Student activists “carry the weight” of campus sexual assault

Students carry a mattress to show solidarity with sexual assault survivors. Stephanie Haven / The Tufts Daily

Mattress raised above their heads, four female Tufts students hoisted uphill the bed that one had slept in the night before.

“Well, that was my exercise for the month,” senior Ruby Vail quipped as she set the mattress down inside Tisch Library.

A #CarryThatWeight poster tacked on its side, the mattress was one of three that students carried around Tufts’ campus yesterday, and one of many that college students nationwide carried around their campuses.

The idea began earlier this year at Columbia University, where senior Emma Sulkowicz has sworn to carry a mattress around campus until the male student she says raped her is expelled or leaves. Two of Sulkowicz’s friends at Columbia planned the nationwide Carry That Weight Day of Action, which included participants from Northwestern University to Carleton College, and University of Southern California to George Washington University.

Tufts student activists had not planned to participate in the national event until last night, when sophomore Olivia Carle created a Facebook event in response to peer interest. Carle, who identifies as a survivor of campus sexual assault, carried a mattress around campus from 9:15 a.m. to 6 p.m.

While the performance art demonstration began at Columbia, the connection to Tufts resonated with Carle, who also helped organize the spring semester Stand With Survivors rally. Student activists at that time hinged their protest on Tufts rescinding its signature on an agreement with the United States Department of Education after it found the school in violation of Title IX, the federal policy that bans sex discrimination on college campuses.

Carle said problems with how Tufts administrators handle cases of campus sexual assault continue.

“Many activists, we’re working with the administration, along with pushing from the outside,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that we think what’s happening within the administration is correct or right or it’s moving fast enough. So my goal personally was to say, ‘Hey, we’re still here, we still think it’s important, these are people’s actual experiences, these are our lives.’”

Yesterday’s demonstration, however, revealed some unexpected logistical problems, such as trying to fit a twin XL mattress through a doorway. Getting to the Women’s Center with the mattress from uphill to drop off red tape — students had voiced interest in wearing a red “x” in solidarity — was too physically arduous, according to Carle.

Yet the physicality of carrying a mattress paralleled the emotional burden of being a campus sexual assault survivor, according to sophomore Allyson Blackburn, who carried a mattress three times on Wednesday.

“To see people carrying their mattresses as a metaphor for the burden that they carry everyday — that matters,” she said. “As someone who walks around the campus with those feelings already, to have them brought forward to your attention in a way that’s so physical and visible and present, I think that’s so powerful.”

There were vocalizations of support and chatter from nearby students who, after seeing the mattress, discussed Sulkowicz’s project with friends. There were as many as four students at a time who offered to help carry the mattress, according to Carle.

Some students also expressed confusion, according to Blackburn. She added that she heard a student yell an expletive at her from across the quad while carrying a mattress, but acknowledged that it could have been a misunderstanding.

“People have been less supportive recently because it’s no longer the big, hip issue,” Blackburn said. “To realize that, yes, we are still here on this campus, and we are still struggling — that is something that we have to consider.”