Not Every Rape Victim Needs to Be Emma Sulkowicz

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Emma Sulkowicz. Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

In an essay published last week on Jezebel — “I’m Not a Pretty Little Liar” — one of the four Columbia students who accused Paul Nungesser of sexual misconduct wrote about trying to maintain control of her story while fighting to protect her anonymity. “I’ve spent so much time and energy just trying to hold onto my narrative and my truth without making a demonstration out of it (I support Emma, but I am not Emma),” she wrote.

Emma Sulkowicz, an activist at the forefront of the campus sexual-assault crisis, has garnered widespread support for her Carry That Weight project. She’s also faced violent threats, criticism, and a seemingly never-ending supply of skepticism. During graduation last week, large posters were plastered all over Columbia’s neighborhood with the words “Pretty Little Liar” on top of Sulkowicz’s picture. When she crossed the stage, mattress in tow, Columbia’s president didn't shake her hand.

It’s not uncommon for rape survivors to be blamed for being raped (thanks to offenses such as short skirts, drinking, or staying out late), and for those same survivors to be blamed for not protecting other women if they don’t report their rapists to authorities. Now, to add to that daunting list of responsibilities, survivors are increasingly encouraged to share their stories publicly, an act that is meant to challenge rape culture and educate the rest of us.

A piece on sexual-assault survivors speaking out against campus rape that ran in Marie Claire mentions bystanders and politicians, but also seems to squarely call on survivors themselves. After bolded sections denoting various experiences (“My friends were not supportive,” “My school encouraged me to leave,” “I was sexually assaulted by a woman”) comes a new header: “If you say nothing and do nothing, you are complicit in a culture that allows this to be an epidemic.” The next one reads, “The more voices we put to these encounters, the more attention will be paid in preventing them from happening in the future.”

Many students who speak out about being raped on college campuses find it empowering; to do so gives them a chance to name what has happened to them as rape when perpetrators, college administrations, and the justice system often refuse to. The individual stories of survivors are also a way to compel others to action — many find these testimonies more moving than statistics. 

That’s what happened to author and investigative reporter Jon Krakauer when a family friend told him that she’d been raped twice. Hearing her story and watching her “unconscious[ly] attempt to annihilate herself” with drugs and alcohol compelled Krakauer to investigate a problem he’d never “taken seriously” before.

While his rigorously reported book Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town offers a stunning condemnation of local investigators, college administrators, and the criminal-justice system more broadly, Krakauer also presses survivors to come forward. “The silence is the problem,” he said in an interview with the Cut, adding, “The silence is the weapon. And if women are courageous enough to break that silence, that's huge.”

It is huge, but breaking the silence often comes at a large personal cost for survivors of rape. Calling for women to break that silence is different from supporting and listening to those who come forward. Certainly, we can commend the way speaking out has brought about change without making survivors feel like they’re failing us by not publicly disclosing their stories.

By seeking, again and again, the stories of victims to confirm a crisis of undoubted existence, we’re letting ourselves off the hook. We are demanding to be newly shocked and surprised by a widespread and well-documented problem. Politicians who’ve finally begun to fight for change on college campuses act as if each fresh disclosure makes the crisis a new discovery, rather than something that they’d failed to address until staying quiet became untenable.

If we center the campus rape conversations on getting survivors to break their silence, we are asking them to jeopardize their relationships with family members and friends, to potentially endanger their safety or face legal consequences, to subject themselves to public scrutiny — all so that we may be better educated. And by focusing our attention largely on specific students who do speak out, we risk treating a huge, systemic problem as a series of individual cases that can either prove or disprove the crisis's validity.

“Try to realize that our stories are everywhere, on every campus, and we’re not all activists like Emma or unreliable sources like Jackie,” the anonymous Columbia student wrote, adding, “Some of us are quiet about our stories even if we’re completely sure."