Beyond "Mattress Girl": The Case for a More Complex Campus Sexual Assault Media Narrative


It's not often that an undergraduate thesis lands a student on the cover of New York magazine. But that's what happened to Emma Sulkowicz, whom most people equate with the media-created shorthand "mattress girl," in 2014. 

In "Carry That Weight," her performance art thesis at Columbia University, Sulkowicz examined her own experience with sexual assault. The piece, and the media storm that followed, quickly positioned her as a public figure and face of the broader campus sexual assault movement.

The media coverage, however, "didn't make it clear that I was a human too, and not just a hero that could change the world," Sulkowicz told Mic. "There was the expectation that I would give a speech at every rally, [that] I would perform for everyone and say stuff. But that's a big expectation to have for just one person."

The extensive media coverage of sexual assault has been both advantageous and detrimental for the campus sexual assault movement. Most coverage of rape and sexual assault hasn't fully reflected the nuances of survivors' and activists' lived experiences, which studies confirm are still widespread. One 2015 Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll that found 25% of college-aged women report having experienced "unwanted sexual incidents" at school, and a new 2016 study revealed a similar finding.

Advocates have long understood the importance of media coverage and its unparalleled ability to amplify their messages, provide education and connection for survivors, hold authorities accountable and, ideally, prevent sexual assault. 

But media narratives about survivors have often perpetuated and reflected how the broader culture sees and understands survivors: a single story and a perfect victim. More often than not, high-profile survivors and activists are presented as a neatly packaged, but ultimately incomplete, narrative.

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The reality of rape is much more complex and the inability to see survivors' full experiences can prevent solutions as well. In Sulkowicz's case, the survivor felt forced to sacrifice her own identity to perform a role she wasn't comfortable with or equipped to play.

"Survivors thought they were supposed to turn to me for help, and I couldn't provide that help," she said. Sulkowicz said that soon after her project gained publicity, survivors began to contact her and look to her as a source of education and support. But she did not have education in trauma or assault counseling, nor much experience with activism in relation to the movement.

"When I made this piece, it wasn't like I'm going to bring awareness to sexual assault on campus," Sulkowicz said. "That wasn't my goal. I didn't really even have a goal. It was just an emotional thing that happened to me that I was responding to with art."

Sulkowicz said she became frustrated by what she called a "loss of consent" — where again, someone demanded her attention when permission wasn't granted.

"I'll go to the grocery store and somebody will recognize me, and I have to talk about rape while I'm trying to buy groceries," Sulkowicz said. 

"I don't really have any safe spaces anymore because I am everybody else's safe space."

Many survivors use the media to seek justice. For years, systems supposedly designed to prevent and punish alleged perpetrators of sexual assault — like the police or campus adjudication processes — not only failed to do so, but even turned on survivors themselves. Survivors also still report experiencing backlash and resistance from their administrations when they attempt to seek recourse for assault. In fact, college administrations remain in denial about the phenomenon altogether: 91% of the 11,000 colleges that disclosed annual crime data reported there were zero incidences of rape on their campuses in 2014, according to a recent American Association of University Women report.

Resistant administrators may not have listened to survivors out of a sense of justice or even legal obligation but perhaps, survivors reasoned, they would pay attention should their reputation — and the subsequent threat of donor and tuition dollars — be put at risk.

"The relationship between the movement, individual survivors and the media really stems from the inaction of universities," survivor and activist Wagatwe Wanjuki told Mic

Survivors and activists looked for other options, and found the media was willing to hear and believe them.

"Schools were a lot more responsive to public shaming" and media coverage was ultimately an "effective strategy" to force schools to address assault as a serious issue, Wanjuki said.

In addition to pressuring administrators, publicly identifying with assault likely benefited many survivors influenced by the stigma that still surrounds the experience. "One of the biggest contributors to rape culture is silence," Wanjuki said. "While a lot of people have been in the dark and it might have been harder to find some survivors who were willing to speak, I think we are way past that now."

Student survivors also arguably served as a gateway for the media to cover the phenomenon more broadly. For example, Wanjuki pointed to the media's recent widespread coverage of presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders' comment that campus sexual assault should be handled by the police — particularly, the relatively nuanced discussion of problematic reporting systems.

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There is no such thing as a "perfect victim." Surviving sexual assault rarely aligns with the sexist notion of the "perfect victim" often upheld in our culture — of idealized virginal purity and simplified fallacies about rapists' identities or the nature of survivors' relationships to them. The socially accepted "perfect" survivor doesn't have "[a history of] alcohol or drug abuse, is preferably a virgin, preferably white, preferably demure, preferably quiet," Andrea Pino, activist and co-founder of End Rape on Campus, told Mic. But that's not "what real rape actually is," she added. "It's often messy, survivors often don't know what happened, who it was and even if they do, they don't see it as sexual assault right away, much less rape."

In reality, survivors of trauma deal with their experiences in myriad ways, including many that clash with the presumed actions of a "perfect victim." And it can often lead many to doubt the veracity of their claims. Many survivors, like Sulkowicz, may continue to talk or even stay with their assailants, for example, and the vast majority of campus rape survivors don't report the crime immediately. Many are unable to accurately recall the specific events of their assault.

