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Silent Night at Columbia University

Silent Night at Columbia University

Silent Night at Columbia University

“Mattress girl.”
“That girl at Columbia with the mattress.”
“Mattress chick.”

Those are a few of the names that Columbia University senior Emma Sulkowicz has been called over the past seven months. On the surface, they sounds quite demeaning, but the names carry more weight. The weight of struggle. The weight of the burden. The weight of guilt. Sulkowicz was raped, allegedly on the first day of her sophomore year in her own bed. After the lack of response from the university for finding and punishing her rapist, Sulkowicz, a visual arts major, decided to carry an XL twin mattress, identical to the one she was assaulted on, as a statement of the burden rape victims carry everyday.

Sulkowicz isn’t the only victim of campus sexual assault. She’s an important figure on the national scale, taking a stance. In fact, she’s an important number in a pool of sad statistics. According to the Cleveland Rape Center, one in five people experience sexual assault in college-- but 95 percent of those cases go unreported to authority. The contrast is stark and weary, revealing a stigma within the experiences of victims. In another study, the most common reason given by victims for keeping quiet is that rape is a "personal matter." Another 16% of victims say that they fear revenge, while about 6% don't report because they believe that the police are biased. According to journalist Wagatwe Wanjuki there's a reason for the lack of reporting to authority: "The argument is rooted in the belief that it is a woman’s responsibility to stop rape. Rape is an act done overwhelmingly by men, yet society still insists on women to keep it from happening to them."

Sulkowicz reported to police authority. “You’ll be verbally abused. But at least no one will yell at you for not going to the police and getting verbally abused. Just take your pick,” Sulkowicz said of the response she got from friends and family. But as the number of sexual assault cases rise on national college campuses, many question if it is the responsibility of the university to investigate the case in conjunction with police. College disciplinary boards were designed to to punish underage drinking, plagiarism, and cheating. With the changing college landscape, pressure to prosecute with expulsion has been a hot issue.

Recently, President Obama and the Board of Education released an investigation into 94 colleges and universities that mishandled sexual assault cases. For colleges, the argument is that it’s not their place. “Rape is a crime, and universities just aren’t equipped to deal with serious criminal wrongdoing,” Slate writer Mark Joseph Stern said. For many victims, the argument is justice. When victims are afraid of going to the police, campus punishment is the only form of contentment. But when these university disciplinary boards do choose to prosecute sexual assault offenders, they rarely go as far as expulsion. University of Virginia has expelled 183 students on honor-code violations since 1998. Yet not a single student has been expelled on sexual assault charges.

“Silence has the rusty taste of shame. I will not be quiet,” Amherst student Angie Epifanio said in a published tale of her rape allegations that were denied attention by her school’s disciplinary board. It’s for this reason, Sulkowicz stands. To give a voice to those who haven’t been heard.


Brianna Powell is a sophomore at Metea Valley High School in wonderful world of Chicagoland. She is a writing enthusiast with a passion for the pen. She's also a features journalist for her school paper, The Stampede and a High School Ambassador for Her Campus. She has aspirations to be a journalist for a major magazine publication in the future. When not writing, she can be found talking to walls at Speech tournaments, playing on the lacrosse field, and eating Ben and Jerry's Cinnamon Buns ice cream while binge watching Scandal on Netflix.


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