It’s been over a year since Emma Sulkowicz, a.k.a. “mattress girl,” graduated from Columbia University. While it’s unclear whether undergrads are any safer today, as a rising senior at Columbia, I can testify to the alarmism around sex on campus that has emerged as an unintended consequence of the recent activism.
Sulkowicz’s “Carry That Weight” performance doubled as a protest against Columbia’s “not-responsible” ruling for her alleged rapist, Paul Nungesser (who is currently suing Columbia for its role in her performance). While the university found that the case against Nungesser harbored reasonable doubt, media attention around the performance fueled much-needed interest in campus sexual violence nationwide last year. At Sulkowicz’s alma mater, the administration reacted to affiliated activism by opening a second rape crisis center, instituting university-wide mandatory sexual respect workshops, and revisiting its judicial process to provide more resources for survivors.
But instead of working with the bureaucracy and taking these measures by the university as signs of progress, Columbia’s activists radicalized their positions, antagonizing the school for not doing more. They resorted to libel, scrawling the names of alleged rapists onto bathroom stalls — though none of the accused men had been found responsible in a court of law. They adopted positions on topics like the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that had nothing to do with sexual assault. And in a particularly destructive stunt, they dropped mattresses on President Lee C. Bollinger’s lawn, saying that he had not responded adequately to their demands.
What’s more, even the activists’ “victories,” which seemed promising in theory, may have led to more harm than good in practice.
Caspia Schwartz, a rape survivor who wrote her senior thesis at Barnard College — Columbia’s sister school — on Sulkowicz’s mattress performance and its social media impact, said that the online discussion surrounding “mattress girl” and Nungesser fell into three categories: “Did he do it?,” “What is the university’s role anyway?,” and “What should survivors do?” The last two questions are valid, but the first devolved into a he said/she said debate that ultimately hurt survivors and their credibility.
Researchers broadly agree that false accusations of rape constitute a small minority of reported offenses (estimates are difficult to come by, but hover around 2-10%). But after Rolling Stone published its misreported account of a gang rape at the University of Virginia, “A Rape on Campus,” undergraduate men seem more concerned than ever that their futures could be jeopardized by sleeping with the wrong person.
This climate of male paranoia has only been exacerbated by newly devised policies that seem ill-suited to the collegiate environment. For example, many universities have stiffened their outlook on sex while under the influence. If someone is intoxicated, then he or she is supposedly unable to consent to any form of touching. Therefore, men can be convicted of assault even if they reasonably believe what they’re doing is consensual and they’re also under the influence.
This becomes even more complicated when you place sex in the context of hookup culture, where it can be challenging to tell how intoxicated someone is if you don’t know them well (or even if you do). Often, students will get black-out drunk at parties. Sometimes, those students still seem coherent. They can still appear lucid enough to have sex, even if they don’t remember it in the morning.
“Hookup culture, and our collective acceptance of it, whether passive or active, arguably blurs the lines of consent,” Barnard senior Hannah Vaitsblit told me. “I keep hearing the sentiment that drunkenness precludes one from their ability to consent. But what if both participating parties are intoxicated? And does every drunken sexual encounter then become non-consensual?” she said. “The activist community, at least ostensibly, seems committed to downplaying this nuance in the aim of accomplishing some kind of sweeping reform.”
Affirmative consent poses similar problems. Signed into law in New York by Governor Andrew Cuomo last July, the “Enough is Enough” legislation requires “a knowing, voluntary, and mutual decision among all participants to engage in sexual activity.” Columbia cautions, “It is important not to make assumptions.”
These stipulations seem obvious, but because of the vagueness of the law’s language, some men are taking affirmative consent to its logical extreme, requiring partners to text them messages of consent or sign contracts before making contact.
“Like with most protested issues there is a lot of overreaction in response to perceived high rates of sexual assault charges,” one recent male Columbia graduate, who asked to remain anonymous, told me. “I have male friends who want consent and sobriety written in writing before any physical intimacy, and they’re getting laughed at by their female companions or being met with eye rolls. The activism scares males because it seems to be pushing for Columbia to replace fair trial with witch hunting.”
Even in less extreme situations, young men are more skeptical of women’s ability or propensity to consent to sex, which some women on campus consider demeaning.
“I find that men are more and more interested in ensuring that I’m consenting before sex, which would seem like a good thing,” Columbia student Dylan Hunzeker said. “But sometimes I don’t necessarily feel that way. Especially when I have to answer a man’s question: ‘are you sure you’re not too drunk?’ Or ‘you want to have sex with me?’ In a sense, it’s annoying and debilitating to be constantly questioned about whether or not I have agency and am a sexual human being.”
On the other hand, Schwartz, who was assaulted by a Columbia student after she explicitly stated that he did not have her consent, supports reforms that make men a little uncomfortable. For her, the visibility that last year’s activism provided for sexual assault prevention has made men more aware of the consequences of their actions, and the potential judicial outcomes. “I think that if my attacker was afraid that he would get caught, taken to a campus trial, or that he could be found guilty, he might’ve hesitated,” she said.
While Schwartz’s perspective must be taken into account, so must the concerns of her peers. Competing tensions that make men feel endangered and women silenced have created a climate that has actually quieted discourse about how to improve sexual assault prevention and enforced antagonisms that perpetuate gender-based misconduct instead of prohibiting it. Men are scared of women on campus now, and fear breeds anger and prejudice. Women are frustrated by men, which inspires a lack of desire to collaborate for solutions.
If anything, the current climate has distracted focus from those most affected by sexual violence. Women on campus are actually less likely to be assaulted than women of the same age not enrolled at a university. Meanwhile, 44% of sexual assault victims are under the age of 18. And while most of the stories that make national news feature affluent women at prestigious colleges, black, Native American, and mixed-race women are much more likely to experience rape.
Most men who are frightened of being falsely accused probably wouldn’t have perpetrated sexual assault in the first place. Meanwhile, 98 out of 100 accused rapists never serve a day in prison, and the activism from last year didn’t change that — nor did it enlighten the public about who victims are and how to help. Instead, it inspired impractical laws with unintended consequences, isolating potential allies and enforcing a new sexual stigma that’s essentially foreclosed productive dialogue about assault on college campuses and beyond.
Alexandra Villarreal is a rising senior at Columbia University and a freelance writer.