TIME Opinion

Lena Dunham’s Story of Rape Is a Must-Read

Lena Dunham, author of 'Not That Kind of Girl'
Lena Dunham, author of 'Not That Kind of Girl' Autumn de Wilde

In Not That Kind of Girl Dunham tells us why denial is simpler, at least in the beginning

The most remarkable part of Lena Dunham’s new memoir Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” begins with a seemingly unremarkable story. Dunham writes a darkly humorous essay about a time she realized in the middle of sex that a condom she thought her partner had put on was hanging from a nearby plant.

“I think…? the condom’s…? In the tree?” I muttered feverishly.

“Oh,” he said, like he was as shocked as I was. He reached for it as if he was going to put it back on, but I was already up, stumbling towards my couch, which was the closest thing to a garment I could find. I told him he should probably go, chucking his hoodie and boots out the door with him. The next morning, I sat in a shallow bath for half an hour like someone in one of those coming-of-age movies.”

It’s an experience similar to a scene you might see on her HBO show Girls: a little disturbing and a little funny with a lot of nudity.

But then Dunham does something interesting: after finishing out the chapter, entitled “Girls & Jerks,” she forces the reader to double back. “I am an unreliable narrator,” she writes. And with those words, we dive back into the story of Barry, the guy who flung the condom into the tree. “[I]n another essay in this book I describe a sexual encounter with a mustachioed campus Republican as the upsetting but educational choice of a girl who was new to sex when, in fact, it didn’t feel like a choice at all.”

Lena Dunham says she was raped, though she didn’t immediately know that it was rape.

Like many college girls, a mix of alcohol, drugs, unspoken expectations and shame may have kept her from using the “r” word to refer to the act until years later. She says that she rewrote history in her head, coming up with many versions (including the one above). The real tale — or what she remembers of it — is much more painful. It begins at a party where Dunham is alone, drunk and high on Xanax and cocaine. It’s in that state that she runs into Barry, who she describes as “creepy,” and who sets off an alarm of “uh-oh” in her head as soon as she sees him.

Barry leads me to the parking lot. I tell him to look away. I pull down my tights to pee, and he jams a few of his fingers inside me, like he’s trying to plug me up. I’m not sure whether I can’t stop it or I don’t want to.

Leaving the parking lot, I see my friend Fred. He spies Barry leading me by the arm toward my apartment (apparently I’ve told him where I live), and he calls out my name. I ignore him. When that doesn’t work, he grabs me. Barry disappears for a minute, so its just Fred and me.

“Don’t do this,” he says.

“You don’t want to walk me home, so just leave me alone,” I slur, expressing some deep hurt I didn’t even know I had. “Just leave me alone.”

He shakes his head. What can he do?

After the two return to her apartment, Dunham does everything she can to convince herself that what’s happening is a choice. “I don’t know how we got here, but I refuse to believe it’s an accident,” she writes. She goes on to describe the event in graphic detail. Once he has forced himself on her, she talks dirty to him, again, to convince herself that she’s making a choice. But she knows she hasn’t given her consent. When she sees the condom in the tree — she definitely did not consent to not using a condom — she struggles away and throws him out.

Dunham — drunk and high — was in no condition to consent according to the new rules being implemented at many campuses across the country. And in Dunham’s second story, the flung away condom and his aggressiveness make it clear that Barry did not care about what Dunham wanted.

It’s her roommate that first tells her the encounter was a rape, but Dunham doesn’t believe her: “Audrey’s pale little face goes blank. She clutches my hand and, in a voice reserved for moms in Lifetime movies, whispers, ‘You were raped.’ I burst out laughing.”

Though for decades we’ve thought of the rapist as a man who lurks in alleyways, the data shows he’s more likely an acquaintance, friend or even a boyfriend. Approximately two-thirds of rape victims know their attacker, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. That makes it all too easy for skeptics to accuse women of making false claims of rape: “Despite hysterical propaganda about our ‘rape culture,’ the majority of campus incidents being carelessly described as sexual assault are not felonious rape (involving force or drugs) but oafish hookup melodramas, arising from mixed signals and imprudence on both sides,” writes Camille Paglia for Time.

