What It's Like Being A Campus Sexual Assault Activist

12/12/2014 07:30 am ET | Updated Jan 09, 2015

Emma Sulkowicz has never once thought of herself as “Mattress Girl.” But to the Internet, that's her identity.

Sulkowicz, a Columbia University senior, became internationally known this year when she decided to carry a mattress around the New York City campus for as long as the man she says raped her remains at the Ivy League school.

As a result, right-wing pundits have dissected her story and accused her of lying about being attacked. Left-leaning news outlets call her a symbol of a campus anti-rape movement. Former friends have accused her of attention-mongering. Total strangers overwhelm her email inbox with hundreds of notes each week expressing either support or "disgusting, hateful things." Either way, Sulkowicz said, "there are too many to mentally wrap my head around," so she has stopped opening them.

The man Sulkowicz says raped her also has been accused by at least two other students. He has not spoken to the press. But his lawyer, Andrew Miltenberg, has, telling The New York Observer in October that Sulkowicz is "clearly enjoying the celebrity she's created through the perverse spectacle of carrying her mattress around campus."

This kind of backlash takes a toll. "People assume just because you're getting a lot of attention, it's all good attention, and that's what makes it desirable and what makes a person want to lie about being raped," Sulkowicz said. "All of this attention has really physically, emotionally torn me down. Sometimes I wake up and don't feel human anymore."

emma sulkowicz
Emma Sulkowicz, a Columbia University senior, says she'll carry her mattress around campus for as long as the man who she accuses of raping her remains at the school.

Over the past two years, college students speaking out about sexual assault experiences have led an unprecedented wave of activism, influencing the national conversation. The results so far: A task force set up by President Barack Obama, a White House campaign targeting men to prevent sexual violence, several bills in Congress, a hoard of state-level committees, and repeated government hearings about rape on campus. The attention also has led to a record number of federal investigations into schools allegedly mishandling rape cases -- 90 as of this week.

A recent bombshell Rolling Stone article about an alleged gang-rape at the University of Virginia seemed to show an extreme instance of sexual violence on campus. Yet, as questions mount about the article's reporting, some pundits have begun to suggest the controversy fits a movement that, as one said, "romanticizes being a victim."

The reality for a sexual assault survivor-turned-activist is anything but rosy. Many women take time off of school -- some go back and graduate, others abandon their degree. Those who remain on campus are sometimes targeted by graffiti or stalked by reporters, alienated from friends. Faculty members who have gotten involved say they have been subject to retaliation from their employer, or have lost their job altogether.

"I had no idea this was coming," Sulkowicz said.

Sometimes, the reporters seeking to tell her story leave email messages in her inbox. Others are more aggressive. One caught her walking to class. After Sulkowicz repeatedly declined an interview, she said the reporter grabbed her backpack and said, "I'm putting my business card in here." Another reporter mistakenly sent an email meant for a colleague to Sulkowicz with the subject line, "Mattress girl," and the text, "I have her contact info and I'm going to get her." Sulkowicz said she thought at first it was a death threat. Several graduate students have hounded her with pitches to make short documentaries about her protest. She still doesn't know if her alleged rapist will be in any of her classes next semester, but she'll carry the mattress regardless.

"It's not something I want to do, it's not a happy thing, I'm not joyously carrying this around," Sulkowicz said.

Sulkowicz told her story to the student magazine Blue & White, the New York Post and The Huffington Post in the 2013-14 academic year, but did so anonymously. She went public at a press conference with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) in April, three months before a group of senators introduced legislation aimed at combating campus rape at a press conference featuring Sulkowicz and several other assault survivors. The week before that press conference, Sulkowicz vomited several times out of nervousness.

"Even if senators come out and support you, the public can still tear you apart," said Dana Bolger, co-founder of the advocacy group Know Your IX, and a survivor who faced harassment for her activism at Amherst College. "Somebody told me to go play in traffic," she recalled.

