Meet the College Women Who Are Starting a Revolution Against Campus Sexual Assault
“Want to meet at my dorm? Less carrying for me.”
Emma Sulkowicz, a.k.a. the international sensation “mattress girl,” is emailing from her phone in her Columbia University dorm high up over Morningside Heights, where she lives in a single room within a six-person suite. “My friends and I got the first place in the housing lottery for seniors last year,” she says nonchalantly, leading the way through a concrete-block hallway, in purple flip-flops the same color as her painted toes, as well as a light-blue cropped tee featuring a moose with sunglasses over the words FEARLESS LEADER, commemorating a river-rafting trip for freshmen. As you may already know, given how viral Sulkowicz’s image has gone in the past few weeks, that’s the outdoor-orientation program that preceded Sulkowicz’s alleged rape by another orientation leader, which was followed by a Columbia-adjudicated hearing during which the university found her assailant not guilty—a verdict she began protesting, this September, by carrying a mattress around campus until Columbia expels her assailant.
A few years ago, an Ivy League student going public about her rape, telling the world her real name—let alone trying to attract attention by lugging around a mattress—would have been a rare bird. In America, after all, we still assume rape survivors want, and need, their identities protected by the press. But shattering silence, in 2014, means not just coming out with an atrocity tale about your assault but offering what Danielle Dirks, a sociologist at Occidental, calls “an atrocity tale about how poorly you were treated by the people you pay $62,500 a year to protect you.” By owning those accusations, and pointing a finger not only at assailants but also the American university, the ivory tower of privilege, these survivors have built the most effective, organized anti-rape movement since the late ’70s. Rape activists now don’t talk much about women’s self-care and protection like they did in the ’90s with Take Back the Night marches, self-defense classes, and cans of Mace. Today, the militant cry is aimed at the university: Kick the bastards out.
Taking a seat in a wood-and-wool chair of the blend shared by dorms and doctors’ waiting rooms, Sulkowicz starts to tell her tale. At 21, in barely detectable Invisalign braces, she’s the type of hipster-nerd who rules the world these days, with the mellow demeanor and direct way of speaking of an Apple genius-bar clerk, except she giggles nervously when worried she’s said the wrong thing. The Japanese-Chinese-Jewish daughter of Manhattan psychiatrists, she was a club fencer and an A student at Dalton on the Upper East Side. At Columbia, Sulkowicz thought she’d focus on mechanical physics—she liked the way you could draw a diagram to solve a problem, see the answer—but wound up drawn to visual arts instead. She also joined Alpha Delta Phi, Columbia’s co-ed “hipster frat.” As she puts it dryly, “Only the most hipster of the hipster kids can get in.” That’s where she met Paul, a film fanatic and rower. “He was a nice person,” she says matter-of-factly, “a cool person who was secretly really crazy.”
Toward the end of freshman year, the two students signed up to help lead the next year’s outdoor-orientation program, taking a training trip down the Delaware River. There were an odd number of students on the trip, so everyone sat two to a canoe except Paul, who was in a kayak. “He would paddle way out ahead of everyone so that he didn’t have to talk to anyone,” she says. They had sex twice. He went to Europe for the summer.
When he returned, at the beginning of sophomore year, Sulkowicz was a committee head for orientation. “Paul was really needy,” she says. “He asked me to help carry his bags, and I was like, ‘I’m organizing food for 400 freshmen.’ ” One night there was a party for the orientation leaders. In the ivy-covered courtyard outside Wien Hall, Paul kissed Sulkowicz, who says that she was sober except for a sip of gin-and-Sprite. He was buzzed and carrying a handle of vodka. While they were having consensual sex in her dorm room, she alleges that he suddenly pushed her legs against her chest, choked her, slapped her, and anally penetrated her as she struggled and clearly repeated “No.”