Such statements suggest that anyone can be a rapist if they’ve had enough to drink. But one study showed that nine out of 10 men who described committing acts of sexual assault on college campuses to researchers, said they had done so more once. And on average, a perpetrator will assault six people. “Part of the problem is a pure lack of understanding of the true nature of campus sexual assault. These are not dates gone bad, or a good guy who had too much to drink. This is a crime largely perpetrated by repeat offenders,” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand wrote for Time.

And given how difficult it is to report a rape — it can involve an invasive rape kit exam, an investigation and trial that can last for years and interrupt your academic and social life and accusations that you are a liar — there seems to be little motivation to fake such an event. Filing a complaint with the university or police forces victims to deal with the fact that someone had control over them, over their bodies. Denial is simpler, at least in the beginning.

Perhaps that explains Dunham’s laugh. It certainly explains why, according to the Rape and Incest National Network (RAINN), 60% of rapes go unreported.

It’s not until she pitches the first, tamer version of the story for a plot line in the writer’s room of Girls that Dunham comes to the realization that she was raped. Here’s how she describes the reaction to her pitch:

Murray shakes his head. “I just don’t see rape being funny in any situation.”

“Yeah,” Bruce agrees. “It’s a tough one.”

“But that’s the thing,” I say. “No one knows if it’s a rape. It’s, like, a confusing situation that…” I trailed off.

“But I’m sorry that happened to you,” Jenni says. “I hate that.”

Dunham has since become a fierce advocate of campus reform when it comes to matters of sexual assault. Dunham’s sister wrote “IX” on the top of her graduation cap during the #YesAllWomen Twitter campaign this year in honor of Title IX, the federal statute that mandates schools protect victims of sexual assault (among other things).

But sharing her own story is perhaps her bravest work of activism yet. We are still in a culture where women are told that they are to blame for anything that happens if they drink and bring a man home. “I feel like there are fifty ways it’s my fault…But I also know that at no moment did I consent to being handled that way,” Dunham writes in the book. Dunham has come under fire for being too self-indulgent, revealing too much. But in this case, her candor may become a lifeline for women who’ve been through something similar and are feeling confused and alone.

Read Roxane Gay’s review of Not That Kind of Girl, which hits bookstores on September 30th, here.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: September 30

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. China’s real battle is for the hearts and minds of Hong Kong. And China is losing.

By Rachel Lu in Foreign Policy

2. California’s new ‘Yes means yes’ consent law is an important first step toward ending America’s campus sexual assault epidemic.

By Robin Wilson in the Chronicle of Higher Education

3. The English language makes it harder for students to learn math.

By Sue Shellenbarger in the Wall Street Journal

4. Long lines at polling places dampen turnout and disproportionately hit poor and minority communities. States must devote the resources to making voting work.

By Chris Kromm in Facing South

5. To direct financial aid where it is most needed, colleges should focus on first-generation students.

By Tomiko Brown-Nagin in TIME

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Sexual Assault

Rape Victims in Louisiana Are Being Charged for Hospital Exams

Many victims of sexual assault are burdened with paying out of their own pockets for forensic medical exams and related care

Some rape victims in Louisiana are being forced to literally pay the price of their own assault.

An investigation by the Times-Picayune found that many victims of sexual assault were being billed by hospitals after they sought treatment and, in some cases, were charged thousands of dollars.

Though the Violence Against Women Act was amended in 2005 to stipulate that sexual assault victims should not be billed for medical forensic exams in the wake of their attack, the requirements only include the basics for a rape kit or SANE exam, such as “an examination of physical trauma, a determination of penetration or force, a patient interview and collection of evidence.”

“By that definition,” reports Rebecca Catalanello in the Times-Picayune, “costs for procedures that are a regular part of the SANE screening — pregnancy tests and HIV tests, among them — could be considered extra. And, in many cases throughout Louisiana and the United States, they are.” Some of the women who spoke to the Times-Picayune reported they had been billed for simply being admitted to the emergency room, despite being required to do so in order to have their exam completed.

One woman, who was violently sexually assaulted, received two medical bills following her visit to the hospital, which came to $4,200. Her mother told the Times-Picayune, “You know what really gets me? Prisoners in Angola [the Louisiana State Penitentiary] get medical treatment for free.”

Some of the costs can be recouped by victims, as long as they apply for reimbursement from the Louisiana Crime Victims Reparations Board. Yet there are conditions: Victims must file charges against their rapists, and must also be clear of felonies on their own records (at least within the past five years). Victims also can’t have been involved in illegal activity at the time of the rape, which could include underage drinking. What’s more, the victim must not “have behaved in a way that, in the opinion of the board, ‘contributed to the crime.'”

