Disclaimer: The writer of this post is not affiliated with the organizations mentioned in this article. The opinions expressed in this post are hir own.
As the Board of Trustees flocked to campus this weekend, two campus organizations staged awareness-raising events. The first event, last Friday, was run by Students for Consent and Communication (SFCC). The second, on Saturday, was organized by the Feminist Art and Thought Collective (FATC) and Feminist Underground (FU). While each collective chose its own symbolic gesture, their question is essentially the same.
How much longer will the Wesleyan student body have to bear the oppressive weight of campus sexual violence?
On Friday, SFCC staged a demonstration in solidarity with Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz. She is a sexual assault survivor whose senior art thesis, “Mattress Project: Carry That Weight,” has received national media attention. Sulkowicz has pledged to carry a fifty-pound standard dormitory mattress around Columbia until her alleged rapist is expelled. She explains, “For me I was raped in my own dorm bed … I feel like I’ve carried the weight of what happened there with me ever since then.”
Many Columbia students have been helping Sulkowicz carry her mattress, and in doing so they symbolically support all survivors of sexual assault. Some Wesleyan students decided to organize a similar gesture of solidarity. As SFCC explained in the Facebook event description, “We as supporters, bystanders, and genuinely moral human beings can support her and help her #CarryThatWeight! This is an act against the silence that has befallen college campuses regarding sexual assault.”
This Friday, as the sun shone down on the Usdan courtyard, numerous students took pictures, posed with a mattress, and signed a pledge against sexual violence. A student who attended the event comments, “There was a fantastic turnout. It was really great to see so many people signing the pledge to support survivors of sexual assault and taking photos with the signs with supportive slogans on them.”
After recognizing the pervasive nature of rape and sexual assault on all college campuses, other students turned their attention to the alarming frequency of sexual violence at this school. As the Board of Trustees gathered for dinner at President Roth’s house, thirty to forty students stood outside on the lawn holding a sign. It read, “In the next 2 weeks there will be 100 new freshman victims of sexual assault and harassment at Wesleyan.”
“The statistic from the banner came from the Alcohol Edu (self-reported, anonymous) surveys given to freshman in the first week of school and 8 weeks in to the semester,” explains Tess Altman ’17, one of the organizers of the vigil. The purpose of the event, as one student explained to a Public Safety officer, was to mourn for the students who would join the community of survivors in the coming weeks. Those who came to the vigil wore black and held candles to demonstrate that this was a peaceful yet somber event.
Isabel Alter ’17 also coordinated the event, and she believes it was effective. She says, “I feel like the event was incredibly successful. We organized it to show the trustees the importance of this issue in an emotionally compelling way.”
I was one of the students who attended the vigil on Saturday night.
I was captivated by the variety of responses from various members of the Board of Trustees. Alter was pleased that most of the trustees engaged with the demonstrators in a positive manner. She says, “Many [trustees] stopped and made eye contact or thanked us. The interactions were quiet and personal.”
Altman adds, “It’s not often that you get to be face to face with the board of trustees. When one of the trustees walked down the line of students and looked us each in the eye, thanking us for what we were doing, it felt like Wesleyan at its best.”
It is important to acknowledge that the majority of the people who left President Roth’s house on Saturday night reacted positively to the demonstrators. In fact, President Roth and his wife, Professor Kari Weil, both came outside and thanked the students for holding the vigil.
It is also important to note that there are some trustees who wanted to pretend that the vigil did not exist. More than one member of the Board walked out of the door, onto the sidewalk, and did not glance at the banner.
Emma Sulkowicz continues to lug her mattress around Columbia’s campus. Many Wesleyan students, like Sulkowicz, are forced to inhabit the same campus as the person who violated them. And on Saturday night, a small group of students held up a sign acknowledging the prevalence of incidents of sexual violence. They were burdened with the knowledge that these events happen too frequently and to too many people.
The ideal burden would be nothing. The ideal rate of sexual assault on this campus would be zero instances on any given week.
How much longer will we, as students, have to bear the weight of this violence against our community?