Sulkowicz didn’t report the incident at first. But when two classmates told her that Paul had been abusive to them too—one who had been in a long-term relationship with him, the other alleging he groped her—she pressed charges with the administration. Students tend to be uncomfortable going to the cops, who, despite what plots of Law & Order suggest, aren’t always great with rape. The preference suits the universities, too, which prefer to handle issues quietly in-house. Under Title IX, a gender-parity law from 1972, universities are required to adjudicate sexual-assault claims to ensure gender equality on campus as a civil right. The Obama White House, taking a strong position on combating campus assault, has reinforced a “preponderance of the evidence” standard in these cases, meaning campus courts need only find it’s 51 percent likely the assault occurred to punish the accused. To students like Sulkowicz—who are, after all, putting their good word on the line as well as risking stigma, humiliation, possible retribution from the guy’s friends, and diminishment of respect from their own friends—that lower standard can feel like a relief.
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Sulkowicz, though, claims that Columbia administrators made errors and acted, frankly, idiotically during the hearing process. One took incomplete notes of her story, writing that she was tipsy that night. Adjudicators “kept asking me to explain the position I was in,” she says. “At one point, I was like, ‘Should I just draw you a picture?’ So I drew a stick drawing.” She says one of the three judges even asked whether Paul used lubricant, commenting, “I don’t know how it’s possible to have anal sex without lubrication first.”
Paul denied the charges. If Sulkowicz is a fencer, she alleges he told the panel, her legs are the strongest part of her body, and he was only a lightweight rower—how could he have pinned her legs down? The anal sex was consensual, he said. He went into detail about how he came on Sulkowicz, and then she grabbed a tissue, wiped the ejaculate off, and “ ‘threw the tissue away,’ ” she says. “None of which is true—he never came that night. He just stopped and ran away.”
Columbia didn’t hear Sulkowicz’s charges for six months, then found in favor of Paul. “There’s three women accusing the same guy here,” she says. “Like, we don’t have any other motivation other than he assaulted us.” When she appealed, a dean refused to overturn the verdict. By Columbia’s bylaws, his decision was final.
Today, Paul is still at Columbia, though he’s lying low, even keeping his email out of the campus Facebook. The mattress protest is a way for Sulkowicz to both refuse him that anonymity and turn the situation on its head. She’ll take the punishment, it says. This is a heavy mattress—an extra-long twin covered with shiny blue bedbug-proof material, bought from a clearinghouse called Tall Paul’s Tall Mall, which stocks the same mattresses Columbia orders for its dorms for growing boys. For now, she’s not using any hooks or belt loops to carry it—only her hands, or other students’ hands (her friends call those “collective carries”). It’s a weight Columbia can lift together. “For the record, the best arrangement is four people carrying the mattress, because they each take a corner,” says Sulkowicz, smiling. “Then it’s really light.”
Sulkowicz’s mattress project is powerful, indelible; as Hillary Clinton said last week, “That image should haunt all of us.” But it is also maybe a little youthful. This is the ethical purview of college students. Strict attention not only to learning and knowledge but also to morality, to right and wrong, when to stand up and when to stay silent, is a large part of why American colleges exist.
“One cannot help but feel terrible about this,” Columbia president Lee Bollinger says about Sulkowicz and her mattress in his first interview on the subject. “This is a person who is one of my students, and I care about all of my students. And when one of them feels that she has been a victim of mistreatment, I am affected by that. This is all very painful.” Bollinger says that he has spent “as much time on this issue”—meaning sexual assault on campus—“as any issue” over the past year, which includes Columbia’s largest expansion in nearly a century, a $6.3 billion, 17-acre satellite campus in West Harlem. In August, he created a new sexual-assault policy, taking a much harder line. Students are now required to have “unambiguous communication and mutual agreement”—that’s verbal consent—before sexual acts, or risk consequences. Though an improvement, this hasn’t been enough to quell unrest.
Activists of Sulkowicz’s generation have long retired the word victim, preferring survivor. But Sulkowicz calls carrying the mattress “performance art,” and we might as well take her at her word. Her daily thoughts, including how the hell she’s getting the mattress to class, are about the integrity of her art piece; when this magazine asked to photograph her in a studio in Chelsea, she worried about violating the “rules” for the performance by taking the mattress to a location off-campus.