Yet Louisiana doesn’t appear to be an outlier. According to the Times-Picayune, only 15 states pay for tests for STIs and medication prescribed in the course of a forensic exam and only 13 states pay for pregnancy tests. There are only 10 states that cover the cost of emergency room fees for sexual assault victims and the number of states that cover the cost of treating injuries sustained during a sexual assault is a mere five.

This practice could have serious consequences. While law enforcement workers and victim advocates often lament that only around a third of rape victims actually report their attack to the police, the possibility of being saddled with exorbitant bills for medical treatment could deter victims from seeking medical treatment. And without the forensic exams, valuable evidence against the rapist is unlikely to be collected, which would likely hinder prosecution of the victim did file a report at any time.

But while Catalanello’s investigation is an upsetting read, the report has already made waves. In a statement released after the Times-Picayune piece was published, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals said, “We take a strong stand against sexual violence. Our heart goes out to victims of these crimes. This is a result of disjointed local parish health policies, as well as a poor legacy charity system that was run inefficiently for many years. We will work with the Legislature and the partners to address this and ensure sexual assault victims are provided the services they need, and also make sure we are doing everything we can to fight sexual violence.”


TIME Education

Wesleyan Will Make Frats Be Co-Ed

With campus sexual assault under the microscope nationwide

Wesleyan University said Monday that campus fraternity groups will soon be required to admit both men and women, a change that followed a lawsuit by a student saying she was raped at a frat party and that came amid growing scrutiny of colleges’ efforts to combat campus sexual assault.

“With equity and inclusion in mind, we have decided that residential fraternities must become fully co-educational over the next three years,” top university officials said in an email to the university community.

“If the organizations are to continue to be recognized as offering housing and social spaces for Wesleyan students, women as well as men must be full members and well-represented in the body and leadership of the organization,” said the email from Joshua Boger and Michael S. Roth, the chair and president of the Board of Trustees, respectively.

The move comes after a student filed a lawsuit saying she was raped in 2o13 at a fraternity party, and that multiple party attendees watched. The email said the school had been considering what to do about Greek life at Wesleyan for years, and received input over the summer from students, faculty and alumni.

Other schools like Trinity College have made similar changes in recent years (though not without student protest). The Wesleyan website reads, “Greek life is small at Wes.” There are a small number of fraternities on campus, some with houses and some without. There is only one sorority and it does not have a house. The school already has other co-ed societies.

Read the email here.


NFL to Partner With Domestic Violence Groups

Roger Goodell
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell during an NFL football game, Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, at Century Link Field in Seattle. Ben Liebenberg—AP

The league will support victims of domestic violence and sexual assault

The NFL plans to give financial and operational support to two national organizations that serve victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, as it remains under fire for its handling of recent domestic violence scandals.

According to a two-page memo sent to all 32 teams and obtained by The Los Angeles Times, the league will enter partnerships with The National Domestic Violence Hotline, allowing it to add 25 full time advocates and handle 750 additional calls per day, and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell also said in the memo that the league will introduce programs internally to educate players and team personnel about domestic violence and sexual assault.

[Los Angeles Times]

TIME White House

Kerry Washington and Jon Hamm Star in Sexual Assault Prevention PSA

The "It's On Us" spot was produced by the White House and will air during college football games this weekend.

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will announce a new public awareness and education campaign Friday designed to change the culture on college campuses and prevent sexual assault before it happens.

The campaign is the next phase in the White House’s multi-pronged effort to reduce the rate of sexual assault on campuses and to support survivors. The campaign, called “It’s On Us,” will be aimed at changing the culture by inspiring every person on a college campus to take action, big or small, to prevent sexual assault.

The campaign’s first public service announcement, which features President Obama and Vice President Biden and celebrities like Kerry Washington, Jon Hamm, and Connie Britton, will air on Saturday on the big screens in several college football stadiums during games. Though senior White House officials declined to give further details of the PSA during a call with reporters, the White House said the campaign would be particularly focused on getting young men involved. That theme began with a PSA the White House launched in April called “1 is 2 Many,” featuring male celebrities like Steve Carell and Daniel Craig.

The campaign will draw from a popular trend in sexual assault prevention: bystander intervention, a public awareness and training philosophy that encourages members of the community to intervene when they see sexual violence about to happen. Many colleges have adopted such training programs on campus, and a recent CDC report found that bystander intervention has great potential to drive change.

