The Treatment of Emma Sulkowicz Proves We Still Have No Idea How to Talk About Rape

Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

Over the past year, Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz made headlines for her intrepid performance art piece "Carry That Weight." As part of the piece, Sulkowicz vowed to carry her 50-pound university-issued mattress wherever she went on campus until her alleged rapist, a fellow student, left, either by expulsion or his own volition. "Carry That Weight" has turned Sulkowicz into a poster child for the growing, nationwide revolution against sexual assault on campus. She was even invited to the State of the Union address in January. But this notoriety has come at a cost she never expected.

Though generally embraced by the mainstream media, campus anti-sexual assault activists still too often confront a disheartening ignorance regarding the realities of rape and survivorship. This ignorance is informed by the narrative of the "perfect victim," in which female survivors' stories are evaluated in terms of  gender stereotypes such as those related to idealized virginal purity and simplified fallacies about uniquely felt and lived experiences, like the identity of a rapist and the nature of the relationship survivors have with them. It is a narrative that is at the heart of a story about Sulkowicz published Tuesday on the Daily Beast

Sulkowicz is not the first survivor to contend with the perfect victim narrative, but the media's embrace of her story has thrust her into the spotlight and therefore further under this narrative's scrutiny than most. Her experience illustrates why survivors commonly choose not to speak out nor report their experiences.

Source: YouTube

The background: Sulkowicz received an email more than a week ago from Daily Beast reporter Cathy Young, who stated she was writing an article about Sulkowicz's story and had talked to her alleged rapist, Paul Nungesser. Sulkowicz at first tried to ignore Young's emails. 

"Normally I don't respond to people who use my rapist as collateral in order to make me talk to them," she told Mic. Then, last Tuesday night, Young emailed again, this time saying she had about six pages of Facebook conversations between Sulkowicz and Nungesser and wanted to confirm their accuracy before publishing.

"It's an awful feeling where this reporter is digging through my personal life. At this point I didn't realize that she's extremely anti-feminist and would do this in order to shame me," Sulkowicz said, noting that she feels Young has "written other articles supporting the rapists and making survivors look unreliable."

It's a fact that survivors of trauma deal with their experiences in different ways, often plagued by guilt, anger, depression and embarrassment. This reality further complicates survivors' decision to report or not, usually leaning toward the latter — rape and sexual assault are some of the most underreported crimes in the world and as many as 95% of campus rapes go unreported. 

Meanwhile, some women do not even realize they have been abused. A recent study in the journal Gender & Society found that middle school- and high school-aged girls and women frequently wrote off abuse because they "overwhelmingly described [it] as 'normal stuff' that 'guys do.'" Sulkowicz, like 95% of other campus rape survivors, didn't report immediately. It wasn't until she met other women allegedly assaulted by the same man that she realized she had to act. Her impulse to protect other students is rooted in fact: One study found that as many as 90% of campus sexual assaults are committed by serial rapists. 

Activists Allie Rickard, Zoe Ridolfi-Starr and Emma Sulkowicz at the Carry That Weight National Day of Action
Source: 
Jo Chiang

There is no perfect victim. The Facebook messages highlighted in the Daily Beast illustrate that Sulkowicz had an intimate friendship and relationship with Nungesser. It's true that Sulkowicz, like many survivors, at one point cared deeply for her alleged rapist. 

"Paul was one of my closest friends, and we had had consensual sex twice," she says. "We used to tell each other we loved each other." Furthermore, the messages in question are presented in a way meant to highlight the fact that Sulkowicz continued to contact Nungesser after the assault. This too should not be surprising. 

After her assault, Sulkowicz's reaction was to seek a conversation with her rapist. "I was upset and confused. ... I wanted to have a talk with him to try to understand why he would hit me, strangle me and anally penetrate me without my consent," she says. Sulkowicz's response may not align with the perfect victim narrative, but it's reflective of the fact that there is no one way to react to trauma. 

This is why so many survivors stay with their abusers; the cycle of abuse is complex, personal and ultimately unknowable to anyone aside from the survivors themselves. Meanwhile, the idea that emotional intimacy prevents violation is patently false. Every state has criminalized marital rape, and yet we still seem to struggle to grasp this truth.

Ultimately, the disputed accuracy of the messages and Young's history of reporting on this topic are not the point. The issue is that Young's inclusion of private Facebook messages between survivor and alleged rapist in the piece seems to be an implied means of discrediting Sulkowicz. But such messages have no bearing on whether a crime took place. 

Instead, their inclusion exemplifies the way in which journalists and media outlets perpetuate the perfect victim narrative through speculation on the complicated, personal dynamics of the rapist-survivor dynamic and innuendo. Doing so not only fails to capture the nuances of surviving assault but also works to shame and silence victims, perpetuating a cycle that allows campus sexual assault to persist at shocking rates. 

Emma Sulkowicz at the Columbia University National Day of Action
Source: 
Jo Chiang

Sulkowciz is not a perfect victim and she shouldn't have to be, because there is no such thing. She's a survivor and hardly the only survivor to feel put in this position. But that is why we need to change the conversation. Survivors across the country have begun to speak out, to put a face on survivorship despite the backlash doing so has caused. If we want to change the way we deal with sexual assault in America, the first step must be to listen. 

"If you didn't immediately dial 911, it doesn't mean you weren't raped. Everyone deals with trauma differently, depending on how we were raised, the way we see ourselves and the different ways we each handle crises," Sulkowciz said. 

"I want other survivors to know that if you reached out to your attacker after you were assaulted, it shouldn't discredit your story."

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Julie Zeilinger

Julie Zeilinger is a staff writer at Mic as well as the founder and editor of The FBomb (thefbomb.org), a feminist blog partnered with the Women’s Media Center. She is also the author of "A Little F’d Up: Why Feminism Is Not A Dirty Word" and "College 101: A Girl’s Guide to Freshman Year."

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