Georgetown’s Red Square included more than its usual fare of tabling student groups and farmers market tents on Wednesday. Pillows and mattresses bearing red tape in the shape of an “X” or painted slogans proclaiming support for sexual assault survivors overshadowed the rest of the crowd. Sponsored and organized by Georgetown University Take Back the Night, GUSA, and Georgetown Sexual Assault Peer Educators, the display was part of Carry That Weight’s national day of collective action.
Uniting college campuses worldwide, Carry That Weight takes its name from the senior thesis of Columbia University visual arts student Emma Sulkowicz, a sexual assault survivor who was allegedly raped by a classmate in her dorm room as a sophomore. In response, Sulkowicz decided in September of this year to carry her mattress around campus until her rapist either voluntarily leaves or is dismissed by the university.
According to former GUTBTN president and current senior board member Haley Maness (NHS ’15), the Oct. 29 day of action was organized in solidarity with sexual assault survivors and in an effort to raise public awareness of the issue’s persistence. As reported by the Huffington Post, the national day of collective action involved over 10,000 students at 130 national and international universities.
Kyra Hanlon (SFS ’16), who helped staff the Red Square table, suggested that social media played a key role in driving the event. “Columbia students organized a national day of action … inspired by [Sulkowicz’s performance], and they posted a Facebook event about it … encouraging college campuses to participate in this and to host their own adaptation of Carry that Weight,” she said.
Hanlon characterized Carry That Weight as a grassroots movement, and helped plan the Georgetown event via Facebook and email. After the event, GUTBTN representatives estimated that up to 200 individuals visited Red Square, carried mattresses or pillows, wore red tape, or contributed to event organization.
“The mattresses and the pillows are representative of where a majority of sexual assaults on campus happen, which is in peoples’ dorm rooms, on peoples’ beds, on their mattresses,” she said. “[It represents the need to] remove the red tape that survivors have to go through to get justice. It’s a really visible, public reminder on campus of sexual assaults, where they happen, and what people have to go through.”
National estimates of sexual assault incidents suggest that one in five women and one in 33 men will be victims of sexual assault during their college careers, numbers with which Georgetown closely aligns. Both Maness and Hanlon praised administrative and government initiatives combating the problem, including Georgetown Health Education Services’ I Am Ready program and federal and state government probes into campus sexual assault.
Hanlon characterized the Red Square event as a message to Georgetown administration. “A solid and growing movement of students will hold them accountable to make policies that don’t marginalize survivors,” she said.
Maness emphasized, however, that awareness of sexual assault is a “continually growing movement,” and that only continued grassroots advocacy will be able to create “big, overarching change.”
Chandini Jha (COL ‘16), another student organizer of the event, stressed that although Georgetown Carry That Weight and GUTBTN are not endorsing any specific policy goals, the cultural importance is significant. “We do believe that this physical ‘carrying of the weight’ of sexual violence needs to translate into student activism and support,” she wrote in an email to the Voice.
Two hours into the action day, a student carrying a mattress approached the Red Square table. Recognizing him, nearby onlookers erupted into applause. One left the table and ran to join him. Mattress aloft, the two of them together marched the symbol of their message out of Red Square.
“Part of what this day is really about is just being very visible and public about our support and solidarity with all survivors of sexual assault,” Hanlon said. “We are standing in solidarity with Emma, and our event is inspired by her, but…we really want to make sure that students know that sexual assault does happen at Georgetown. It happens in our own beds and to our friends. But there’s also a group of students who care about this issue, who want to see change happen. Students can join in this dialogue and really help make that change possible.”
Photo by Andrew Sullivan