“The campaign reflects a belief that sexual assault isn’t just an issue involving a crime committed by a perpetrator against a victim, but one in which the rest of us also have a role to play,” the White House said.

In addition to the PSA, with the help of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, private companies, collegiate sports organizations like the NCAA, and the student body leadership from 200 colleges and universities, many different platforms will carry the logo and the “It’s On Us” message. To get the word out further, Electronic Arts, a leading video gaming company, will carry the “It’s On Us” message to its players, Viacom will promote the “It’s On Us” message through its online properties, including MTV, VH1, and BET, and popular media personalities will create “It’s On US” content and promote it on their platforms.

The White House efforts will also include recommendations for three new best practices for colleges and universities to improve their sexual assault response, such as model policy information to include in their sexual misconduct policies. The Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women will also award over $6 million to 18 colleges with grants to develop sexual assault response and prevention programs.

TIME Sexual Assault

The CDC’s Rape Numbers Are Misleading

Obama Ebola
The entrance to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on Oct. 8, 2013. David Goldman—AP

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.

Men reported being “made to penetrate” at virtually the same rates as women reported rape

CDC: Nearly 1 in 5 Women Raped.” “One in Five U.S. Women Has Been Raped: CDC Survey.” These alarming headlines were typical of the coverage of last week’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on sexual and intimate violence in the United States. The CDC study—the second in two years—seems to support a radical feminist narrative that has been gaining mainstream attention recently: that modern America is a “rape culture” saturated with misogynistic violence. But a closer look at the data, obtained from telephone surveys done in 2011, yields a far more complex picture and raises some surprising question about gender, victimization, and bias.

Both critics and supporters of the CDC’s methodology note the striking disparity between CDC figures and the Justice Department’s crime statistics based on the National Crime Victimization Survey (which includes crimes unreported to the police). While the CDC estimates that nearly 2 million adult American women were raped in 2011 and nearly 6.7 million suffered some other form of sexual violence, the NCVS estimate for that year was 238,000 rapes and sexual assaults.

New Republic reporter Claire Groden points out that while the NCVS focuses on criminal acts, the CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey asks about instances of forced sex which respondents may or may not regard as crimes. Yet it is worth noting that in the early 1990s, the NCVS was redesigned to elicit more reports of sexual and domestic violence that may not fit the conventional mold of criminal attacks. In addition to being asked directly about rape, attempted rape or sexual assault, respondents now get a follow-up question about “forced or unwanted sexual acts” committed by a stranger, a casual acquaintance, or someone they know well.

The CDC study goes much further in asking about specific unwanted acts. But there are other important differences. For one, CDC survey respondents are not asked whether anyone has used physical force or threats to make them engage in a sexual activity, but “how many” people have done this (in their lifetime and in the past year). This wording removes the extra hurdle of admitting that such a violation has happened, and thus encourages more reporting. But could it also create “false positives” by nudging people toward the assumption that the default answer is affirmative—especially when preceded by a battery of other questions and statements about sexually coercive behavior?

A much bigger problem is the wording of the question measuring “incapacitated rape” (which accounted for nearly two-thirds of the CDC’s estimate of rapes that occurred in the past year). Respondents were asked about sexual acts that happened when they were “drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent.” This seems to imply that “unable to consent” is only one of the variables and to include situations in which a person is intoxicated—perhaps enough to have impaired judgment—but not incapacitated as the legal definition of rape requires.

A CDC spokesperson told The New Republic that “being unable to consent is key to the CDC’s definition of rape.” Presumably, this is conveyed by the introduction to the question about alcohol- and drug-enabled rape: “Sometimes sex happens when a person is unable to consent to it or stop it from happening because they were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out from alcohol, drugs, or medications.” However, in a telephone survey, some people may focus only on the question itself and let the introduction slide by.

Moreover, the introductory message ends with an advisory that may create more confusion: “Please remember that even if someone uses alcohol or drugs, what happens to them is not their fault.” Obviously, the intended point is that even if you got drunk, you’re not to blame for being raped. But this vaguely phrased reminder could also be taken to mean that it’s not your fault if you do something stupid while drunk or on drugs. At no point are respondents given any instructions that could result in fewer reports of alleged victimization: for instance, that they should not include instances in which they had voluntary sex while drunk but not incapacitated.

