The project, “Carry That Weight,” is Sulkowicz’s response to the sexual assault she experienced her sophomore year and the university’s failure to find her alleged rapist guilty. The mattress represents the weight she still carries from the trauma of the event and her assaulter’s simultaneous freedom to attend Columbia, according to The New York Times.
The project has garnered national attention and become iconic for anti-rape activist groups across the country, inspiring “Carry That Weight” demonstrations at multiple other universities.
However, Columbia freshman Garrett Kaighn, ’14, says that the scandal has hardly affected his daily life.
Kaighn saw a few protests, but those have mostly died down, he said. And the only change that directly impacts his daily life is the addition of a required seminar on consent, to be attended before spring break.
“I saw (Sulkowicz) twice toward the beginning of the year, but I haven’t seen her since,” Kaighn said.
But Columbia senior Parul Guliani, ’11, said that while she wasn’t personally involved, she knows people who were involved in the movement.
“I’ve seen a lot of frustration toward the administrative policies,” Guliani said.
Guliani noted that when she was a freshman, the same year that Sulkowicz and her assaulter were freshmen, the program about sexual assault prevention was called “Keeping Sex Sexy.” The program was very lighthearted, had minimal student participation and gave out free condoms with funny names on them, so no one took it very seriously, Guliani said.
Guliani said she had heard the program had undergone changes since, though, perhaps as a result of the Sulkowicz case.
Guliani stressed that she had not been following the story, as did Kaighn.
“The whole story was never quite clear to me,” Kaighn said.
“I would never side with a rapist, and I want to believe (Sulkowicz) is telling the truth, but it was really shaky. They were friends before that and had hooked up before, and they went up to her room consensually.
“I feel like people had a really large reaction against (the rape) without knowing everything.”
However, “there’s definitely solidarity with (Sulkowicz),” Guliani said.
At Vassar College, just an hour and a half north of New York City, freshman Connor Martin, ’14, has been much closer to a rape accusation.
One of his friends, a freshman named Eleanor Amicucci, experienced a similar trauma to Sulkowicz’s. In an open letter to the Vassar administration, printed in Boilerplate Magazine (a Vassar-based alternative news source), she describes her “incessant panic attacks, vomiting constantly, and crying, screaming and hyperventilating for seemingly endless amounts of time” after a sober friend had sex with her while she was too drunk to say “no.”
Amicucci reported the rape to the Vassar administration and waited two months to appear before a panel that would determine whether her rapist was guilty or not.
Martin was there when the panel ruled that Amicucci’s assaulter was not guilty.
Amicucci appealed the case, but her appeal was rejected.
“Having the school make these rulings has been really rough on (Amicucci), so, as her friend, it’s really hard to watch her go through this,” Martin said. “It’s put a damper on the year.
“It used to be that if we went to the dining hall and we saw her offender, she would just freeze, and a few minutes later she would be like, ‘I have to go.’ It’s really (messed) up.”
Martin also said that the case has changed his view of Vassar’s administration.
“I thought (the case) would be a non-issue,” he said. “I thought it would be victim-centric, and I was pretty shocked and disappointed.
“If you look at their reasoning, it’s just so flawed. I question the judgement of many of Vassar’s deans and advisers.”
According to Martin, there was very little debate over whether Amicucci had been assaulted. The reasoning behind the decision was that there wasn’t enough proof that the assaulter knew she couldn’t consent.
“They said her offender didn’t know she was drunk,” Martin said. “The fact is that she was inebriated to the point where she was throwing up and blacking out.”
According to Martin, the only students who didn’t support Amicucci were the soccer players, who had a strong “bros before hos” mentality, as the assaulter had been on the team.
Meanwhile, at the University of Virginia (UVA), the case of a woman who said she had been raped by members of a fraternity flared up when Rolling Stone magazine published an article relating the story of “Jackie” and her thwarted attempts to seek justice.
Multiple news media, including The Washington Post, have since condemned the article as being “fraught from the beginning with gaps in basic reporting,” as major errors in key details, such as the name of a fraternity involved, came to light. Rolling Stone also failed to interview any of the men Jackie said were responsible, providing what The Washington Post criticized as “half a story, told from a single viewpoint.”
Patrick Talamantes, ’14, attends UVA, where the whole debacle played out.
Most people believed the article in the beginning, Talamantes said, but then inconsistencies began to appear.
“Currently, the consensus ranges from ‘Something traumatic must have happened to (Jackie) but not exactly the way she related it’ to ‘She just made the whole thing up,’” Talamantes said.
UVA responded by shutting down all fraternity activity for the remainder of the semester when the news broke, but according to Talamantes, it wasn’t a huge deal because it was only a few weeks from the end of the semester, and “not much partying goes on then.”
“It was reactionary from the school, just to make it look like they were doing something,” Talamantes said. “Some people got really upset, though.”
To make things worse, the Rolling Stone situation followed the kidnapping and murder of a student named Hannah Graham, which added to the stressful climate of the first semester, Talamantes said.
“In the weeks after the news of (Graham) broke, advisers would check in at the beginning of every class, like ‘how are you guys doing?’” he said.
“All the upperclassmen were like, ‘We’ve never had a semester like this; we’re so sorry your semester started like this.’”
Talamantes said that a lot of his friends didn’t feel safe walking the grounds of UVA for a while, but that fortunately “the UVA honor code does a really good job of making the grounds a safer place.”
He cited instances in which he would walk a friend home after parties. The friend would, at intervals, lie down on the ground because she had been “partying pretty hard,” and people would stop to ask her if she was okay, refusing to leave until she confirmed it.
“There’s definitely a sense of community,” Talamantes said.
UVA has also done a good job of implementing new programs and keeping the community informed, Talamantes said, with live updates disseminated by email every time something happens, as well as programs, such as one that offers safe free rides.
Talamantes said that the administration of UVA asked students what changes needed to be made and created a system for student feedback.
“A lot of the student leaders helped write new frat agreements,” he said.
And, according to Talamantes, the issue has definitely affected his choice of fraternity.
When he rushed at the beginning of the spring semester, he made a point of choosing one where “the creed is all about eliminating prejudice and fighting for rights and equality.”
Previously published in the print edition on March 17, 2015.