Each day of term since September Emma Sulkowicz, a 22-year-old art student at New York’s Columbia University, has been heaving a blue single mattress around the campus. It is her final-year thesis, a piece of performance art entitled Mattress Performance: Carry That Weight. But it is also a very public protest. Sulkowicz alleges that in 2012 she was raped by a fellow student in her own bed, and has vowed to carry the mattress around college until he is expelled.
Her alleged attacker was not a stranger to her. They had had sex twice, months earlier, but this time, she says, he performed acts upon her that were not consensual. Like the vast majority of victims of sexual crimes, Sulkowicz didn’t go to the police, but she did report him to the college authorities. Seven months later they found him “not responsible”, the result, she claims, of Columbia mishandling her case. (The university is currently under investigation for the matter and cannot comment.)
And so her protest began, capturing imaginations and gaining traction far beyond the Manhattan campus: within a month similar protests took place as far away as Bangor in Wales, and Hillary Clinton said that the image of Sulkowicz carrying her mattress “should haunt all of us”.It is as far from the notion of a cowed, silent and anonymous victim of rape as it is possible to conjure, but increasingly Sulkowicz represents a new trend: women who refuse to keep quiet. In Britain victims of rape and sexual assault have been granted anonymity since 1976, partly to encourage the reporting of crimes.
But 79 per cent of an estimated 78,000 rapes each year still go unreported. And some, like Sarah Green, the acting director of End Violence against Women, believe that anonymity might actually be counterproductive.
“There is an enormous amount of shame surrounding sexual violence in our culture,” she says. “But you’ve done nothing wrong: you should be seen as a victim of crime, the same as if your house had been broken into or your car had been stolen. You shouldn’t need to be anonymous.”
The feminist writer and academic Germaine Greer has gone further, declaring that victims of rape should “stand up there and face him” in court. Greer, who was herself raped in her youth, said on Question Time in 2013, “You shouldn’t be shamed. He is the person who should be ashamed. The idea that this has happened has somehow damaged you, made you a person who can’t show her face in public… that really doesn’t work for me.”
More and more survivors of rape and sexual assault are choosing to waive their right to anonymity. Until recently, the best-known case of someone doing this in Britain was the Ealing Vicarage rape victim Jill Saward, who was assaulted in 1986 and became an outspoken campaigner. But a new wave of women, from students to celebrities, are also coming forward and telling their stories, including Lady Gaga, Kesha, Samantha Morton, Pamela Anderson, Janice Dickinson and Joan Collins.
In Britain it may partly be a matter of there being safety in numbers. Historic accusations against Jimmy Savile soon snowballed once the first few became public; and the Rotherham report brought the issue of sexual exploitation into the headlines like never before.
But other cases, such as the accusations swirling around Bill Cosby and the Canadian broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi, suggest a broader trend. They point to the possibility that as well as a growing confidence that alleged victims will be taken seriously, there may also be a lessening of stigma, and an increased appreciation of the fact that few of these crimes involve a stranger – perhaps even someone with whom they were involved.
Lena Dunham, the creator and star of the television series Girls, went public with her story of having been raped while a student in her recent book, Not That Kind of Girl. “I was definitely responding to what is in the air right now, with a lot of women saying, ‘I am not going to keep this reality a secret anymore’,” she tells me.
Many of those now speaking out attest to not even knowing themselves how to perceive or articulate their experiences until much later, often when others hear about it and give it a name. In Dunham’s case, she knew it was aggressive and non-consensual but, as she describes in her book, it was her roommate who told her, “You were raped.”
When the Cambridge University student Francesca Ebel was 17, she was raped at a party by a boy in her social circle, she says. “I got pretty drunk and my friends put me to bed upstairs,” she recalls. “I woke up to the guy I had been kissing earlier in the evening crashing into the room, and climbing on top of me. I remember saying no and trying to push him off me, but I just couldn’t. When he’d finished, he got up and went outside, told all our friends that we’d just had sex, and had what he called a ‘post-coital cigarette’.”
Like Dunham, in the immediate aftermath she was unable to articulate her attack as rape. “I was humiliated and embarrassed, and I remember feeling that what had just happened was totally wrong but I don’t think I immediately realised the gravity of it,” Ebel says. “I also blamed myself – I’d been drunk and I’d been kissing him earlier in the night, so surely that must mean that it had been consensual?”
But last summer Ebel learnt how few rapes are reported. She says, “It triggered something in me,” and she decided to write about it for the university newspaper under her own name. “I didn’t want my rape to define me, but I wanted something positive to come out of the experience. I wanted to put a face to a story that has happened to so many people. Anonymity is disempowering. I think it’s much more effective to come out and say, ‘I am a normal person, this happened to me, this is how it affected my life.’”
ike Sulkowicz, Ellie Cosgrave responded creatively to the assault she experienced in 2011. A 27-year-old researcher at University College London, Cosgrave was on a hot, crowded Tube train when a man pressed against her from behind.