For many feminists, questioning claims of rampant sexual violence in our society amounts to misogynist “rape denial.” However, if the CDC figures are to be taken at face value, then we must also conclude that, far from being a product of patriarchal violence against women, “rape culture” is a two-way street, with plenty of female perpetrators and male victims.

How could that be? After all, very few men in the CDC study were classified as victims of rape: 1.7 percent in their lifetime, and too few for a reliable estimate in the past year. But these numbers refer only to men who have been forced into anal sex or made to perform oral sex on another male. Nearly 7 percent of men, however, reported that at some point in their lives, they were “made to penetrate” another person—usually in reference to vaginal intercourse, receiving oral sex, or performing oral sex on a woman. This was not classified as rape, but as “other sexual violence.”

And now the real surprise: when asked about experiences in the last 12 months, men reported being “made to penetrate”—either by physical force or due to intoxication—at virtually the same rates as women reported rape (both 1.1 percent in 2010, and 1.7 and 1.6 respectively in 2011).

In other words, if being made to penetrate someone was counted as rape—and why shouldn’t it be?—then the headlines could have focused on a truly sensational CDC finding: that women rape men as often as men rape women.

The CDC also reports that men account for over a third of those experiencing another form of sexual violence—“sexual coercion.” That was defined as being pressured into sexual activity by psychological means: lies or false promises, threats to end a relationship or spread negative gossip, or “making repeated requests” for sex and expressing unhappiness at being turned down.

Should we, then, regard sexual violence as a reciprocal problem? Getting away from the simplistic and adversarial “war against women” model is undoubtedly a positive step, as is admitting that women are human beings with the capacity for aggression and wrongdoing—including sexual assault. On the other hand, most of us would agree that to equate a victim of violent rape and a man who engages in a drunken sexual act he wouldn’t have chosen when sober is to trivialize a terrible crime. It is safe to assume that the vast majority of the CDC’s male respondents who were “made to penetrate” someone would not call themselves rape victims—and with good reason.

But if that’s the case, it is just as misleading to equate a woman’s experience of alcohol-addled sex with the experience of a rape victim who is either physically overpowered or attacked when genuinely incapacitated. For purely biological reasons, there is little doubt that adult victims of such crimes are mostly female—though male children and adolescents are at fairly high risk: as criminologists Richard Felson and Patrick Cundiff report in a fascinating recent analysis, a 15-year-old male is considerably more likely to be sexually assaulted than a woman over 40. The CDC reports that 12.3 percent of female victims were 10 or younger at the time of their first completed rape victimization; for male victims, that number is 27.8 percent.

We must either start treating sexual assault as a gender-neutral issue or stop using the CDC’s inflated statistics. Few would deny that sex crimes in America are a real, serious, and tragic problem. But studies of sexual violence should use accurate and clear definitions of rape and sexual assault, rather than lump these criminal acts together with a wide range of unsavory but non-criminal scenarios of men—and women—behaving badly.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.


NFL Recruits 4 Women to Advise on Domestic Violence and Sex Assault Policy

The move comes after severe public backlash over the NFL's handling of domestic violence charges against players

In an effort to show the NFL’s commitment to making domestic violence and sexual assault a priority, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced four women who will help shape NFL’s policies and programs relating to domestic violence and sexual assault.

In a letter to NFL staff, Goodell announced that Anna Isaacson, who is currently the NFL’s vice president of community affairs and philanthropy, will undertake a greater role as vice president of social responsibility.

Additionally, three experts in domestic violence will serve as senior advisors on domestic violence and sexual assault: Lisa Friel, the head of the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit in the New York County District Attorney’s Office, will focus on the evaluation process of alleged violence and assault incidences and will advise Goodell and the NFL staff on law violations. Jane Randel, the co-founder of NO MORE (a national initiative to raise the profile of violence and assault and Rita Smith), and Rita Smith, the former executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, will work on several related initiatives, including: workplace policy, training curricula, education programs, Employee Assistance Programs and distributing information about resources outside of the NFL as related to these issues.

The announcement comes after the NFL and Goodell received significant public backlash over the handling of Ray Rice, who punched his wife in the face, knocking her unconscious. You can read Goodell’s full letter here.