"Sometimes I wake up and don't feel human anymore."

Bolger gained notoriety on Amherst's campus in Massachusetts when she began speaking to national media in 2012. The campus was in the news after former undergrad Angie Epifano wrote an op-ed in the campus newspaper that went viral about her negative experience reporting her rape.

"People were outraged, then there was a pretty quick turnaround and people were done," said Bolger, now graduated and living in Washington, D.C. "It was like, 'We read Angie's article, we had a protest, let's move on now and not talk about it.'"

But Bolger couldn't move on. She continued to write a blog and speak out on campus, for which, she said, people called her "rude" and "disruptive." Bolger said she received nasty emails and tweets, and overheard comments like, "Who's this fucking Angie Epifano making my degree worthless?"

Alexandra Brodsky, a Yale University law student and co-founder of Know Your IX, recalled similar pushback from alumni when she helped file a complaint against her school in 2011. She said some complained of constantly hearing about the issue at cocktail parties.

"I remember thinking, huh, that's interesting. I resent having been sexually assaulted," Brodsky said. "I'll just never believe a school's reputation should be prioritized over the safety and equality of its students -- which sounds uncontroversial, but was very much counter to what we heard from classmates and alumni."

Similar backlash played out at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at Swarthmore College in suburban Philadelphia, where women noticed graffiti mocking them as rape victims. Dartmouth College activists were harassed for months in the spring and summer of 2013 on a popular anonymous forum, Bored@Baker, only accessible to students on the Hanover, New Hampshire, campus. One survivor's dorm was broken into, and others received online threats of rape and death.

"I had nowhere to go. I had to stay in my dorm and I felt unsafe, always," said Andrea Pino, a rape survivor who was among those filing a federal complaint against UNC. "And it got to the point where it felt like I couldn't be a student anymore."

Pino said she became anxious, to the point where she was hospitalized five times. She feared going back to campus and instead elected to just take six classes online. She eventually graduated, but later than planned, and it may be years before the federal investigation concludes.

"Everyone I know who has filed a complaint has not had a college experience," Pino said. Going to a party, after appearing in local and national newspapers, is nearly impossible without dealing with intoxicated hecklers and skeptics.

If it's not a heckler, Sulkowicz said, it's someone who just wants to talk about rape. "No matter where I am, who I'm with, or what I'm doing. Going to a party and just having fun is a thing of the past."

andrea pino
Andrea Pino and Annie Clark, co-founders of End Rape On Campus, speak with senators about legislation designed to tackle college sexual assault.

Survivors who have gone public say they are constantly harassed in person and online, and are the subject of death and rape threats from people who don't believe they were assaulted. And as discrepancies of an account of gang rape at the University of Virginia in a widely read Rolling Stone article coming to light, survivors said they fear harassment may intensify.

The UVA student at the center of the Rolling Stone article, identified as Jackie, has been outed by fringe bloggers offering cash rewards for her identity and other information. Photos and personal information have been posted on the Internet, a practice called "doxxing."

The former Florida State University student who accused Heisman winner Jameis Winston of sexual assault tried to keep her identity secret, too, only to be doxxed and publicly named by Winston’s attorney. Though no mainstream news outlet has used her name, some blogs have started threads that collect photos of Winston’s alleged victim from her days in high school and college. One photo that appears to depict her dancing with Winston in a bar circulates with the caption, "Looks consensual to me."

According to Emily Renda, a survivor from UVA, both she and Jackie had been harassed on campus prior to the Rolling Stone article, for speaking about sexual violence.

One night in March 2014, as Renda was walking near the college bars, three men she recognized from a fraternity where she’d given a presentation on sexual assault cornered her. "You hate all men," was one thing Renda remembers the drunk frat brothers shouting, before calling her a "feminazi bitch." They added, "'We're not the problem,' which is kind of ironic," Renda said.

There’s not much these campus activists can do to silence the backlash.

