by Kelly Webber
Columbia University senior Emma Sulkowicz captivated national attention when she resolved to carry a 50 pound mattress everywhere on campus. She will continue until the school takes action against a fellow student who allegedly raped Sulkowicz in her dorm room her sophomore year, according to nytimes.org. This real-life Hester Prynne has developed this political statement into her senior thesis, aptly titled “Carry That Weight.”
Sulkowicz’s situation is not unusual. Although Respect Week (Oct. 6–10) and Domestic Violence Awareness Month (Oct. 1–31) are recognized annually, too many recent events all point to the same problem: sexual violation occurs throughout the U.S. at an alarming rate.
According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, 237,868 Americans are raped or sexually assaulted every year—that means one assault occurs every two minutes. Victims vary in terms of sexuality, age and gender, and offenders can be strangers, friends, family members, significant others or authority figures. Imagine every single one of these 237,868 victims lugging a mattress to school or work. Then, the emotional trauma of sexual assault would be much more apparent. Even in the halls of WHS, students or faculty could be carrying a metaphorical weight on their shoulders, but go under the radar in a nation where, according to rainn.org, 97 percent of offenders walk free.
Whether one has first-hand experience with sexual assault or not, “rape culture” is apparent in everyday society. YouTube celebrity Sam Pepper released a video to over 2 million followers, of him “pranking” women by groping them and filming their reactions, according to huffingtonpost.com. Pepper claimed his escapade was a joke with consent from all participants, but YouTube had already taken down the video. In response to Pepper’s video, Huffington Post Associate Editor Alanna Vagianos pointed out that “sexism and assault disguised as humor is still sexism and assault.” Street harassment, more commonly coined “catcalling,” and rape “jokes” can trigger victims’ anxiety without the awareness of the perpetrator. Although no one was directly harmed by Pepper’s video, the “rape culture” that grows out of these seemingly harmless acts protects and even encourages sexual abuse.
No one should need to be taught how to act, what to wear or where to go in order to avoid sexual assault. Ideally, everyone should understand the word “no.” But until victims can share their stories without being accused of “asking for it,” awareness is absolutely essential.