This past May, Emma Sulkowicz carried a mattress across the stage as she graduated from Columbia University. Her walk marked the end of both her visual arts degree at Columbia University, and the conclusion of Mattress Performance—a year-long work of performance art. As part of the art piece, Sulkowicz carried a mattress (the type normally found in campus dorm rooms) everywhere she went, whenever she was on Columbia’s campus.
Sulkowicz was allegedly raped in her dorm room in 2012, and she resolved to carry the mattress everywhere she went until her alleged rapist was either expelled or left the university.
Both Sulkowicz and the accused graduated in May, and the university never took any action.
Sulkowicz’s story is quite common. According to “Resource Center: Campus Accountability & Safety Act,” a website maintained by New York State Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s office, 118 universities are currently being investigated for the ways they’ve allegedly mishandled allegations of sexual violence and sexual assault on their campuses.
Now activists are working to meet the needs of students who feel that their concerns have been neglected by university administrators.
No Red Tape is one student group which sprung up after Sulkowicz came forward with her allegations.
In the “About” section of their Facebook page, they say that they, “…are working to end sexual violence and rape culture at Columbia University, and fighting for transformative, sustainable, survivor-centered solutions.”
In order to tackle any problem, it is generally advised to try to understand the roots of it first. In a January, 2015 conversation, Eric Wimer, an activist with No Red Tape offered several theories about what has made it possible for rape culture to thrive on college campuses. “There's so many cultural influences—just the way we're brought up...even growing up in classrooms,” he said. He elaborated, noting the problem with the fact that all too often, we grow up to see “making moves” and “being pushy” as part of human interaction and part of the process of growing up.
The process Wimer described for handling sexual assaults at Columbia only adds salt to an already gaping wound. He said that victims “…go through a complicated adjudication process with people who are not trained to deal with these issues.” He mentioned that victims are required to explain “embarrassing and basic things.”He also drew an interesting and important distinction, noting that women in particular are victimized by the reporting process. Women are asked questions about what they were wearing, or what they were doing. “These are questions that you would never ask guys,” Wimer said, “There needs to be a standard beyond what women were wearing or what they were doing.”
Wimer also mentioned that the university tends to privilege the word of the accused male over that of the female victim. He said that the university tends to not take the word of victims seriously They assume they were lying. In contrast, if the accused male is found to be guilty, he is only given a semester-long suspension.
Wimer also called out weaknesses in the administration as another major problem. He noted that deans at Columbia play a key role in making decisions, and according to him, they have a history of being biased. "’Dean’s Discipline’ is subjective to the extreme,” he said, and he went on to mention the fact that they frequently get things wrong and are known for handing out disproportionate punishments.
In February, 2015, students at Columbia were again left wondering if administrators were listening to their concerns as the university introduced its new “Sexual Respect Education” program. According to a description provided in “The Wrong Requirement?,” a February 2015 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, under the new requirement students would be required to either attend a workshop, watch and discuss two videos, write reflection papers on an assigned reading or film, or create some sort of relevant, artistic project. The decision to adopt the program is left up to each of the university’s colleges. Barnard, for example, is not expected to adopt it.
Wimer and No Red Tape want to change Columbia’s process for handling sexual assault on campus, and they want to recruit the entire campus to join the conversation. At the start of the Fall, 2014 semester, No Red Tape organized the “Carry that Weight—Day of Action” where students were able to share their experiences. Wimer described it as a “bonding activity for many people who too often feel isolated.” No Red Tape also hoped that the action would remind the campus community that support is available, even as the administrators continued to “demonize survivors.” According to WikiCU, the event had the support of 28 other student groups, and there were over 150 students and faculty in attendance.
As part of the “Day of Action,” students also hosted a rally on the steps of Columbia’s Low Library. After the rally, students delivered a set of demands and piled 28 mattresses (like the one carried by Sulkowicz) in front of the house of Columbia’s President, Lee Bollinger. The mattresses were meant to represent each of the 28 Title IX complaints against the university. The students also made a list of 10 demands (which Wimer provided a copy of for this article):
- Prioritize the voices of survivors and activists in the development and implementation of Gender Misconduct Policy.
