Emma Sulkowicz is a fourth year student at Columbia University in New York. Since September, she has carried her 22-kilogram dorm room mattress wherever she goes on campus. Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) is her undergraduate thesis, an ongoing work of performance art and a powerful statement about the current sexual assault problem in higher education.
On the first day of her second year, Emma alleges that a fellow student raped her in her dorm room. She did not report the assault immediately because she “didn’t feel like dealing with the emotional trauma,” according to a testimonial she published in Time magazine. However, after she met two other women who claimed that the same student had raped them too, the three of them reported their cases to Columbia together. The panel appointed by the university decided that the accused was “not responsible.” All three cases were dismissed. Emma’s request for an appeal was denied. Her alleged rapist was allowed to continue his studies.
In April, Emma and nearly 30 other students at Columbia and its affiliate, Barnard University, filed a federal complaint alleging that the universities had violated Title IX, an American civil rights mandate that requires the protection of gender equality on all college campuses. On 8 January 2015, the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened its investigation into Columbia.
Meanwhile, Emma continues to carry her mattress.
A growing problem
Campus rape has emerged as a major media story on both sides of the Atlantic. Statistics are hard to rely on since sexual assaults are notoriously underreported. According to research conducted for The Telegraph, one third of female students in Britain have endured a sexual assault or unwanted advances at university. The same study reports that nearly half of these women did not report their ordeal to anyone. At St Andrews, 22 allegations of sexual assault were reported between 2009 and 2013 according to the University. Three of the alleged attacks occurred on University property. 15 were reported to the police.
In the United States, universities often investigate cases of sexual assault alleged to have occurred on campus. But universities are concerned with maintaining their reputations, and campus police are responsible for keeping crime rates as low as possible. It poses a significant conflict of interest.
In the UK, sexual assault on campus is considered a criminal issue, not a campus one. British universities that refuse to investigate allegations of sexual assault reported to them could be acting illegally.
My interest in this topic was reinvigorated when I read an article in The New York Times about a proposed solution to campus rape. American gun rights activists argue that arming female students will help reduce sexual assaults. Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, who is sponsoring a bill for a campus carry law in Nevada, said to the newspaper: “If these young, hot little girls on campus have a firearm, I wonder how many men will want to assault them.”
After reading this article, I was reminded of how lucky I am to study at a university in a country where handgun possession carries a mandatory five-year jail sentence. When two students reported sexual assaults last year, the University and local police responded immediately. On 28 April 2014, the night bus service was instated to provide safe and free transport for students and staff.
After being arrested in last May, the alleged attacker, former astronomy PhD student Pasquale Galianni, was found guilty of sexually assaulting two women. Last month, he was sentenced to five years in prison and expelled from the University. I was proud of how the University responded when it happened here.
After reading the Times article, I decided to learn more about the University’s protocols regarding sexual assault. However, when I consulted the University’s website, and as The Saint reports today, I found a blank page under the heading Sexual Violence / Assault.
Dr Christine Lusk, the director of Student Services, explained the reason for this glaring omission. She says: “What’s happened is that we do have a protocol, and we update it every year. In view of the recent case [Pasquale Galianni’s trial], I went into overdrive and overhauled the protocol, which included trying to get local agencies and Police to rubber stamp it. We’ve got it through its first two stages of consultation (women’s groups, Rape Crisis, local legal team, counselors, etc.), and it’s in its final stage, sitting with the Police currently.”
She continues: “We took down the old versions about three weeks ago and have been rushing this new version through… It will go up, but not before it gets the Police blessing, perhaps in a couple of weeks.” For almost a month there has been no information available online.
Would it not be better to keep the old information on the website until the revised policy was unveiled? Emma Shea, the University’s deputy director of corporate communications, thinks not: “Allowing outdated content to remain online would simply risk confusion and undermine our commitment to providing the clearest possible information to the students who need it most.”
Any student who needs information or guidance about sexual assault has a few options. “Right now we’re asking everyone to come to Eden Court or the ASC, where they will be referred to a counsellor,” Dr Lusk says. “All our front-line staff during the day and our wardens at night are trained in dealing with initial referral and disclosure. We also work very closely with our Police Liaison Officer Leisa Metcalfe.” (Ms Metcalfe did not respond to requests for comment.)
Ms Shea adds: “However if, for any reason, a student does not want to contact University services, the police, Rape Crisis Scotland and NHS services are also available for help.” When asked if the consumption of alcohol has any bearing on sexual assault allegations made by students, Ms Shea responded that rape sexual assault are unacceptable in all circumstances.
According to the University, any student who is found guilty of sexual assault will be reported to a disciplinary hearing where a decision on penalties will be taken, up to and including possible expulsion.
Despite the current lack of available information, Ms Shea says: “Our message is clear. Any student who experiences sexual violence, abuse or harassment of any kind does not have to cope alone. Student Services will respect and believe you… Our specially trained staff guarantee anonymity (unless legally obliged to comply with a police investigation or court case).”
It is hard to fault the University’s response to last year’s allegations of sexual assault, and Galliani’s punishment was appropriately severe. Additionally, the night bus service is still provided even though the attacker who inspired its provision has been caught. “The service was widely praised, students felt reassured travelling home late at night and some even said it helped increase their grades,” says Ms Shea. “The University supports the project and has agreed to fund the service during the next academic year.”
Room for improvement
Second year Jo Boon is the Feminist Society’s external campaigns officer. The society recently conducted a survey on sexual assault, and all of the participants had experienced some form sexual harassment, from groping to cat-calling to even more serious assaults. She believes that the University does a “pretty good job” in dealing with sexual assault on campus.
However, she also sees opportunities for positive change. She says: “I think the University should promote a clearer and broader definition of what sexual harassment is. Security guards and Union staff are trained, but I think they should be encouraged to intervene if they [think] that someone is being assaulted.” If a Union staff member witnesses an assault, the attacker is disciplined. “Fining someone is a ludicrous punishment in such cases, and I think it’s highly inappropriate. A stricter and more widely publicized approach is needed,” she said.
She cites lad culture as one of the reasons for campus sexual assault, and she believes that St Andrews “is absolutely a victim to lad culture!” She says: “ Rich men can afford to get outrageously drunk in groups and prey on women.”
For those who doubt the influence of lad culture on this issue, consider this: United Educators is an American company that provides liability insurance to schools. In January, it released a comprehensive report on sexual assault based on data collected from its client colleges. One finding was that American college athletes are nearly three times more likely to gang rape than non-athletes.
While the University can and should work to improve its response to sexual assault, I still count myself lucky to attend this University. I can only hope that other universities will look to St Andrews as an example for how to handle sexual assault on campus because not all students are as protected as we are here.