And yet, despite the probable good intentions of reporters involved, many media outlets tried to frame survivors this way — and fit them into narrowly relatable and sympathetic narratives that run counter to these facts. It's a frame that not only damages survivors themselves, but also the movement at large. One need look no further for evidence of this than the narrative of "Jackie," the survivor at the center of the notorious Rolling Stone article "A Rape on Campus," whose account of assault was eventually determined false.

In response to the revelation of Jackie's lie, many were quick to overlook the fact that, according to the FBI, only about 2-8% of rape allegations are false, and point to "Jackie" as discrediting survivors and hurting the movement. Others, however, noted that the story's problem lay more with the media's representation of survivors than the survivors themselves: Namely, the ultimately impossible attempt to explore the movement and phenomenon of assault itself through the lens of a single survivor or single narrative of surviving. 

This is, in fact, exactly what Rolling Stone reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely attempted to do. The opening paragraph of the Columbia Journalism Review's investigation of her piece states that Rubin Erdely began the process of reporting by "searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show 'what it's like to be on campus now ... where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there's this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture.'"

The problem extends beyond single reporters. Between Sept. 1, 2014, and Aug. 31, 2015, men wrote 55% of the stories about high school and college sexual assault in the top-circulation U.S. newspapers and wire services, according to a 2015 Women's Media Center report. Women wrote less than one-third (and the remaining stories omitted bylines altogether). The same report found that significantly more female journalists both interviewed alleged victims and explored the impact of the alleged attack on them, whereas male journalists were more likely to note the impact of these allegations on perpetrators.

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The danger of a single rape narrative: Plenty of survivors have been overlooked in the mainstream media altogether. For example, the way in which race affects assault and impacts survivors' experiences, not to mention survivors of color themselves, has been all but ignored in the mainstream media.

Although she's "never identified as a white person," Sulkowicz felt that sometimes, "when people found it was politically expedient, they would lump me in with white victims' perfect narrative, and then when people found it was politically expedient they'd lump me in with stereotypes about women of color simply because I'm mixed race."

"Survivors of color are actually more likely to get assaulted but less likely to get media coverage if they want to come forward." 

Pino said "survivors of color rarely have that protection coming forward" and are "more likely to be disbelieved or retaliated against" when they do come forward.

Survivors on historically black (HBCU) campuses have found this firsthand. Those who have attempted to gain media attention have more often than not failed, "because the people [mainstream publications] write for don't care about HBCUs or don't know what they are," activist Chardonnay Madkins, who has worked with survivors at HBCUs like Howard University and Spelman College, told Mic. The media's tendency to ignore sexual assault on their campuses makes it "easy for HBCUs just to ignore" survivors because "everyone else seems to be ignoring us as well," Madkins said.

Survivors of color aren't the only ones who are overlooked. Sexual violence knows no boundaries, and survivors identities' are inextricable from their experiences. Individuals who are of marginalized sexual and gender identities, precarious legal status in this country, financially dependent on or in an intimate relationship with their assailant, all face unique challenges rarely addressed in the media.

"It's not possible to separate a trans person's identity from the way they experience sexual violence," Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, deputy director of Know Your IX, told Mic. "Yet these journalists are trying to do it and think that their story is less significant or compelling if it encompasses the fullness or complexity of a person's experience with violence."

Including these survivors' experiences in the media is not just a matter of accurate representation, but also has a direct impact on survivors' experiences and potential for recourse. The people the media ignores are also "the people who are going to be targeted most in terms of sexual violence and institutional apathy and other effects that would exacerbate what they've gone through," Wanjuki said. 

The case of Daniel Holtzclaw, a police officer who was recently sentenced for systematically targeting, then assaulting and raping 13 black women, is just one pertinent example.

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How activists are trying to complicate the story: It's reasonable to question whether the blame for this result should lie squarely on media coverage, or share blame with a movement that perhaps itself prioritizes the needs of some survivors over others. But many activists dismiss this notion — and note that the movement's attention to diversity is, in fact, a priority.

"One of the biggest strengths of the movement is that so many survivors with different experiences are contributing to this and telling their stories," Wanjuki said. "But when the media latches on to individuals or seeks people to be the faces of the movement, we're letting the public down and making the movement seem two-dimensional."

While the media's involvement may still be necessary to achieve visibility, activists are aware they must push harder to ensure individuals normally ignored are at the center of this attention, and really ask themselves, as Ridolfi-Starr put it, "how do we continue to use media as a tool while also recognizing its limitations and trying to push back on that?"

In the future, activists must also look beyond the media and "continue to create opportunities for alternative forms of adjudication," Wanjuki said, noting that the needs of survivors who are not on campuses should be addressed as well. Specifically, Ridolfi-Starr added, the movement must encourage individuals to rethink justice not only as "getting rape recognized as a crime," but also as recognizing the way assault can "fundamentally alter a person's life and especially a person's ability to access their education."

The hard truth is there are no clear-cut or simple solutions for this complex problem. But survivors are willing to incorporate the lessons they've learned so far, and continue to discuss the next, best way to move forward.

"I don't know what the next strategy is," Sulkowicz said. But hopefully it'll be one that doesn't necessitate putting "survivors through the ringer anymore."