That she has become the poster girl for the anti-rape movement is an accident of a viral world—she doesn’t have a background in activism, and she is not really at the center of this crusade. To find the godmothers, you have to travel to Los Angeles, where Annie Clark, 25, and Andrea Pino, 22, two political-science majors from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, are hard at work in a one-bedroom in Silver Lake, rented off Craigslist, that has become an anti-assault Death Star. Both of them were violently raped as students, and in responding to both cases, UNC seemed to be lax verging on cruel—Clark claims an administrator even said to her, “Rape is like football. If you look back on the game, and you’re the quarterback … is there anything you would have done differently?” Working with a network of activists, they’ve helped survivors learn about their Title IX rights and file complaints about violations across the country. Today, 78 American colleges, including Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, Amherst, Swarthmore, Brandeis, Emerson, and a slew of West Coast schools from UC Berkeley to USC to UCLA, are under investigation by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
Though they’re at the heart of a national movement now, Pino and Clark were on the sidelines when things started to shake out a few years ago. Online—especially on powerful mainstream blogs like Jezebel—young writers were brewing a cauldron of pop-culture coverage and feminist theory, resuscitating feminism from its post–Monica Lewinksy, Girls Gone Wild–era doldrums by coaxing horror stories out of dark crannies and crucifying pop-culture villains. Between Woody Allen, Terry Richardson, Chris Brown, Elliot Rodger, the “legitimate rape” dude, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” and Ray Rice knocking his fiancée out cold in the elevator, they haven’t needed to look far. Pop culture was “rape culture,” they said, borrowing a term from second-wave feminism as a catchall for America’s stew of degradation, objectification, and male entitlement. “Rape culture is an attitude toward women in particular, but not even just to women—to treating all people as sexual objects, nothing more than an opportunity for sex,” says Anna Bahr, a Columbia graduate and former editor of Blue and White, the school magazine.
Slowly, public discussion of rape among college women began to be normalized, and they started to share. Amherst student Angie Epifano published the first major, non-pseudonymous “atrocity tale” in 2012, writing about how her rape allegations were denied by her college’s sexual-assault counselor; how she became suicidal and was locked up in a psychiatric ward, after which, she alleged, Amherst tried to deny her readmittance; how, when the school agreed to take her back, her dean prevented her from studying abroad (“Africa is quite traumatizing, what with those horrible Third World conditions: disease … huts … lions!”); how they made her feel like a “broken, polluted piece of shit.” She wrote that she did not want to be ashamed anymore. It occurred to her that she had no reason to be ashamed. “Silence has the rusty taste of shame,” she repeated to herself. “I will not be quiet.”
Emma Sulkowicz, a senior, she says she’ll lug her mattress around campus all year in protest.
Pino studied policy-framing at school, and she thought about combining Epifano’s narrative with developments at Yale, where students had filed a complaint alleging that the school was mishandling rape accusations amid a female-unfriendly atmosphere where frat pledges felt okay yelling things like “No means yes, yes means anal” and “My name is Jack, I’m a necrophiliac, I fuck dead women and fill them with my semen.” A mix of the personal and the political, Pino thought, can make a movement. Pino and Clark also had a genius rhetorical idea—they’d take a lesson from the military anti-rape movement, which had beaten a drum about kicking serial, violent rapists out of the armed forces. No one should talk the way activists did in the ’90s—no more date rape. Focus on college men as serial predators, and cite a study that claimed that 6 percent commit three or more undetected rapes and attempted rapes each.
