Navy blue and awkwardly lengthy, the standard residence hall mattress is difficult to lug around. Typically a twin XL, its bedbug-proof material makes it difficult to grasp without constant re-adjustment. Walking with it above one’s head takes the balance of an Olympian. The weight of the object seems to double with every step.
Without a helping hand, it can be a burdensome weight to carry.
And, yet, this intentional lack of mobility did little to dissuade Fordham students from lugging their own mattresses to McGinley Lawn on Oct. 29, where an organized speak-out was held to raise the voices of victims of sexual assault at colleges around the country.
Hosted by Women’s Empowerment and the United Student Government Sexual Misconduct Task Force, the speak-out, officially titled “Carry That Weight,” was part of the National Day of Action, which ultimately comprised more than 130 colleges and universities.
Centrally organized by two Columbia University students, the campaign was largely inspired by the work of Emma Sulkowicz, a Columbia student who drew national attention when she vowed to carry her mattress across the Ivy League campus until her alleged perpetrator, a fellow student, is removed from campus.
Following in Sulkowicz’s footsteps, the two Columbia students, Zoe Ridolfi-Starr and Allie Rickard, invited other students to carry their pillows and mattresses on Oct. 29 to bring awareness to the issue of sexual assault on campuses and what they see as the inability of administrators to manage such injustices in a useful and understanding manner.
While students managed to bring some mattresses to McGinley Lawn for the afternoon event, most who participated in the day of action opted to carry their pillows around campus for the day.
Some were artfully patterned, others dully colorless, but all invoked the sacredness of personal space and served as tokens of solidarity.
“Emma [Sulkowicz]’s work is very conscious of the way it invokes public and private space and the way it adds a physicality (and therefore a powerful visibility) to the burden of sexual assault,” said Genevieve McNamara, FCRH ‘17, a core member of Women’s Empowerment and one of the organizers of the event.
She continued, “In some ways it alleviates part of the burden, because it is necessarily impossible to erase Emma’s identity as a survivor when she carries a dorm mattress around with her, and one of the greatest burdens survivors face is the way society denies or invalidates their experiences.”
But the visibility of the display often does little to eradicate criticism and shun blame, McNamara said, which only adds to the weight being carried.
In addition to urging students to carry around mattresses and pillows, the day’s event doubled as a speak-out, a tool used by Women’s Empowerment and USG Sexual Misconduct Task Force to give power to the voices of those who say they feel silenced by administrators, victim-blamers and others who invalidate their experiences.
To combat that silencing, the speak-out provided an opportunity for members of the community—men and women, survivors and allies, undergraduates and graduate students—to share their experiences with the nearly 50 community members who stood on McGinley lawn in addition to the hundreds of others who heard the amplified voices while passing by the centrally-located event.
“I did not wear that dress as an invitation,” said one of the first students to recount her experience in front of fellow students. “Saying ‘him’ kind of makes me uncomfortable, like I am giving it some kind of agency I don’t want it to have.”
Her words, interspersed by extended pauses, were met with claps and snaps of encouragement. Wiping away tears, she continued.
Another student recalled an encounter he found increasingly difficult to erase from his memory.
“I am in shock, as the smell sits in my nose,” he recalled as he read aloud from a poem he wrote. “It still sits in my nose.”
While much of the focus remained on anecdotes, there also was a focus on what it means to be an ally to a survivor, highlighted by a number of suggested tips on how to support a survivor of sexual assault.
To emphasize the pervasiveness of sexual assault, a student read statistics aloud, as well. According to one statistic, nine out every 10 victims of sexual assault are female. According to another, 97 percent of rapists never spend a day in jail.
“As someone who is not a survivor of sexual assault, I think that the publicness and central location of the event increased the urgency I felt to stand in solidarity and protect the survivors who were present,” said Caroline Corwin, FCRH ’15, an organizer and participant of the event.
“After all, that is my job as an ally, especially when survivors are making themselves vulnerable in front of strangers while literally anyone could walk by,” she added.
With the event’s coordinators urging attendees to step up to the microphone and speak aloud through the event, many of the stories were improvised, relying upon recent experiences to highlight the weight students find themselves carrying.
One student discussed the peculiar looks he received when wearing a shirt with the words “this is what a feminist looks like” printed on it.
One of the last students to speak described her initial shock after an unwanted encounter, followed by her hesitance to tell anybody else about the experience.
“I was just confused, I didn’t know what was happening,” said the student, noting that she had never told anybody what happened to her before. “I did not want allies because I did not feel like a survivor in the least bit.”
“But this,” she said in front of the crowd of about 50 students, “is a huge improvement for me.”
This article appears differently that its print edition following the removal of a number of student names and an amended quote. The Ram regrets the decision to include the names that have been removed in this version.
Joseph Vitale is the Managing Editor for The Fordham Ram.