Illustrations by Prince Jos
A few months ago while on my way to a professor’s office hours, I saw Emma Sulkowicz with her mattress. She was crossing the street between Broadway and Amsterdam, her face strained under the burden of her bedding. Her hair shimmered aquamarine in the sunlight, a stark contrast with the bland, blue blob she carried on her shoulders. A few of her classmates generously joined her to share the weight of the mattress, and they were an image of solidarity, brought together through a collective distaste for moral repugnance.
I had always respected and supported Emma from afar, but in that moment, I admired her. Her courage has inspired activists around the country to advocate for sexual assault prevention, and despite the odds, her legacy is one of a heroine instead of a martyr.
For those who aren’t following this story, Emma Sulkowicz is the Columbia alumna who toted her mattress around campus last year to protest her own alleged sexual assault by her peer and one-time friend, Paul Nungesser. Two weeks ago, Sulkowicz secretly released a video titled Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol (This Is Not A Rape), directed by Ted Lawson. The name is an allusion to the celebrated surrealist painting, The Treachery of Images, in which René Magritte depicts a pipe but writes “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” beneath it. Said work is an exploration of reality; after all, there is no pipe in sight, only a canvas with a drawing that evokes a pipe.
I’ve never met Emma, though I’d like to. We do have mutual friends, as Columbia University is a small, tight community. And even in our small, tight community, responses to Emma’s latest project varied tremendously. Many actively chose not to watch the video. Few supported the endeavor without critique, and even fewer decried Emma like the critics on her website’s comments section. Most thoughtfully qualified their reactions, lauding their former classmate for her guts while suggesting more effective ways to incite a conversation about sexual assault.
In the news, on the other hand, reportage has been scandalizing. Some have deemed the video a sex tape, others a porno. Sulkowicz calls it performance art, and perhaps all three fit. In the film, she and an unnamed actor enter a dorm room and initiate what seems to be consensual sex until her partner grows violent, removing his condom and maliciously slapping and choking her as she screams in pain and begs him to stop. After he finishes, she lies in her bed, curled in a ball, as he quickly dresses and leaves in silence. Then, she turns onto her back, frozen. Eventually, she stands, wraps herself in a towel, grabs her linens, and returns to her room to make her bed. At the top of the screen sit a series of numbers: 08/27/2012, the date when Emma’s alleged sexual assault took place. But Emma described her rape as nonconsensual anal sex, and in a preface to the video, she wrote that “Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol is not about one night in August, 2012. It’s about your decisions, starting now. It’s only a reenactment if you disregard my words.”Inline image 1
Her words are powerful, especially when she clarifies her intentions. She explains on the tape, “You might be wondering why I’ve made myself this vulnerable. Look—I want to change the world, and that begins with you, seeing yourself.” Finally, after the countless attacks she’s faced on social media because of her mattress performance, she humbly asks her viewers to “watch kindly.”
Sulkowicz follows her video introduction with questions sorted into three categories: searching, desiring and me. She wonders, “Are you searching for proof? Proof of what?” Such a quandary is especially noteworthy, as so many expect proof of a crime that’s sometimes un-provable.
While Emma’s preface makes important points, it’s pretty prescriptive. She assigns your feelings to you, deciding that there is a right and wrong way to digest her art. Art itself is a subjective product of humanity, so her rhetoric can be confusing.
“The interpretation has already been given to us, so we only have to watch,” one Wake Forest student said.
Andy Garcia, a Columbia undergraduate, elaborated. “I respect [Emma] as a person, and I truly am sympathetic to the situation both she and Paul find themselves in because, unfortunately, at the end of the day, it’s he said/she said,” he explained. “But when you present something in the form of art, not everyone is going to have the same perspective or reaction to it. There’s going to be as many perspectives on the topic as there are people who hear about it because we all take it in differently.
“I personally didn’t think the tape was beneficial to her cause,” he continued. “I feel like simulating something like that is more provocation than catharsis. And I felt the same thing with her mattress piece in a way. But I tried to understand that maybe for her, externalizing the pain she felt through a mattress might be therapeutic. I don’t get the same feeling from the video.”
Some also view the film as a continued effort to find supporters. Before graduation last month, flyers surrounding Columbia slandered Emma as a “pretty little liar.” One of the top searches on Google for Emma Sulkowicz is “Emma Sulkowicz liar.” With the bravery to speak out against sexual assault comes very real implications, including an army of defamers who trust the alleged perpetrator. It’s only natural that Emma would want to convince people that she’s telling the truth, but a sex video may not have been her best option for achieving that.
“I think ultimately, Emma’s project is tainted by her own commentary on it. Her request that the public ‘not be party to [her rape]’ rings more like an urging to believe her testimony solely because she is testifying,” Columbia rising junior Dylan Hunzeker said. “But in reality, the facts should speak for themselves and people should investigate the facts themselves, not be discouraged from voicing their opinions under the guise of ‘participating in someone’s rape.’ I think that Paul is guilty not because Emma says he is, but because he has been proven a predator.”
I agree with some of their criticisms—about art, about method. But the problem with sexual assault is there’s no good way to approach it. There are bad ways, like flashing reactionary language onto a building during an admitted students’ weekend, as Columbia’s organization No Red Tape did in April. There are terrible ways, like printing a false fable in Rolling Stone—the one-in-a-million lie buried beneath so many honest accounts. But with as sensitive a subject as rape, however you protest will offend someone. Thankfully, Sulkowicz has tough enough skin to notice her haters and subsequently ignore them.
For a while, Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol was nowhere to be found. By the Friday morning after it was published, the tape seemed to be blocked by YouTube, and by Friday afternoon, Emma’s website, cecinestpasunviol.com, had been shut down by a DDoS attack from an unidentified source. However, both issues have now been fixed, and audiences can once again appreciate and learn from the performance as long as they notice the trigger warning and try to adhere to Emma’s rules of engagement.
I recommend watching, or at least reading the preface. It’s not fun; it’s gruesome, and terrible, and makes you want to vomit, especially if you’ve been in a similar situation. But it’s starting an essential dialogue, one that few are willing to pilot and that is becoming more and more urgent. I observe with horror as children sing along to Meghan Trainor’s “Walkashame.” I hear about my friends’ questionable sexual encounters and empathize. I don’t want to live in this kind of a world. If Emma’s one thing, she’s lionhearted, and she’s not hiding from scary ideas. It’s time we don’t, either.