TIME Sexual Assault

Florida State Investigates Jameis Winston for Alleged Sexual Assault

Oklahoma State v Florida State
Jameis Winston #5 of the Florida State Seminoles passes against the Oklahoma State Cowboys in the first half of the Advocare Cowboys Classic at AT&T Stadium on August 30, 2014 in Arlington, Texas. Tom Pennington—Getty Images

The university is looking into claims against the Heisman winner years after the alleged rape took place

Florida State University is investigating a claim that Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston sexually assaulted another student in December 2012. Though the accusations became public in 2013, the school appears to have begun the investigation only in recent months.

John Clune, the attorney representing the woman who was assaulted, says that the university reached out to them in early August. They interviewed her soon thereafter. “In the actual interview, they were very supportive of our client and told our client and her parents that this process will go forward,” Clune told TIME.

Winston maintains through his attorney that the sex was consensual, and his lawyers believe that the university will absolve him of all wrongdoing. “We anticipate the same conclusion that followed her previous three statements to the Tallahassee Police Department, Florida’s State Attorney’s Office and in the FSU Code of Student Conduct hearing,” said Winston’s attorney, David Cornwell. “Jameis Winston did not sexually assault Ms. Kinsman.”

In December 2013, a Florida prosecutor said that he was not pursuing criminal charges against Winston due to what they claimed was a lack of evidence. Winston went on to lead Florida State to the national title and win the Heisman. Clune’s client withdrew from Florida State this last year after her accusation became public and she began receiving death threats. She has since enrolled at another university.

Any hearing held by the university would have a lower standard of proof, called a “preponderance of evidence,” than the “beyond reasonable doubt” burden used in criminal proceedings. Clune says his client would cooperate with the university and participate in the hearing if they asked her to do so. Those who violate the code of conduct at the university can receive a range of punishments from verbal reprimands to expulsion.

The probe into the Winston case comes just months after the federal government launched an investigation at Florida State and 76 other schools across the country to determine whether they are mishandling cases of sexual assault. Title IX, the law which Florida State may have violated, prohibits sexual discrimination at schools receiving public funds and includes rules designed to combat sexual crimes.

Many schools are working on internal reforms to fall in line with Title IX rules. This week, Florida State announced several new programs to curb sexual assault on campus including an awareness campaign dubbed “Know More.”

Clune says his client has mixed feelings about the investigation. “It would have been really nice for her to get some sort of response like this when it would have helped her stay at Florida State. She really loved going to school at Florida State,” he said. “But at the same time any sort of meaningful response, even if it’s not going to help her in particular, I think feels assuring that it’s not being swept under the rug.”

TIME Sexual Assault

Columbia Student Pledges to Carry a Mattress Every Day Till Alleged Rapist Leaves Campus

Emma Sulkowicz's performance-art project began this week and may last until the end of the school year

Columbia University senior Emma Sulkowicz, 21, says she was raped in her own bed at the beginning of her sophomore year. This week, two years after the alleged assault, Sulkowicz, a visual-arts major, has made a promise to carry her mattress around campus every day as part of her senior thesis. It is, she says, a symbol of the burden sexual-assault survivors carry with them every day.

“The act of carrying the mattress from inside my room out into the light has mirrored the way my life has changed, as I’ve brought my personal story out into the light,” Sulkowicz told TIME. “This project is a way to heal one of the most difficult things that happened to me. As I will build muscle and get stronger, hopefully I will also build emotional strength.”

Sulkowicz started the performance-art project on Tuesday, and she said she is determined to continue carrying the mattress wherever she goes — to class, the library, the gym — as long as her alleged rapist is still on campus. That means her project could last until graduation day in May 2015 — unless her alleged assailant is either expelled or chooses to leave the school. Last year, Sulkowicz and two other women reported the same person to the university. All three cases were dismissed.

Sulkowicz’s initiative also brings further attention to colleges’ lackluster performance in handling reports of sexual assault, as reported in a recent TIME cover story.

As part of the project, Sulkowicz is not allowed to ask for help, but can accept it, if offered — a further analogy to the burden that sexual-assault survivors carry with them.

Sulkowicz is one of 23 Columbia and Barnard students who filed a federal Title IX complaint in April alleging that the university mishandled sexual-assault cases.

“Rape can happen anywhere, but I was attacked in my own dorm bed,” she said. “For me that place that is normally very intimate and pure was desecrated and is very fraught. The piece is about carrying the memory of that everywhere I go.”

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser