Students at Harvard University helped carry the proverbial weight of sexual violence Wednesday by hefting dormitory mattresses around campus to show solidarity with a Columbia University rape survivor.
The event was part of a nation-wide Day of Action in which dozens of colleges across the U.S. held similar demonstrations in support of Emma Sulkowicz, a Columbia University art student who since September has been carrying her mattress around campus in protest of her alleged rapists’ continued enrollment at the college.
Sulkowicz plans to continue carrying her mattress for as long as her accused attacker attends the same school, or until she graduates or is expelled.
Harvard undergraduate Helen Clark stood in Harvard Yard Wednesday afternoon handing out colorful markers so passersby could write messages of support on the bed’s blue sheet.
“We’re just one group. Several groups at Harvard have organized similar demonstrations,” said Clark, a senior who is also a member of the school’s CAARE program.
“I think the support so far is amazing, and the messages of support are inspiring. So many peoplehave responded positively to the project, and hopefully when people show that this is an issue that they care about, the administration and the powers that be will pay attention,” said Clark.
Harvard administrators are “moving in the right direction” when it comes to their response to sexual violence on campus, Clark said, despite criticism that the school has demonstrated a lack of transparency and student involvement on the matter.
“I think it’s never enough – even if there is one sexual assault we haven’t done our job as well as we could – but [Harvard] is getting there. We can always do better,” said Clark.
Dozens of colleges across the nation were expected to hold similar demonstrations Wednesday.
Harvard undergrad Kara Lessin said she got involved with Wednesday’s demonstrations because she was inspired by Sulkowicz’s bravery.
“We’re college students who are being wronged and who are not being protected by our institutions,” said Lessin. “While it’s tragic that it takes a woman literally carrying around her mattress, at least people are noticing and at least it changes the dialogue.”
Sulkowicz, who has been active in protesting Columbia’s sexual assault policy and who filed a police report against her alleged rapist in May, said the performance art piece, titled “Mattress Performance” or “Carry That Weight,” contains elements of protest.
Barnard College student Allie Rickard, a close friend of Sulkowicz, helped organize Wednesday’s National Day of Action.
“The mattress symbol is important. It not only shows the struggle of a survivor, but it encourages people to come together and carry the burden together. It takes many hands,” said Rickard, adding that Columbia administrators have not directly responded to Sulkowicz or her performance art.
“The administration has continually failed to meet with students, so we’re using the National Day of Action to call on Columbia to better support survivors and to be more transparent about what they’re actually doing to help,” said Rickard.