“He started breathing heavily down my neck, and I could feel that he was getting aroused,” Cosgrave recalls. “It was awkward and stressful, but I just didn’t think he could be doing it on purpose. As I got off and walked down the platform, I thought, ‘Wow, I am really sweating, because I could feel it dripping down the back of my legs.’”
It was only when she reached her desk and discovered the back of her tights were streaked with semen that she realised what had happened. Her immediate response – revulsion and shock – was initially tempered with baffled amusement. “I was embarrassed, but it didn’t seem all that serious, and I even made jokes about it,” she says. Gradually, however, she became angry and frustrated, and felt unable to stay silent any longer. “I felt I really needed to do something about it.”
So, 18 months after the assault, Cosgrave returned to the spot where it had taken place with a sign explaining what had happened to her, and performed a dance she had devised herself while a friend recorded it. “I am a dancer in my spare time, so that naturally comes to me as a form of expression, and it seemed a very empowering way to tell my story,” she says. “My aim was to try to remove some of the stigma of it, and to say, ‘This wasn’t my fault. This isn’t OK.’”
Her message was certainly received; the YouTube video went viral. “Since then, people all around the world have contacted me and shared their stories,” she says. “For many of them it has been the first time they have ever told anyone. Not even their close friends or family knew. There is something liberating about one woman standing up and saying this is what happened and it is not my fault. It gives permission for other people to stand up and say the same thing about their own experiences.”
At Columbia University Sulkowicz’s performance-protest has prompted others to come forward too, such as her fellow student Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, 21. She alleges that in the summer of 2012, she was raped in a fraternity house close to campus. “I was with friends and we’d all been out drinking in bars with some older boys,” she says. “I was very drunk – I didn’t really know my limits very well back then.” She passed out and awoke to find herself being raped by one of the boys they had spent the evening with.
“I remember being, like, ‘Whoa, get out!’ but then I passed out again,” she says. “And then I remember coming to on a rooftop without my underwear on.”
In the following months she blamed herself. “I thought, ‘What have I done? That was my fault. What did I get myself into?’ I didn’t even know what I should call it.” She became anxious and depressed. “I had always been an extrovert, a confident, get-out-there-and-shake-things-up kind of person, and I’m not comfortable saying, ‘I’m sad,’ or asking for help,” she admits.
But when Sulkowicz – whom she had known for three years – took up her mattress, a light bulb went on. “I thought, ‘Oh, activism. That I can do.’” Ridolfi-Starr founded a group called No Red Tape, which exists to challenge what they see as the university’s failure to address campus sexual violence.
Like Cosgrave, who has never publicly named her attacker, Ridolfi-Starr has no plans to seek a conviction. “I made a decision not to report it,” she says. “It never really felt like an option – I knew I’d never have had enough evidence – but I also don’t need to prove that it happened in those systems for it to be true.”
While securing a conviction is obviously crucial, perhaps surprisingly it is not the priority for most victims of sexual violence. “Survivors of rape and sexual assault always say the most important thing for them is to be believed,” Green says. “And for shame to be dispelled along with any notion that this is their fault.”
She believes this is the motivation of the women who have recently gone public with allegations of rapes and assaults carried out decades ago by celebrities such as Cosby and Savile. (Cosby is unlikely to face charges as the maximum time for a case to be brought has passed.) “I also think part of the reason the Cosby allegations have gained traction is because people are now paying attention to this topic,” Ridolfi-Starr says. “Some women have been trying to speak out for a long time but nobody was listening.”
That students seem to be leading the way in this rejection of anonymity is not insignificant. “Sexual violence is more prevalent on campuses; female students are one of the most at-risk groups in society,” Anna Bradshaw of Oxford University Student Union says. The combination of a highly sexualised environment, historically poor policies to tackle sexual crimes and heavy drinking produces what Green calls a “conducive context” for sexual violence.
Various initiatives are under way to address the problem. Columbia students are required to have “unambiguous communication and mutual agreement” before sexual acts or risk consequences, while consent workshops now run in many British universities, including Oxford. In America, where campus assaults are currently a hot-button topic, consent is being formulated into government policy. Last September President Obama launched “It’s On Us”, an initiative to tackle campus rape.
Social media, while open to abuse, can also help women both to reclaim their self-esteem and mobilise outrage. Last year, after a 16-year-old girl from Texas was allegedly raped, photos of her unconscious and naked from the waist down were posted online and mocked by other teens. Soon afterwards, she took to the internet too, posting a picture of herself, with a fist raised in defiance. Thousands quickly declared their support, posting similar pictures.
“There’s definitely a new sense of confidence, and I think that virtual communities have played a huge role in facilitating that,” Ridolfi-Starr says. “Accessing people who tell you, ‘You are doing the right thing, we are there with you,’ makes a huge difference.”
“The power lies in silencing women,” Cosgrave says. “If they are silenced, then maybe they will think it is their fault. Maybe they will feel powerless and alone and won’t do anything about it, or even realise that what is happening to them is wrong. If women are silenced, then we don’t have to change anything. But if women can be heard, then they can reclaim their power together. We will get there, even if it takes 500 years. We just have to not shut up about it.”