Moving rape out of the shadows at Columbia

September 23, 2014

Elizabeth Wrigley-Field reports from Columbia University on why the movement against sexual violence has taken off on campus and gained national attention.

THREE WEEKS into the semester, student outrage at sexual assault at Columbia University--and the tepid response from the university administration--is fueling an ongoing movement and gaining much-needed national attention.

The media spotlight has been focused chiefly on student Emma Sulkowicz. As their senior art project, Sulkowicz has pledged to carry a dorm-room mattress everywhere they go on campus as long as the student who raped them on the first day of their sophomore year remains at the school.

This powerful statement builds on campus activism against sexual violence that began last school year. And now, Sulkowicz and other activists have, in turn, inspired other survivors of sexual assault to speak out--and fellow students to take a stand with the survivors. They are forcing the whole country to pay attention to what New York magazine's The Cut called "a revolution against campus sexual assault."

The national attention has grown in tandem with students' own determination to challenge sexual violence. Members of No Red Tape, a coalition formed last school year, planned a speakout for Friday afternoon on September 12--and were stunned when the turnout of 300 students exceeded everyone's expectations.

Columbia University students stand with survivors of sexual assault
Columbia University students stand with survivors of sexual assault (Jen Roesch)

According to Jen Sluka, a Columbia sophomore, No Red Tape activist and member of the International Socialist Organization (ISO):

Going into the rally, we had a list of less than 10 people who said they wanted to speak out. We got through that list of people in like 20 minutes--and then it went on for another two hours, of people just spontaneously coming up to share their stories. We definitely did not expect that.

The rally was a watershed in the fight at Columbia, but the movement is clearly here to stay. On September 17, No Red Tape held its first public meeting of the semester, and some 70 students turned out to find out how they can help to continue the campaign.

The story of how a movement against campus sexual assault took off at Columbia holds lessons for anyone who wants to take a stand on this issue. The Columbia movement's escalation rests on two pillars: the growing confidence and cohesion of No Red Tape and an expansive sense of solidarity with the survivors of sexual assault.

THE MOST visible symbol of that solidarity has been the response to Emma Sulkowicz's ongoing art performance. Sulkowicz's project is titled "Mattress Project: Carry That Weight," referring to the hidden burden that sexual assault survivors are made to carry privately and alone.

Instead, they are carrying their weight publicly--and, as it has turned out, far from alone.

On September 10, a group of students and alumni met to carry Sulkowicz's mattress together in an act of solidarity, the first of several planned "collective carries" organized by Barnard College senior Allie Rickard under the name Carrying the Weight Together. At the rally two days later, other students brought their own dorm mattresses in a similar show of support.

The protests and public art represent an expansion of a movement that began last winter at Columbia.

That organizing was sparked by a two-part article (here and here) by Anna Bahr in Columbia's online student magazine Bwog. The series, published at the beginning of the spring semester, documented the experiences of numerous Columbia students who said they had been sexually assaulted--and felt that the university swept their cases under the rug.

In the aftermath of Bahr's series, multiple student organizations formed to focus on sexual violence at Columbia. One, the Coalition Against Sexual Violence at Columbia, concentrated on meeting with Columbia administrators to craft better policies.

But as the spring wore on, some students began to feel "frustration with meeting behind closed doors with the administrators," says Columbia junior Susan Carroll, another No Red Tape activist and ISO member. "These students began to discuss taking more diverse, direct and confrontational actions. No Red Tape emerged initially as a loose-knit vehicle for this."

At the end of spring semester, 23 student survivors of sexual assault, including Carroll and Sulkowicz, filed a federal complaint against Columbia, charging that the school violated its obligations to provide equal education under Title IX by discouraging students from reporting sexual assaults, treating survivors poorly once they did come forward, allowing the perpetrators of sexual assault to remain on campus, and discriminating against LGBT survivors. The complaint has since grown to include 27 students.

The Columbia students were part of a broader movement, in communication with sexual assault survivors at other universities around the country, who had filed similar complaints about their own campus administrations. In May, the Department of Education announced investigations into whether some 55 colleges and universities had mishandled sexual assault allegations, thereby violating Title IX.

AGAINST THIS backdrop, students involved in No Red Tape were determined to step up their efforts this fall.

"We face a lot of challenges from different fronts," explained Carroll. One challenge is how to relate to the Columbia administration in meetings "where they talk at us and they say that they're listening, but they're not."

Students were dismayed when Columbia unveiled new policies this fall without consulting with student sexual assault survivors. Even students who had been working closely with administrators in the spring felt shut out of the process and dismissed.

A second challenge, Carroll says, is dealing with a campus climate that can be dismissive of sexual assault and hostile to survivors. And then, she says:

another challenge is within the movement itself: how to go forward in our movement and what we're trying to get out of it, what are our goals and our principles about how to achieve those goals...One of the biggest challenges, internally speaking, was figuring out what we were as a group, why we exist in the first place, what we wanted to recruit other students to, and those sort of essential questions.

