Carrying a mattress until a rapist is punished — and other examples of the culture we live in

A friend of mine recently asked me what I thought of the woman from Columbia University whose senior art project is to carry around a mattress until the student who raped her is removed from campus.

A few thoughts came to mind. First, I thought, “Yes. You go, woman.” Then, I was disappointed that someone has to carry around a mattress to make a statement about how badly her university has treated her following her victimization.

Then I started to think of it a little more critically, though not critically of the young woman shouldering the burden of a mattress/her experience. She is a brave and articulate person who is willing to tell her story to raise awareness about a larger issue. Yet, I worry we lose the larger issue when we continue to talk about “campus sexual assault survivors” or “military sexual trauma survivors” or “child sexual abuse survivors” as though they exist in silos that are not connected by the larger issue of a culture of violence.

Survivors of sexual violence are all different. They are different people who react differently based on their life experiences. Survivors’ stories should be heard and remembered, and they move us forward in the movement to end sexual violence.

And yet, common themes run through these stories. Whether we’re talking about a Columbia University student, a scientist on a research team in the remote reaches of the globe, or a United States Marine, these stories are inevitably similar. Someone’s bodily autonomy was violated, and that violation created long-lasting and sometimes permanent problems. In many cases when they told someone, they were further denigrated and disregarded.

The challenge is this: While each survivor is an individual, we can’t treat their stories like they’re anomalies and don’t have commonalities. We can’t treat survivors as though they are merely one person who has experienced something horrible, because that leads us to thinking maybe they were in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person, and they maybe should have done something to change their situation.

Instead, we have to see survivors as individuals with individual stories who are part of a broader narrative. This broader narrative includes a culture where we have an acceptance and expectation of violence – as evidenced by the fact that we are just getting around to the idea that an NFL player should at least be suspended for abusing his child or sexually assaulting his wife. We live in a culture where a survivor carries around a mattress to be heard, and where survivors are told that “Rape is like football. If you look back on the game, and you’re the quarterback … is there anything you would have done differently?”

This is our culture. This is also our chance to look at all of these survivors’ stories and see them as they really are: part of a broader culture of violence. Survivors deserve our attention, and we owe it to our communities to acknowledge them, their stories, and work toward a culture free from violence.

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  1. Carrying a mattress until a rapist is punished — and other examples of the culture we live in | Rape Response Services - September 23, 2014

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