On a staggeringly sunny morning in Los Angeles, Pino and Clark are at their apartment, working away. Best friends, they even dress the same: Today, they’re in purple tops, black eyeliner, a surfeit of teeny-tiny diamond-stud earrings, each with a pendant around her neck, plus Clark has slung on her Phi Beta Kappa key—and small ankle tattoos reading ix. This crusade is exciting but not lucrative. Without money to pay rent, they slept in a tent for a little while. Pino became ill and thought she had mono, though Clark didn’t have mono and they spent all their time together. Maybe it was the old hummus she’d eaten? At the ER, with her laptop to keep plugging away on activist issues, the doctors gave her prednisone, a no-no because she has PTSD from her rape. “It gave me violent hallucinations, which made me suicidal,” she says.
In the end, Pino was diagnosed with a staph infection in her blood, though she looks fine today, doing what she does every day—talking to survivors, advising them on Title IX complaints, and polishing media sound bites about necrophiliacs and the taste of silence and every dirty, repulsive thing. “I got a good one today,” says Pino. “My Rapist Was Only Fined $25.” On a wall, a whiteboard is filled with the names of schools they’re about to target, and a map of the U.S. has tiny colored pins stuck in each state where a college has an investigation. Says Clark, “Like at Penn State, when things aren’t connected, it’s so easy to say, ‘Okay, here are four people doing things wrong. We’ll fire them, and the issue goes away.’ We reframed the debate as, ‘What’s happening at one school is a microcosm of what’s happening everywhere.’ ”
Taking a seat at a cardboard box, which functions as their desk, they whip out a laptop. “I wouldn’t say we control the media, but we have a good grasp of how the media works,” says Pino, shrugging her shoulders.
Drawing bright lines over gray areas is one of the things college students do best—you pay money to learn, among like-minded souls, the contours of the world and your place in it. Over the past couple of decades, the college campus has acquired some aspects of a utopia, too, namely, the free-floating myth of itself as a utopia. But different students have different ideas of what this constitutes. It might be a place to go wild, to do the things you won’t get to do as a full-fledged adult; it might be a place to search for a political point of view and dedicate yourself to a cause. It’s also seen, primarily by boys, as a sexual utopia, where all you have to do is open the door of a frat party to have mind-blowing sex that catapults you into the pantheon of manhood—as opposed to what college sex is often really like, which on its best nights (after emoji flirting, hits off a five-foot bong from a top bunk, and elegant overtures like “Um-want-to-watch-a-movie-in-my-room”) still resembles rutting pubescent chimpanzees.
Is there a rampant hook-up culture on campus today? Of course there is. Does the promiscuity that third-wave feminists heralded as empowerment look a little less attractive when practiced by teenagers with little experience and less maturity? You bet. And frustration with hook-up culture is undeniably a part of the anti-rape movement. In some activists’ ideal world, there might be no trial, on campus or elsewhere, but instead a simple presumption of guilt.
In all of the allegations, I’m sure there are a few women who are crying wolf, who are vengeful and looking to punish ex-boyfriends—just a few. A ercentage may be misunderstandings—confusing signals, something she wanted and then didn’t. Drunkenness doesn’t clarify these things, even when they should be clear. The way that college girls, for instance, taught from early life to be polite and well behaved, might say “No” during sex with someone they know isn’t the same as with a stranger. It’s “No, it’s not a good idea,” “No, please get off me,” and then, often, a numb acceptance.
Survivor-activists like Pino and Clark don’t accept this worldview—to them, efforts to understand the problem are nearly useless because, they insist, only a small number of college sex offenders can be rehabilitated. “There are people out there who want to say that survivors today are feminism gone wild, railroading men for power,” says Dirks, the Occidental sociologist. “And they can rely on talking about kids and alcohol, saying what happened was just drunk sex—and, you know, we’ve all had great drunk sex!” Research, she says, shows that only a small percentage of college guys truly don’t know where the line is—“and, for them, if you tell them to get verbal consent, they don’t push so hard.” She pauses. “But the rest of them—and I know it’s hard to think of our brothers, our sons, like this—are calculated predators. They seem like nice guys, but they’re not nice guys. In society, we don’t like sex offenders in any other area, but for some reason, if you’re in college, we love you and want to protect your rights.”