Stetson University law professor Peter Lake said the young activists were private individuals "who are suffering very personal wrongs," but have been transformed into limited public figures because they’re "involved in matters of public importance." The line between private person and public figure isn’t always clear, Lake said, nor is the threshold for what constitutes a true threat or inflicts emotional distress.

Because these women have voluntarily come forward, it may be even harder for them to prove defamation, according to Ross Miller of the Fordham University School of Law.

"Just because you receive a mean email or tweet doesn't mean you can necessarily do anything about it," Miller said.

Annie Clark, a UNC alumna who co-founded End Rape On Campus with Pino and a few other women, said they put their names and faces with their stories and complaints so they could be "relatable." All of them already knew of other women who'd been assaulted, but either didn't report, or didn't want to ever discuss it publicly. Clark said she’s reminded of this every time a new story goes out, and a flood of new survivors come forward.

"We're not the same people we were a year ago," Pino said.

The women working for End Rape On Campus have become a de facto emergency hotline, fielding what can sometimes be dozens of suicide calls in a month, and they can come at 3 in the morning. Sulkowicz, who worked with the group preparing the complaint against Columbia, is stopped multiple times every day by strangers who have been assaulted, and often describe their assaults in full detail.
"We're not the same people we were a year ago."
“When a complete stranger confides in you that they’re a survivor, it’s a lot to deal with,” Sulkowicz said. “So many people have come out to me. As much as I want to be there for every single person on Earth, it’s a lot of stress.”

Becoming the public face of a protest for some activists has backfired, burdening them beyond what young people can handle.

The irony, of course, is that all of the women believe they were treated terribly by their schools after reporting sexual assaults, something University of Oregon researcher Jennifer Freyd calls “institutional betrayal.” Almost none of them said they would trust their school to step in and stop harassment, or to help them if they get overwhelmed.

"Most people and survivors I work with have lost more in academics, in classes, and loans, jobs, relationships with their friends, with their family, going public and talking about this," Clark said. "While I wouldn't change my decision, it has definitely been very hard. It's not easy. It's not fun."

Some critics have accused the activists of profiting from the publicity. The truth is the complete opposite. If they give a speech, there’s no check. If they participate in a documentary, TV show or magazine photo shoot, there is no payday. Covering the rent can become a significant challenge.

"Most of us were either full-time students or working somewhere," Clark explained. "It almost becomes a second job that you're not getting paid for. At one point, Andrea [Pino] and I were working in a tent and getting WiFi from a frozen yogurt shop. So if anyone thinks this was somehow monetarily beneficial, it's a complete misunderstanding."

Clark, for one, left her job at the University of Oregon and now has a part-time job at a bakery. She and Pino live in Los Angeles now, devoting much of their time to the cause. Brodsky and Bolger of Know Your IX are often busy working with lawmakers and media, or writing at Feministing.com. Sulkowicz, still at Columbia, is trying to make it through finals and her last semester. Many other complainants who work with these women and haven't dropped out of college are looking for work following graduation.

"It's still something that's really difficult for me to pinpoint, but it does boil down to a culture of disbelief of survivors," said Wagatwe Wanjuki, who left Tufts University after criticizing the school for its response to her assault.

"There's really nothing to gain, it's not a lucrative act in the least,” Wanjuki noted. “It's very hard, and difficult and sometimes it can be a dangerous thing to do."

For all of the stress, these women also have created a network of support. Whether it's harassment, an article or comment that triggers memories, or simply undone work, they have a private Facebook network for encouragement. A frequent admonition is "never read the comment section," otherwise you might notice postings like, "Emma is ISIS. Let's bomb her. Her mattress makes a good target."

Brodsky said she's heard from current students and alumni who had been assaulted decades before, who felt encouraged by their activism. Some faculty members have quietly complimented the activists for coming forward.

"We supported each other through it," Brodsky said of her group of activists at Yale. But she cautioned they "were very lucky." Many other complainants had deal with "terrible pushback" without help, she said.

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