- Require comprehensive and program-appropriate prevention education for all students at least once per semester that will include but not be limited to in-person workshops.
- Remove deans from decision making roles in the disciplinary process.
- Treat cases of sexual and domestic violence with appropriately severe sanctions.
- Guarantee that students who need to withdraw, or take a temporary leave of absence because of their experiences of sexual or domestic violence have their financial aid package protected and are fully reimbursed for any lost tuition.
- Institute a mandatory and comprehensive review of the Gender-Based Misconduct Policy every two years which directly involves the concerns of students and survivors on campus, beginning this year.
- Create an online evaluation form for every student who makes a formal report, and every complainant and respondent in a gender-based misconduct case to fill out after the completion of their case with the Office of Gender-Based Misconduct, the results of which must be sent to PACSA.
- 8) Ensure that all formal reports of violence or gender-based misconduct made against the same respondent are admissible evidence, including in current cases or cases with a non-responsible finding.
- Implement a formal accommodations system, including a written explanation regarding the approval or denial of any request. Prioritize the voices of survivors and activists in the development and implementation of Gender-Based Misconduct Policy.
- The investigation and adjudication process of the sexual assault report made by Emma Sulkowicz against Jean-Paul Nungesser was grossly mishandled. An alleged serial perpetrator remains on our campus and presents an ongoing threat to the community. Given these facts, we demand you re-open this case and evaluate it under the newly revised policy.
To make sure their voices were heard, the students posted their demands to Bollinger’s door, wrote them on the mattresses they left in front of his residence, then circulated them on social media.
The “Day of Action” really started the conversation on Columbia’s campus. Wimer and No Red Tape have plenty of ideas on how to keep the conversation going. They say that the “Day of Action” and the rally that followed had a really “positive effect.” People who were just walking by could just jump right in and get involved, and many did. “We're trying to elevate the conversation simply though holding events that focus on the needs of survivors that aren't being met and by actually reforming the system,” said Wimer.
No Red Tape is working with a broad understanding of “community.” They’re not limiting their project to the university community, and hope that their work will have some effect in the surrounding community as well. They hope that members of the community will support survivors, and take their word. They hope to see people be “active bystanders,” and work to hold the institutions accountable. For example, a November, 2014 post to their Facebook page briefly describes No Red Tape’s “Safer Bars” program. According to the program’s description, group members, “…will be going to local bars to train staff in bystander intervention.”
To other students who are wondering where or how to get started on their campuses, Wimer offered the following advice: “My recommendations would be to get people out there and get those discussions out in the open.” That could mean protests, letters to campus administrators, or organizing a group for people to meet and discuss these issues in a safe space. Offering people a variety of options is important because, as Wimer noted, “Not all survivors want to be activists.” He elaborated, noting that many survivors just want a space where they don't feel judged or shamed.
As for politicians go, No Red Tape acknowledges their importance in reforming the system, but thinks that they sometimes don’t see the entire picture. Wimer said that a lot of politicians seem to forget that survivors should have options other than criminal prosecution. What he suggested instead is a partnership between schools, politicians and law enforcement. He said that politicians should focus on holding schools accountable, and make sure that they do their duty to protect their students. As for the school, he said that, “The school should be involved because the NYPD is just as bad if not worse in many cases.” In No Red Tape’s model, then, each “element” would offer a check on the other.
Faculty at many universities do acknowledge that “the system” needs to be fixed. Faculty Against Rape (FAR) has two main goals: “to get more faculty involved in sexual assault issues on campus, and to protect faculty members who experience retaliation for doing so.” They support survivors directly, try to develop campus practices that are survivor-centered, work to educate faculty on related policies and procedures, and try to help faculty who have faced retaliation from administrators after they have tried to take a stand. The “Reform Your Campus” section addresses a lot of concerns faculty might have, and includes sections on advocacy, policy and prevention.
Caroline Heldman, a member of FAR, echoes Wimer’s thoughts about the problems posed by the fact that rape isn’t taken seriously on college campuses. “At an institutional level, we don't take rape seriously as a crime, she says, “We don't enforce laws.” According to Heldman, patriarchy is mostly to blame for the fact that rape culture appears to be thriving. “We value men more than we value women,” she says, and as proof, she cites society’s willingness to accept the objectification of women, “Bro Code,” and the assumption that men are supposed to be sexually aggressive.
