillow experiment, Robinson is hopeful of the future surrounding conversations about Jewish sexual abuse.
“I look at other colleges with envy–they can have open conversations about sexual violence. But I’m proud to say that the conversation about general sexuality is slowly changing,” she said.
Robinson believes that every member of the YU community should realize the gravity of the discussion. “It is immature and ignorant to think that consent doesn’t apply to students who are shomer negiah. Marital rape happens all the time. There are so many women who want to say no but don’t know how. It’s very possible that couples who have strong attraction to each other will talk about whether they want to break negiah, which sets up an uncomfortable situation where the couple is discussing whether they want to break halakha together. Rape can happen to anybody. Generally rape occurs between two known parties. Shomer negiah doesn’t protect against rape,” she stated.
I prepare for bed, eyeing the pillow I took from my private sanctuary to the public for evaluation and ridicule. I wonder if I should have left my pillow at home. Did my lone efforts at school change anything? Am I carrying this weight alone today, or everyday? When will I carry it together with my community?