Since October, Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz has been carrying her mattress with her everywhere as an act of public protest against the fellow student who allegedly raped her in her bed. Sulkowicz’ mattress and her project, “Carry That Weight,” has become symbolic of the problem of sexual assault on college campuses nationwide, incidents that are all too often swept under the rug by campus administration and pinned on the victim instead of the perpetrator.
Today, the man that Sulkowicz accused of raping her, Paul Nungesser, spoke to the New York Times, vehemently denying that what transpired between them was anything but consensual. He accuses Sulkowicz of bullying him and colluding with the faculty to smear his reputation and hound him out of school.
Nungesser, who, according to the Boston Globe, has been the subject of three claims filed by women—claims which he denies—also noted that he believes that sexual assault is a major concern. “My mother raised me as a feminist,” he said, “and I’m someone who would like to think of myself as being supportive of equal rights for women.”
Nungesser’s response comes after Sulkowicz raised widespread awareness about campus assault, and it may be representative of a larger shift in the conversation away from the prevalence of sexual assault on campus to the believability of the victim’s account. Partially, this shift is in reaction to the Rolling Stone story on campus rape at UVA, which was later found to have some major reporting missteps. Reporters are understandably wary of falling into the same trap. But also, this conversation is part of an incredibly stale, well-worn routine when it comes to sexual assault: Blaming the victim.
Already, reporting sexual assault on campus is a strained, and often traumatizing process. According to new Justice Department findings, only 20 percent of campus assault victims actually report incidents of sexual assault to police. Some of the reasons for the lack of reporting include fear of reprisal, concerns over getting their attacker in trouble, and the belief that authorities won’t act on their claims. The climate shift in recent weeks could mean that more women are afraid to come forward with their stories. While it’s important to look at both sides of the story, we also have to be careful that the conversation doesn’t lead to invalidating the experience of survivors.
It is excruciating to consider how many incidents of sexual violence on campus there are a year, how many are ignored or never reported or suppressed. And so it is easier just not to believe it. The response to stories of sexual assault has all too often been to pick apart the accounts of the survivors who come forward. What was she wearing? What was she drinking? How many people had she dated? Is she telling the truth?
Survivors are shamed into silence. The problem of on-campus assault is real, and justice for those who survive rape is incredibly difficult to obtain. That’s why Sulkowicz claims she began lugging around her mattress to begin with, so that the experience she reported couldn’t be swept under the rug. It was a confrontation to all those that would make rape claims invisible. You cannot deny the blunt physical presence of a mattress. You can’t say it doesn’t exist. It is there, in front of you. Just as we can no longer deny the problem of sexual assault on campus. It is there. It is in front of us.