The policies in place at some schools for dealing with sexual assault essentially push victims off on local law enforcement. In contrast, schools like NYU help victims to navigate the ins and outs of the justice system via their “S.P.A.C.E. (Sexual misconduct Prevention, Assistance, Counseling, & Education) program. According to Heldman, neither approach is terribly effective. She notes that only 3% of rapists who go through the justice system ever see a day in jail. “At the end of the day, only 1% of rapists are ever expelled,” she adds. She emphasizes the fact that campus administrators are required to adjudicate these cases. For survivor activists and faculty, Heldman suggests three strategies for holding campus administrators accountable: public shaming to raise awareness about the problems on campus, suing institutions for violating laws, and filing federal complaints.
Heldman raises a good point when she notes that sometimes it is difficult for people who have recently survived to do more than survive. But she also acknowledges another very important point. “I know the movement is mostly driven by survivors,” she says. The internet is a key part of her mobilization strategy for survivors. There, survivors can communicate, share advice and support, and get plugged in to larger, national networks which work on relevant issues.
Heldman is at a bit of a loss when discussing strategies for mobilizing faculty. “I don’t think there are good strategies,” she says, “Faculty face a very stiff penalty for getting involved in these issues.” That said, FAR works to create a large enough mass so specific faculty aren’t targeted. They also treat academic conferences as potential opportunities for outreach, and make full use of the internet in their outreach efforts.
FAR is one of only two groups who were contacted for this article who also actively try to address the experiences of LGBTQ victims of campus sexual assault. “We believe that all survivors should be represented and should get the care and assistance that they need,” says Heldman. FAR offer a list of resources specifically for “diverse survivors.” Heldman notes that most efforts to address campus sexual assaults speak more to the experiences of white women. “One of the key parts of our mission is to make sure that marginalized survivors needs are addressed,” she says.
Working at the broader, national level, groups like Culture of Respect work to bridge the gap—educating survivors about their rights; and working with students, faculty and campus administrators to try to change the conversation about sexual assault on college campuses. Their approach is different than most. “Culture of Respect doesn’t look to blame anyone,” says executive director, Allison Tombros Korman. They look to prevent sexual assault on college campuses, and don’t dispute the fact that people do come to school with these pre-programmed messages. “But we don't place blame on anyone in particular,” says Korman, “We're about solving a problem.”
Culture of Respect does not favor any one particular strategy for combating sexual assault. “We don't advocate for any specific activist platform,” says Korman. Instead Culture of Respect sees itself more as a resource. They provide a wealth of information on their website in the hopes that it helps students, university administrators, and activists make a well-informed decision for themselves about what strategy (or combination of strategies) works best for them. Korman notes that this framework makes it possible for people from all walks to participate.
Culture of Respect offers the “CORE Blueprint” and “CORE Evaluation” as part of their solution. According to an executive summary available on Culture of Respect’s website, “…these resources provide an actionable framework for each institution to integrate the highest standards and practices of sexual assault prevention on campus.” The executive summary also mentions the Blueprint’s “Six Key Pillars”:
"…positive survivor support with options on reporting; clear policies on campus investigation, adjudication and penalties; robust, multi-tiered education at all university levels; public disclosure of sexual assault statistics and information; school-wide mobilization in partnership with campus organizations and student leadership and on-going self-assessment…"
Particularly important to note is the fact that Culture of Respect’s strategy discourages a “one size fits all” approach to combating the problem of sexual assault on college campuses. “We feel strongly that every survivor has the right to make their own decision about how they want to progress through the process,” says Korman. They’ve found that some victims want campus adjudication, while others just want certain accommodations on campus. Ultimately they feel that every victim has the right to choose that path for themselves.
No Red Tape recently announced on their Facebook page that this Summer, Columbia will be revising its Gender-Based Misconduct Policy. Only time will tell if they’ve actually listened to the concerns of victims and activists. Will university administrators at other schools follow suite?