As compelling as this rallying cry about unrehabilitatable offenders is, it’s not an assessment of the problem that everyone shares. In the center of this philosophical, and administrative, debate are the universities, which need to protect students, including innocent boys who may not look innocent, as in the Duke lacrosse case. There are good people here who have dedicated their lives to helping young people, and one of the mysteries of this issue is how they created a system that devastates so many of the students who come to them desperate for help. At some universities, it’s administrative bloat, middle-management laziness, a habit of shoving assault cases under the rug so they don’t become nuisances. At others, too much attention has perhaps been paid to the letter of Title IX and not its spirit, with a sluggishness about giving rape survivors what they want—the accused student out of their dorms, classes, and their lives.
A progressive, politically aware school in Manhattan but also apart from it, Columbia, to my knowledge, isn’t accused of covering up sadistic gang rapes that have been exposed at other schools. Most of the cases that I learned about, though each horrid in its own way, involves a female student, perhaps engaged in a hook-up session, being forced into an act against her will. A freshman was raped by a junior who taught her Consent 101 class. A student’s rapist was moved back into her dorm by mistake. In one case, an assistant athletic coach whom a student confided in about her assault told the head coach, unbidden, and he berated her for three hours. Camila Quarta says she woke up in the middle of the night and the male platonic friend she had invited to sleep over was fingering her. He begged her not to report him, leaving a letter and David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water at her door. “He wanted me to have it because I’d shared so many of my political views on the world with him,” and he said Wallace’s speech was important to his Weltanschauung, says Quarta, a die-hard leftist. “I didn’t read it.” (Citing privacy laws, Bollinger won’t comment on the accuracy of these allegations—it would not only be illegal, he says, but immoral.
Columbia doesn’t have an overt Animal House atmosphere—though excessive drinking, often at city bars, has always been part of its social life. Here, the issue around assault built slowly. In 2013, as national headlines sprang up, the university’s College Democrats thought it was worth inquiring into Columbia’s sexual-assault statistics. They asked Bollinger for data beyond what was mandated by federal requirements—they wanted aggregated, anonymous data about punishments meted out when the accused were found guilty. Otherwise, how could they know if the system was working? As “Prezbo,” as Bollinger is called, seemed to ignore their requests, students became suspicious, circulating a petition that gathered over 1,500 names.
Still, this was a relatively quiet collegiate tussle—but Sulkowicz, whose father consulted with a high-profile attorney who knows how to work the press, began to grant interviews. And then Bahr, the magazine editor, published an 8,000-word, two-part article about the three women who had accused Paul of assault. The Columbia campus went nuts—was this what had been going on behind closed doors?
Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, a brunette with a fringe of bangs and a clipped way of speaking that resembles Tracy Flick’s, took up the question. The daughter of the two female co-founders of the Northern California Innocence Project— “My favorite baby picture is at my first pro-choice rally, wearing a hat with a pin on it that says ABORTION WITHOUT APOLOGY”—she was an Obama organizer in Nevada at 15, president of her class in San Jose, and then a congressional page with plans to run for public office one day.
But after her first year at Columbia, Ridolfi-Starr was at a fraternity party with two men, one of whom was a student and one who wasn’t, when they began assaulting her. “It was dirty and confusing and made me feel sick,” she said. Then, at the Democratic National Convention, with the “son of a very important person,” it happened again. “I was pretty violently assaulted,” says Ridolfi-Starr, audibly drawing in a breath. “I was stranded in North Carolina with no one I knew and no way to get home. The scene at the DNC struck me as extremely grimy, extremely exploitative, with people grabbing power sexually, personally, politically—everything. And then the guy lied about what happened and everybody was laughing about it.”
Ridolfi-Starr never brought her assaulters to justice. She studied abroad in Argentina, got away for a while. But now she was back at Columbia. And she was ready to channel her fury over her rapes, along with considerable political expertise, into helping students avoid the same fate. If Pino and Clark are national leaders, Ridolfi-Starr is a star organizer of the Columbia branch of the movement. “Columbia is my home, and I deserve to be safe in my home,” she says. “I moved across the country to come to my dream school, and then the institution betrays us. It’s hideous.”
