Following the May 17 episode of "Game of Thrones," many fans were shocked and disgusted to see the creators of the show had written in a rape experience for the character of Sansa Stark, while others seemed to think it was par for the course. Responses ran the gamut from "I'm done with the show," to "Well, it doesn't happen that way in the books, but they're combining the characters, so..." to, "Well that's what happened in medieval times." (As if rape has ever stopped happening.)
Two days later, as the internet began to calm down about Sansa's rape, Emma Sulkowicz carried her mattress across the stage at her Columbia University graduation, making good on the promise of her senior thesis project to carry a mattress with her every day until graduation, or until her accused rapist was expelled from school.
MTV News has covered both "Game of Thrones" and Emma Sulkowicz's story for a long time. We interviewed Sulkowicz back in September 2014, when the Columbia University student (now graduate) first made waves for her senior thesis project, "Carry That Weight," and have followed up with a few stories about the ways universities handle sexual assaults on campus.
We aren't in the business of trying to solve alleged crimes, so our reporting focused on the message behind Sulkowicz's art, and what it meant for victims and survivors of sexual assault. Knowing that one in five women is sexually assaulted during their time in college, we decided to elevate Sulkowicz's voice as an advocate, as opposed to playing into the potentially harmful "he said/she said" storyline.
Yesterday (May 19), we published the article, "Get Ready To Slow Clap — Emma Sulkowicz Carried Her Mattress To Her Columbia University Graduation," and almost immediately, comments and tweets popped up asking us why we were cheering her on. Many readers pointed out that Columbia had dropped the charges against Sulkowicz's accused rapist, and claimed that by supporting her art project, we were accusing an innocent person of rape.
A couple people even said Sulkowicz's accused rapist should include us in his lawsuit against Columbia University. One commenter wrote, "This story's implication -- that Sulkowicz is a victim who should be applauded despite the amount of evidence pointing in the opposite direction -- reeks of Rolling Stone-level journalism and, quite frankly, is dangerous."
A few facts worth mentioning: Every 107 seconds, a woman in the U.S. is sexually assaulted. 80 percent of assaults are committed by someone who knows the victim. If a victim reports a rape, there is only a 50.8 percent chance the accused will be arrested. Most people who are assaulted never even tell anyone.
Knowing these numbers, it actually seems dangerous not to stand by someone who is using her voice and her art to stand up for survivors and justice. It seems pretty obvious we need more people who are willing to do what Emma has done. Her art has come to symbolically represent a much larger problem than her own that remains unsolved. Ultimately, "Carry That Weight" is important because, after a year of stories, lawsuits, and questionable media coverage about sexual assault on college campuses, it has created more questions about our relationship to and understanding of rape than it has about the events the project was inspired by.
It is undeniable that Sulkowicz created a piece of art that was so visually compelling it couldn't be forgotten. But, it says a lot about the culture we live in that people still want to know exactly what happened that night in her dorm room, as if her art and the movement it created isn't validation enough of the experience she endured, and a fair critique of the unjust way colleges handle victims and perpetrators of sexual assault.
And let's be real, "Carry That Weight" wasn't an easy thing to pull off. This woman carried a 50-pound mattress around with her for the better part of a year. She walked up on stage at graduation alongside her accused rapist, and whether it was an accident or not, the president of Columbia University didn't shake her hand. Now that she has graduated, Sulkowicz says her art project is complete -- but that isn't the end of this story.
Emma Sulkowicz/Kristina Budelis
It's a common and damaging trope that women need to be assaulted in order to become strong and fight back against their oppressors. On our post, "An Expert Explains Why ‘Game Of Thrones’ Can’t ‘Just Throw’ Their Rape Story Line In One Episode," one commenter said Sansa Stark needed to be raped because "[s]he's already a bad ass that handles all the crap thrown her way...but we needed something that's gonna get her to hulk out."
Why does Sansa "need" another reason to Hulk out? Wasn't the murder of her family enough? Couldn't she be strong and be a fighter just because it was in her nature? Women, fictional or real, don't need an additional traumatizing experience for them to stand up against injustice - what we need is empathy, new narratives, and survivors who are brave enough to create art that fights rape culture, instead of perpetuating it.
If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, call the 24-hour National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (1-800-656-4673), or visit Rainn.org.
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