Elliot Rodger’s attacks in California sparked a feminist outcry about sexism, misogyny and sexual violence. But that frustration has been building since long before the Isla Vista shootings, perhaps nowhere as acutely as on the nation’s college campuses. Universities have proven themselves ill-equipped to keep students safe, and failing that, to provide victims with a sense of justice after an assault. Many schools are now squirming in the limelight as a result.
A grassroots campaign for colleges to reform their policies, led mostly by female students and alumni, has been quietly but steadily building for more than a year. Women have increasingly been speaking out about their personal experiences with assault on campuses, connecting with one another and taking legal action under Title IX, the 1972 federal law that prohibits sex discrimination at institutions that receive federal funds. Sixty-one colleges are now under investigation by the Education Department for possible Title IX violations related to sexual violence.
One of the women who have gone public with their stories is Emma Sulkowicz, a senior at Columbia University studying visual arts. In 2012, she was raped by a fellow student on campus. Eight months later, she decided to report it to the university, and a year after that, she went public. In disciplinary hearings, the Columbia administration found her attacker not guilty; as far as she knows, he will be returning to campus in the fall, after a semester abroad. But she and other women activists have gained the ear of the White House and lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and are working to force college administrators’ hands on the issue. “It’s been a building wave,” she said. “Now the wave is breaking.”
Alina Mogilyanskaya: You’re in a summer art residency right now. What kind of work are you doing there?
Emma Sulkowicz: After all of this, I don’t see myself in the same way anymore. Before my story was very private, and now it’s in the public eye. Now, people will come up to me and tell me either that what I’m doing is very brave or that I’m a slut and a liar. All of my interactions with people have changed and my relationship to the subject of rape has changed. A lot of my work here has been trying to figure out how to make artwork with this new identity. It’s a weird thing because I’m so tired of it. I’m tired of having to think about it yet it’s something that I can’t stop thinking about.
AM: What made you decide to speak out in the first place?
ES: I didn’t really want to deal with it at first. I didn’t want to talk about it. But then I met another woman who said that the same person who had raped me had engaged with intimate partner violence with her over an extended period of time. And we ended up meeting another woman who’d been raped by him. I realized that the longer I stayed silent, the longer he would be free to assault other people on campus. That’s when these women and I decided to come forward.
AM: What happened the night of the assault? And what has it been like to come to terms with it?
ES: My attacker was one of my closest friends at the time, and we’d had consensual sex twice in the past. There was a party and we left together. I invited him to my room because we’d had sex before, and we were having consensual vaginal intercourse. Soon though, he hit me across the face and started choking me and pinned my arms behind my head and pushed my legs up against my chest. He began to anally penetrate me. It was really painful and I was saying no, I was telling him to stop but he didn’t. Then finally he did, he got off and laid down next to me for a second. I was just frozen solid. I was petrified. And then he ran out.
I spent months in denial. I wasn’t really ready to believe that I’d been raped because realizing that you’ve been raped is realizing that people can take control of you and objectify you. In that moment, I wasn’t a human to him. I was just a thing. And that’s pretty fucking scary. Once I finally did admit to myself that it had happened, I was really unhappy. And I think a lot of what I’ve been dealing with since then is trying to find ways to believe that I am human.
AM: How has it affected your outlook on sexuality?
ES: I identify as a straight woman. I have an amazing boyfriend who has been so essential in my recovery. But even now, there are some things that I have to set limits for. Like even if his hand is near my throat, I will freak out, even though I know he’s not going to hurt me. So I have to set boundaries. There are certain areas of my body that I don’t think will ever be able to be touched ever again.
AM: While they’re expected to comply with Title IX, colleges have the discretion to develop their own procedures for investigating sexual assault cases. What was it like dealing with the Columbia administration after you decided to report the rape?
ES: It was incredibly frustrating. I was interviewed by the Title IX investigator, and she took incomplete and inaccurate notes, where she excluded extremely important details and made mistakes about others. Then I went before a panel of administrators who were supposed to be trained on the issue, but they were not. One lady was asking me, “How is it possible that anal rape could happen if you didn’t have lubrication?” And I said, “Well, there was force involved and that’s the definition of rape.” But she didn’t seem to understand. She couldn’t wrap her mind around it.
There were other issues too. If I had a penny for every blatant attempt that the school made to try to keep me silent, I would be so rich. I got so many phone calls from the administration saying, “We need to talk about confidentiality.” I wasn’t allowed to talk to the other women who’d been assaulted by the same person, and they gave me rules about what I was allowed to say to my friends.
Before, I believed in the system. I believed that by coming out and reporting what had happened, it would somehow do something good for the world. I didn’t realize that the system wasn’t working. The moment I got the email saying that he was not guilty was earth-shattering, because I realized that there was no one for me to turn to that would help keep us safe.
AM: Columbia says that it’s taken steps to address the issue. For instance, administrators have added another Title IX investigator. They’ve eased the confidentiality process for victims who are reporting these cases. They are going to be increasing consent education. Is that enough?
ES: I believe that they’ve been taking the kinds of steps where they can say they’re doing something without doing much at all. At the end of the day, my rapist is still here and I think that all these steps are just going to be sort of asinine until they fix the real problem. I think they should give survivors that have rapists on campus the opportunity to reopen their cases.
There are two main activist groups at Columbia working on the issue, the Coalition Against Sexual Violence and the No Red Tape group, and I have been involved with both. We put together a list of policy demands — to better train the administrators involved in these decisions, to allow serial rape as evidence, and many others — but the administration has yet to take the suggestions into consideration.
AM: This issue has exploded on other campuses — Amherst, Tufts, Harvard, Brown, the list goes on and on. How does it feel to see this issue come to the fore in so many other places, and what’s the next step?
ES: I feel like it’s been a building wave and now the wave is breaking. It’s really exciting. I’m hoping that if we can get enough strength this time around, we’ll actually make some lasting change. We’ve been talking to each other across campuses and we’ve been asking each other for advice. One of our biggest next steps is to try to make this more of an inter-school conversation rather than just a Columbia one. Here, meanwhile, the administration promised that they would work on our policy suggestions over the summer. We’re going to see if they stay true to their word. If they don’t, we’re going to keep fighting.
AM: You mentioned lasting change. What would you like to see done on a national level?
ES: Rape happens off college campuses as well. One of the most egregious examples is the way the police handle rape: it’s atrocious. When I finally reported my rape to the police, an officer straight up told me that I wasn’t raped. He was not in a position to say that to me, yet he felt the need to. The last thing you need after you’ve been raped is to be re-traumatized by people who are telling you your experience didn’t happen before it’s even been investigated.
One thing I would love to come from this movement is a broader awareness about what sexual assault really means. And I want survivors who aren’t in the United States and who aren’t at colleges to start to see some validation of these experiences in their lives.
This conversation is excerpted from a longer interview with Emma Sulkowicz.
#YesAllWomen, by Alina Mogilyanskaya
Now All Men, by Nicholas Powers
Explained, by Eleanor J. Bader