In general, students were outraged by the unethical ways that the guys and Columbia’s administration had acted. But some of them thought survivor accounts were difficult to believe: “They’re pigeonholing these guys as autistic, predatory rapist dudes who only think about sex,” says a sophomore. And, problematically, no one seemed to understand or agree on what rape means or what qualifies. “I had a friend who was like, ‘I had sex with this guy and I was really uncomfortable—I wish I’d said something,’ ” says Trina Bills, a student who graduated last year. “But she didn’t, and so he didn’t know. When she finally told him, he said, ‘You should’ve told me. It would’ve been fine—we just wouldn’t have done anything.’ The communication aspect of this is real. And everyone communicates differently.”
Sulkowicz and Ridolfi-Starr shared a hall as freshmen, but the hipster fencer-artist and the earnest political organizer weren’t close back then. “I remember Zoe carried around lollipops in her purse, taking them out to suck on like they were accessories,” says Sulkowicz. Ridolfi-Starr laughs. “I always have my little thing,” she says. “This year, I’m really into headbands.”
Now they had a strong bond. At first, they tried to work with Bollinger and the administration. But, Ridolfi-Starr claims, the school refused to put out a place setting for them, choosing instead to work with student-government leaders. “They don’t like us. They don’t trust us. They don’t want to work with this. Their attitude isn’t ‘Let us address your needs as students.’ It’s ‘How do we mitigate this situation to protect our reputation?’ ” She sighs. “Going through the experience in your own life is not a qualification they take seriously.”
It was time for direct, nonhierarchical, gyno-friendly, partially anonymous, fuck-Prezbo-up action. Ridolfi-Starr and others founded a radical group called No Red Tape—the mantra is “Red tape won’t cover up rape”—and put tape over their mouths at a student-activity fair when they were told to stand 20 feet away. (“It’s our student center!” says Ridolfi-Starr.) She claims that a dean told another student she was “disruptive” and a “liar”—“Can you imagine, a 50-year-old saying that about a 21-year-old?”—and that on Valentine’s Day this year, the same dean kicked No Red Tape out of his office when the group asked about funding for the rape crisis center. “Emma said, ‘You mean to tell us that as the dean of our school you don’t know how anything is funded?’ ” says Ridolfi-Starr. “We were sharing some of the worst experiences of our lives with him, and he was in a suit, smirking at us. Then he said, “This meeting is over.” She shakes her head. “It was so unacceptable.”
The administration may not have wanted to listen—but Pino and Clark did. At the time, Clark was advising Hobart on a Title IX investigation, and the two of them were coaching a survivor on talking to the Times. It wasn’t a long way to New York. Ridolfi-Starr burned the midnight oil, and soon 28 students signed a federal Title IX complaint against Columbia that runs about 400 pages, they estimate. (Columbia has yet to hear whether it will be investigated, and added to that list of 78 schools.)
Now that the Title IX complaint had been filed, media and high-level politicians were ready to give the students a platform. Could Sulkowicz be on the front page of the Times? Done. And Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, stung by disappointment about her military-rape bill, was crafting a strong campus-rape bill, asking for more protection for students and higher penalties for colleges, slated to come to the floor in late 2014 or 2015. For certain violations, she wants fines of up to one percent of the universities’ operating budget, which can run into the billions.
After a press conference at Gillibrand’s office, Ridolfi-Starr talked to her parents. “Right before, I sent them an email like, ‘Heads up, you may see something,’ because they have, um, a Google Alert for my name. How embarrassing.” Her moms were very upset. “You know, they’re smart people, feminists, and yet one of the first things they said was, ‘This happened in Argentina, didn’t it? You’ve always been too adventurous.’ ” A “mom response,” granted, but “so victim-blaming,” she says. “Even if I was assaulted in Argentina, it’s not my fault for going to Argentina. And also, like, ‘No, I was here, doing the same thing I do every weekend—bar, party, apartment; bar, party, dorm.’ ” She laughs a little bitterly. “Mom, you probably walked by him when you moved me in.”
