“Oops, I guess I just raped Emma Sulkowicz.” This was the actual title of an article in The Federalist regarding the highly publicized Columbia rape case. The article is, naturally, dripping with sarcasm and heavy-handed mockery. Those who misunderstand Sulkowicz’s intentions should refrain from watching her newest performance art piece, she says, so to not “participate in her rape”. This does not translate to “you are literally raping me if you make fun of this video”; rather, it suggests “Please don’t contribute to prejudice against survivors by mocking this very personal art.” The Federalist was eager to misunderstand, and went on to tear apart the video, justifying callousness regarding Sulkowicz’s trauma as “the right to critique art” and insinuating she is only seeking attention.
I expect articles like this. I know a lot of people think that Sulkowicz decided to carry around her mattress for months and endure an extensive smear campaign for fun. I’ve heard from a friend who attends Columbia that there were whispers, even from people who outwardly displayed support: “How do we know she’s not lying? She’s such a weird girl.” None of this shocks me. What did shock me, and I suppose this is a testament to how naive I truly was, was hearing these thoughts echoed by self-identified feminists.
My gender studies classroom often talked about sexual assault like there couldn’t possibly be a survivor in the room. Hillary Clinton’s blatant defense of a convicted rapist was easily dismissed and forgiven in a discussion. I’ve heard LGBT advocates say “if you’re sex-repulsed, just don’t attend pride”, in response to a transgender survivor saying people walking around in BDSM gear were triggering and inappropriate. The feminist blog Jezebel reported on Sulkowicz’s video in a tone surprisingly similar to The Federalist, referring to it as a “disturbing sex tape”, and some of the comments were even more careless: “still a better love story than twilight” received over 600 favorites.
Even my old friend group was eager to defend someone among us as they made heinous comments about rape. That same person was later accused of rape, and the accusation was bolstered by documented proof. They are still defended to this day. This friend group was not politically ignorant or oblivious. They are active in legal advocacy for women’s rights and self-proclaimed, long time feminists.
Here is the thing about rape – the trauma doesn’t end at the instance (or instances) of assault. I processed being raped on my own. I did not feel comfortable admitting what happened to myself, let alone confiding in anyone else. I was not medicated for my PTSD until even later. I was not comfortable seeking help even within feminist spaces, where there was doubt, condescension, judgement and blame at every turn. The reality is that the presence of survivors unsettles people – they know rape exists in theory, but they don’t want to confront a walking, talking reminder.
Many feminists are comfortable talking about rape as a far-off, frightening possibility, but are unwilling to be vigilant about ousting abusers from their spaces. I once told a woman who was very active in civil rights activism that a feminist we mutually knew was a sexual predator. She immediately berated me for buying into “gossip” and implied the accuser was simply spreading rumors. Multiple skype conversations proving this person’s predatory behavior were released not too long after. The woman in question never took back her words, and continues to defend people accused of rape even now.
I don’t like talking about trauma. I’m much more comfortable talking about the various evils in the world from a detached, third person perspective. So why do I still feel the need to talk about this, and why can’t I move on? To be blunt, the world around me doesn’t allow me to. Genuine safe spaces for survivors are rare. I’m actually one of the lucky ones – I have the opportunity to recover. But I know people whose lives were so thoroughly consumed by sexual violence that they will be on medication and endure PTSD for as long they live. I’m not bringing this up only to inspire pity or to say “at least I’m not them”. I only mean to convey that sexual abuse is not uncommon, and the interests of survivors must be incorporated further into mainstream feminist spaces. We live, work, and participate in activism among you, and we are more than just cautionary tales.
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault at Pitt, the following services are available. You are not alone.
- University Counseling Center (UCC) Wellness Center, Nordenberg Hall
- (412) 648-7930 for Mondays through Fridays between 9:00a.m. and 5:00p.m.
- (412)648-7856 for after hours and the weekends
- Sexual Assault Services: 412-648-7930
- Student Health Service: 412-383-1800
- National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1 (800) 273-8255
- 24 hours a day and 7 days a week
- Languages: English and Spanish http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org