If a Friend Is Sexually Assaulted, Here's What You Can Do

May 20th 2015

If you've been following the story of Emma Sulkowicz, you know that on Tuesday the visual arts major graduated from Columbia University. You probably also heard that she and her friends carried her mattress -- the same mattress she spent two semesters carrying around campus as a symbol of sexual assault -- across the stage at commencement. If you're unfamiliar with the story, Sulkowicz alleges that in 2012, at the start of her sophomore year at Columbia, she was anally raped by a fellow student, Paul Nungesser. Nungesser maintains the sex was consensual.

As part of her art senior thesis, aptly named "Carry That Weight," Sulkowicz carried her mattress each time she was on campus in protest of Columbia University's handling of the sexual assault case. In a video, she explained that she would carry the mattress until she no longer went to college with her alleged rapist -- until he was expelled or until graduation. It turned out to be the latter.

Yesterday, the performance art piece ended with Sulkowicz walking across the graduation stage on Columbia College's Class Day with her mattress (and allegedly being refused a handshake from Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger). On Wednesday, the day of Columbia's university-wide commencement, mattress-sized posters with Sulkowicz's name (misspelled) were plastered around the campus with the phrase "pretty little liar." (A new Twitter handle named @fakerape has been documenting the photos, and though there has been speculation about who is behind these actions, no one has claimed responsibility.)

Sulkowicz's alleged rape, the handling of the sexual assault case at Columbia, the NYPD's reluctance to charge her alleged rapist, Sulkowicz's performance art, and the harassment -- including the posters plastered today around campus -- have made me think a lot about burden. The weight Sulkowicz carried following the alleged assault was a key part of her senior thesis, as documented by the below video:

For survivors of sexual assault there can be the burden of responsibility -- many survivors believe it is their fault, which is unsurprising due to the incorrect notion that a victim was "asking for it." Then there is the emotional burden of having suffered trauma. The physical scars of rape or a potential pregnancy that could result from rape, if the victim is female.

There is also the burden of stigma. Around 68 percent of rapes were not reported to authorities between the years 2008 and 2012, according to the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN).

Additionally, there's the burden of proof one must carry in a court of law in order to convict a rapist. A victim must show that their attacker is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, which is difficult to prove in rape cases because there are not normally independent witnesses and because rape kits -- the equipment used to collect forensic evidence of a rape -- are often not properly used or not available. As a result, only 2 percent of rapists are jailed, RAINN reports.

There's also the burden of false claims, which according to Stanford's Men Against Abuse Now group, account for only 2 percent of rape accusations. Each false cry of rape is extraordinarily detrimental to those who have experienced sexual assault and makes it more difficult for women and men who have been raped to come forward.

For Sulkowicz, there is the added physical burden of carrying a mattress -- sometimes alone, as part of her rules of engagement she cannot ask for help and can only accept help if someone offers to take the weight -- and the burden of being a symbol. She is now a public figure subject to harassment and protests like the @fakerape twitter handle.

Though Sulkowicz's thesis project is complete, there are many ways for us to "carry the weight" for those who have been affected by sexual assault.


Society can train young men (and women) not to rape. Entities including, but not limited to, parents, schools, and universities can educate young people about what constitutes consent. (Full disclosure, I was a member of Greeks Against Sexual Assault or GASA in college.)

In terms of what colleges can do, Jane Stapleton, a researcher and and co-director of University of New Hampshire's Prevention Innovations, gave great advice to Cosmopolitan:

"Incoming students should expect to be told the policy around sexual and relationship violence and stalking. They should expect to know resources on and off campus, including confidential resources. And they should expect their institution to do primary intervention, including bystander intervention. Schools sometimes focus only on incoming students, and that, for me, really signals that what the institution is doing is risk reduction. Our work has shown that comprehensive prevention works. We've been able to show in research studies that incoming students are not the ones who are predominantly sexually assaulting other college students. It's the upper-class students who have the social capital and who are creating and sustaining environments that support sexual assault."

Stapleton also suggested educating and engaging university staff, local businesses, and professors in this process. Education at younger ages, prior to college, is also very important to prevention.

Providing a safe space.

RAINN suggests a list of steps to help a person who has been sexually assaulted. It begins with listening to the victim and offering support and a non-judgmental space -- for whatever course of action the survivor decides to take. "If the survivor seeks medical attention or plans to report, offer to be there," RAINN's guidelines state. "Your presence can offer the support they need."

The University of Oregon's counseling and testing center encourages people to be sensitive, supportive, and patient: this includes not using language that places blame on the victim or reinforces myths or common tropes about sexual assault. It also means understanding that recovery will happen on the survivor's time.

In terms of what college campuses can do following a sexual assault, Tracey Vitchers from Students Active for Ending Rape, told Cosmopolitan the following:

"One thing we find is that if a person is assaulted and they go to their school and feel empowered and informed about their rights and the process, they're less likely to suffer from ongoing PTSD, depression, and anxiety. If a survivor goes through a process where they feel further victimized or disempowered because they don't understand the process or they feel the procedures are somehow working against them, they're much more likely to suffer from adverse mental health issues, and more likely to take time off from school or transfer. At many schools, you have to go through multiple layers of their website to find out the available counseling services on campus. We often hear that, when a student reports, the person they get in front of is the Title IX coordinator, and the purpose isn't to provide support to that survivor but to risk-manage that survivor — to ensure that everything said to that student is within Title IX so that the student can't complain that their rights were violated. In the aftermath of an assault, the last thing a survivor should have to feel is a sense of distrust from the person they're talking to."


Encourage survivors of sexual assault to reach out to support services like the National Sexual Assault Hotline, a school counselor or sexual assault recourse center, or seek counseling elsewhere. Remember that survivors will process this in their own time. And remember, for both survivors and those who are aiding survivors, practicing self-care is very important.

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