There was still more courage to summon. One day in May, several people crept into the bathrooms of student buildings and wrote the names of the alleged rapists on the wall—not only Paul but prominent guys like a big campus DJ, an athlete training for the Olympics, and a male student who worked at the Blue and White’s news blog. Columbia immediately dispatched janitors to wash the graffiti away. The anonymous offenders did it again, two times, and Columbia finally barricaded the third bathroom.
Other students started to ask questions—what was this? This was not taking the university to task in a responsible way—this was vigilantism. Ridolfi-Starr was upset by the blowback: Students were saying it was possible these guys weren’t even rapists. She couldn’t believe it—she, the daughter of Innocence Project moms, making false accusations? A new flyer appeared from an unknown source, this time explaining which students on the list were found guilty and calling Paul a “serial rapist.” The accused student was forced to resign from the blog.
Though some students thought social ostracism made sense, the survivor-activist group lost a little bit of support over Bathroomgate. You can’t just disappear a student. Some of these guys had been disciplined—who was to say the punishment was too lenient? To Quarta, whose assaulter was only given a semester off, it wasn’t enough. “His family sent him to Europe, and meanwhile I was here working my ass off,” she says.
Over the summer, accused male students around the country began to organize, too. They’re aware of the political brilliance of the anti-rape movement, the way activists have liberated themselves from litigating individual he-said-she-said cases and moved the burden to universities to foster a safe campus environment, to insist they live up to their own ideals as liberal utopias, where nobody ever has to debate semantics.
At Columbia, a suspended varsity rower from Florida is suing the school, and several others are considering suits as well, alleging their own civil rights are being violated: They wouldn’t be coming under fire if they weren’t men. (No accused students agreed to speak with New York, and a message left for Paul was not returned.) Andrew Miltenberg, an attorney for the rower, says there aren’t big settlements in the offing, but the kid’s academic record should be expunged of a sexual offense, so he can go to medical or law school, proceed with his life.
On the survivor side, activist lawyer Gloria Allred and others are settling civil cases with universities—at the University of Connecticut, awards ranged from $25,000 and $125,000, though one student received $900,000—but no one at Columbia has signed up with an attorney yet, says Ridolfi-Starr. If you take money from the university, you generally sign a confidentiality clause, and that isn’t great for the movement.
Erik Campano, a Columbia student and member of No Red Tape who identifies as a survivor of sexual assault.
On a recent afternoon, I went to see Suzanne Goldberg, Columbia’s new head liaison on sexual assault and a law professor best known as co-counsel on the Supreme Court case reversing Texas’s sodomy law. Her office, which is hung with a LAMBDA poster featuring Lady Liberty, faces Wien Hall, where Paul and Sulkowicz were kissing that night. Columbia’s new policy, says Goldberg, is a good one—“one of the best in the country, with more resources dedicated to supporting survivors and other students affected by gender-based misconduct than most.” She pauses. “It’s hard for most people to navigate sexual relationships and particularly challenging for young adults.” She clicks on a computer to show me a poster hanging in undergraduate dorms, with red, yellow, and green lights. Red means stop: You’re drunk, asleep, or passed out, or one person doesn’t want to have sex. Yellow is pause: mixed signals. Green: A mutual decision has been made about how far to go and “all partners are excited and enthusiastic!” She looks pleased. “A traffic light is useful. It gives people a vocabulary for having what can be an awkward conversation in a congenial way.”
