Carry that Weight or Let it Go?

Instead of being simple and fun, I always tried to keep my posts informative and hope readers, not limited to Public Health students, can learn something from it. Therefore, continuing with the topic of my last blog about how to prevent sexual assault in general, I would like to spend some time to talk about the importance of consent and communication based on real example.

This past May, Columbia University’s “mattress girl,” Emma Sulkowicz, carried her dorm-room mattress across the graduation stage. She started her “carry that weight” performance art in 2014, with the intention of raising public awareness of sexual assaults on campus, which Emma experienced in 2012. The accused student was found “not responsible” by a university inquiry in 2013, and the district attorney’s office declined to pursue criminal charges due to lack of reasonable suspicion (New York Magazine).

I am not writing this blog to stand up for either side. There are, however some lessons we can learn from this incident. Emma Sulkowicz said the incident began as a consensual sexual encounter, but that she changed her mind during the encounter. The accused did not stop, forced her, and denied the allegation strongly, insisting that the encounter was entirely consensual. Assuming neither side is lying, it is incredibly likely that this incident could have been avoided with better communication.

Communication is always essential in healthy sexual relationships. Before reading through the Michigan Youth Consent Day website, I thought deciding whether a sexual relationship can be consensual or not is a gray and confusing area. For instance, how does one person know if another means what is said or whether it is some kind of flirtation when saying “no” during a sexual encounter. Or, perhaps one partner agrees to a sexual encounter while awake, then passes out in the middle. Will the other partner become a rapist since the encounter is not, technically, consensual?

After reading through the articles and resources on the MOASH website, I learned that these situations can be easily distinguished. Regarding my questions above, MY Consent Day addresses them specifically in the Consent vs. NonConsent lists. From the “sober” and “voluntary” tabs, I now understand that incapacitated or unconscious people are not able to give consent and that this rule is protected by law. And once a person says “no,” it does not matter whether any kind of sexual behavior has happened previously; a sexual assault is occurring if the other continues with the sexual interaction.

Now, back to Emma.The backlash of an alleged sexual assault can have a huge impact, not just on the victim, but on people around the victim, as well. I appreciate Emma’s courage, but I do not believe that I would be able to respond similarly. The performance art definitely drew a lot of public attention, but she will probably be recognized and defined as the “mattress girl” for the rest of her life. Moreover, her conduct could bring pressure to her family members. She seemed to have full support of her family, however, from my upbringing, I could image that my parents would be shamed if their girl suddenly became famous by sharing her rape story. On the other side, the “carry that weight” performance is also a nightmare for the accused student. According to the news, his name was written on campus bathroom walls and distributed on flyers, and he was shunned by other students and subjected to threats, even though he was never charged. Studying at a top university should be a great life experience. For these two students, however, it clearly was not.

I believe that, even with better communication, there will always be gray areas which make it quite challenging to seek justice in sexual assault cases, including the absence of witnesses. However, understanding the basic concepts of how to identify consensual sexual behavior is crucial in order to develop healthy sexual relationships. MY Consent Day provides an abundance of resources. We, as college students, have to protect ourselves by learning to communicate with each other, respect each other, and reach consent in sexual relationships.

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