To answer those questions, No Red Tape held an organizing retreat on September 13, emerging with a statement of political principles and a set of organizing priorities.

As Sluka explained, No Red Tape "has evolved in the sense that we don't just do policy anymore. That's really important. Policy is still a big thing that we do, and we're still pushing the administration to change their policy in a way that includes voices of survivors who have been through the process. However, there are a lot of other things in the meantime that we are doing."

Changing Columbia's policies, Sluka says, is just one of three priorities for the group. No Red Tape is also working to change and expand the university's consent and bystander education programs, while also developing its own. And it has begun to provide direct resources for sexual assault survivors, helping them to navigate both the university's reporting system and the legal system, if the survivor chooses to make use of it.

Carroll, meanwhile, emphasizes that, whichever goal they are pursuing, direct action and protest remain central tactics for the movement:

It helps if we, for example, send out a demand to administrators--specifically Lee Bollinger, Columbia's president--and then we do a direct action, as a kind of warning or to show that we will escalate if they don't respond...We want to create a safe space in whatever direct action we choose to do. So, for example, at the protest on Friday, [September 12], it was a protest, definitely. It was also what I think is possibly one of the only safe spaces that has appeared at Columbia for survivors to actually say what they think and what they feel, and to vent their anger and frustration and everything else."

ALTHOUGH NO Red Tape's focus has expanded beyond policy at Columbia, the group still has plenty to say on that question as well. In interviews, Carroll and Sluka explained the many ways that the policies Columbia revised over the summer still fall far short of what sexual assault survivors have sought. Says Sluka:

One of the major things that we have been trying to change, and that they didn't get changed in their new policy, is that the deans of the undergraduate colleges are the ones who make the ultimate sanctioning and appeals decisions. We see that as a major conflict of interest because the deans are also responsible with upholding a certain image of their school.

Carroll says this institutional loyalty can bleed into what she calls "Columbia's loyalty to wealthy families":

For example, I found out through student journalism around the issue...[that] my rapist's father donated between $10,000 and $25,000 to the school the semester [his son] was suspended after I reported the attack. [The son] is back on campus now. So things like that make it pretty damning...[I]f you can donate, you're good.

More broadly, activists worry about the immunity that wealth can bring. Columbia's new policies allow all students--those accusing and accused--to involve a lawyer. That, Sluka says:

can be both good and bad. It's great that a survivor can have that advocate for them; however, it turns out that many of the respondents are people from wealthy families who can afford to have really good lawyers, and many of the survivors are not...So that's actually something No Red Tape is working on: finding lawyers that are willing to do pro bono work for survivors.

A second major criticism is that when multiple cases are open against the same student, Columbia's policies require that the cases be considered independently. Carroll argues that this policy "encourages serial rape, which as we all know is actually how most sexual violence happens. It's usually by a small number of people who do it over and over again."

Carroll notes that the outcry last spring was sparked in part by cases that three separate women brought against the same man. "All three cases were open at the same time, and they weren't used as evidence against each other," she says. "He was found not responsible in all three, because there wasn't enough evidence."

Other problems with the university's policies include a lack of complete immunity from disciplinary charges related to drug and alcohol use for students reporting a sexual assault--which can discourage survivors from speaking up.

In response to questions for this article, Columbia Director of Communications Victoria Benitez emphasized some of the changes the university has made in its policies this semester, including expanding consent education and support for sexual assault survivors. Columbia didn't respond to questions about the lack of guaranteed immunity for students reporting a sexual assault or the potential conflicts of interest for university deans in adjudicating cases.

FOR ALL the challenges they face, students say the September 12 protest felt like a turning point. As Carroll puts it:

The general sentiment at Columbia is, yeah, administrators aren't perfect, but they really do have our best interests at heart, and they're trying their best...[But at the rally], survivor after survivor came up and said how the administration was screwing them over, essentially. After one student came out and directly asked Dean Valentini why he's letting their rapist stay on campus, all of the students just started chanting, "Fuck you, deans!" It was also on a lot of the signs that people were holding up--a lot of "Fuck You" signs. That just never happens here.

Sluka agrees that more students find themselves driven to challenge the university administration:

[We] have been such a small group of people organizing, who all feel [that the administration isn't responsive]. But a lot of times, we come up against people who don't feel that way. So to have so many people at the rally who were frustrated and mad at the administration, at that moment, we realized, no, we're not alone. There are a lot of people who are mad, despite the challenges we have faced being a small group. There are other people on our side.

With those experiences in mind, Sluka and Carroll have advice for students at other campuses.

"You have to organize, and also keep in mind that you can be a small group, and you can still do a lot of things," Sluka said. "No Red Tape started very small. There were less than 10 people for all of last year, and at times it was like five people. But even with that amount of people, through direct action, you can become very visible, I think. And then you can expand from there."

As Carroll adds, "There's no good time to organize, so the sooner the better."

Transcription assistance from Karen Domínguez Burke and Rebecca Anshell-Song

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