Sitting here, with this distinguished woman in pearls and a black suit, it strikes me how hard it is to talk about sex, rape prevention, any of this, in a way that fixes what’s wrong—this is America, after all, where we’re supposed to think about sex constantly, but never talk about it. Shifting our standard of consent from “No means no” to “Yes means yes”—a change being considered on many campuses and recently passed for colleges in the California state legislature—could happen in ten years, like seat belts and laws around secondhand smoke. Or it may be much harder in practice than theory, especially if Pino, Clark, and Dirks are right, that the problem has less to do with communication than with serial predators. Memory is fungible, and especially without the guys’ perspective, I can’t say whether the survivors’ accounts are truthful on every point. A woman who doesn’t support other women’s rape accusations is an ugly thing. And I can definitely report that whatever happened to them was deeply traumatizing. When Sulkowicz ran into Paul earlier this fall, she says, “I turned around and went the other way. Then I started to cry.”
Columbia’s new policy still leaves appeals in the hands of undergraduate deans, which No Red Tape finds disagreeable. “My view is the deans are ultimately responsible for the protection and caring of our students, and they should be making the decisions,” says Bollinger. “But I’m open to talking about that, just like any other question.” In mid-September, at a rally on the steps of Low Memorial Library, where President Bollinger’s office is located, as they covered Alma Mater’s mouth with red tape and dragged dozens of mattresses onto the steps, this issue was front and center, with students holding signs reading FUCK THE DEANS—plus FUCK RAPE CULTURE, FUCK YOUR COMMITTEE, and FUCK YOUR FAKE CONCERN.
For nearly three hours, survivors—females and males, straight and LGBTQ—talked about their experiences, as observers and a scrum of media bore witness. It started with a Barnard student spitting a poem about howling at the moon, and then calling Columbia out as a place where “future leaders may rape and come back.” There was the student assaulted the first day of her freshman year 22 years ago, and a freshman with a red X over her bellybutton who said she had been assaulted six days ago. There was a beautiful blonde from Barnard who screamed, “Fuck the administration!” and a heavyset student with magenta hair who described campus response to stories of sexual assault as, “When a pretty girl is raped, it’s a tragedy, and when a fat woman is raped, she should be grateful.” She pleaded with the crowd not to forget about her.
There were students from Union Theological Seminary, who led the crowd in a civil-rights-era song and talked about Sulkowicz, praising the “courage of a young lady on this campus who cracked shame not only for herself but cracked shame in all of us.” There was the male former Amherst student-body president, in his salmon polo shirt, khaki shorts, and duck shoes, who talked about his best friend who was expelled for rape last year. When the speaker didn’t defend him, he was ostracized and had to move out of his dorm. “I literally lost all of my friends,” he says. “For something about which we’re right and they’re wrong. Rape culture is what’s wrong.”
It went on and on, and the sun was hot. Ridolfi-Starr tried to cut things short but then dialed her suggestion back when she realized that the crowd was still swelling. Some were thoughtful: Erik Campano, in gold horn-rims, called for a “compassionate campus,” where “my guy friends, who are otherwise men of conscience and intelligence, will not come up to me at a party and ask me who at the party might respond to their advances?” And some were out there: “I had a dream last night,” said a Barnard student in black leggings, “that President Bollinger and the deans were in a conference room with naked women on their laps, watching our protest on a screen and laughing at us.”
It was like an old-time teach-in, with the survivors teaching the people who hadn’t been touched in a nasty, formerly unmentionable way by anyone in their lives what it felt like, but at some point everyone realized something had happened to them that they didn’t like, in bed, on a mattress, at least once or twice, and their empathy lifted the survivors’ resolve even more. Soon, there wasn’t a dry eye. The speeches got angrier, and then they got softer, and the crowd pulled in close, as a third-year student at the engineering school began to speak. “I’m not going to give you the list of assaults, and I’m not going to give you the list of rapes, and I’m not going to give you the names. It’s a lot of years.” She scanned the group, looking as many people as she could in the eye. “I know what it feels like to be the person in these crowds who doesn’t know how to hold this bullhorn yet, and I want to say something for those who are not going to come up here. We believe you. I believe you. So stay.” She gripped the bullhorn, demanding their commitment. “Just stay.”
“This article was first published in the NY Magazine.”