Why We Shouldn’t Condemn Emma Sulkowicz As A Liar

Emma Sulkowicz at "Mattress Performance discussion, 14 December 2014" by Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation -

Emma Sulkowicz at “Mattress Performance discussion, 14 December 2014” by Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation –

New York, New York (TFC) – Emma Sulkowicz made headlines when she dragged a mattress to her university graduation to draw attention to the fact that she was raped. Unsurprisingly, as with many cases of sexual assault, some people who read the story think that she made it all up. But more surprisingly, so do some women. However, the accusation that Sulkowicz is a liar is based on a couple of easily disproved arguments.

A lot of commenters use the fact that Sulkowicz dragged a mattress around for two semesters to prove that she couldn’t have found it too draining to report the rape. But giving a statement to police can’t be compared with dragging a mattress around. Reporting rape is psychologically draining. Carrying a mattress around campus is physically draining (or maybe just good exercise, depending on your fitness level.) The two are non-comparable. That’s why bodybuilders aren’t immune from depression.

The allegation that not reporting her rape makes Sulkowicz a liar is the tired ritual of I Don’t Believe Her Because She Didn’t Report It Or Seem Upset Enough. Over 90% of rapes are never reported, so she’s already in the minority for approaching the police in the first place and then reporting it a year later.

In fact, many sexual assault victims, regardless of gender, never speak about the experience at all. Again, Sulkowicz is in the minority even for publicly acknowledging it. We seem to accept that female victims of male physical assault (domestic violence/intimate partner violence) don’t always fight back, report it or even breathe a word to their closest family. Why don’t we accept that this also happens with rape?

The second main criticism of Sulkowicz’s story is the alleged friendly instant messages she sent her rapist after the rape. But sexual assault is not simple. Just because a victim doesn’t beat her rapist half to death or run screaming out of the room and down the street doesn’t mean she’s a liar. Women- more than men, and especially women from educated families- are brought up to be calm, civilised and polite. It’s not surprising that they don’t make a huge scene especially when the rapist is a friend. Remember, she’s not being chased down a dark alley by a stranger waving a hacksaw. The physiological reaction, and thus behaviours, may not be the same. Some victims don’t even realise they were raped until they think it over later, and that again is unsurprising, as we’re taught to expect that rapists are monsters hiding in the bushes on dark nights, not our friends and boyfriends. It is perfectly legitimate and natural for anyone, of any gender, to not realise they were assaulted until months or years later.

The onus shouldn’t be on women, it should be on men not to rape. Reporting is not always the best thing for a victim- of any gender- if it endangers their life or their mental health. Many of those criticising Sulkowicz and other victims who didn’t immediatetly report sexual assaults are lucky enough, educated enough, and savvy enough to have some measure of safety and control over their lives. They can expect fair treatment from the police, appropriate reactions from their employer, university or school, and support from their family and friends. Try telling children abused by their caregivers to report it, or people already oppressed by the police, or those who could be arrested for possessing drugs or deported for being undocumented, or beaten and raped again by their attacker if shelters don’t exist in their country.  We have access to things- including information, and including the ability to strategise and plan- that many don’t.

14-year-old Daisy Coleman and her family were bullied and forced to move by an entire community because she reported her rape. I’m certainly not suggesting she shouldn’t have reported it; I’m just saying that we seem to believe that reporting sexual assault is the best course of action for the victim. It isn’t always. We also believe that reporting sexual assault will result in the rapist being convicted; actually 3 in 4 rape trials do not result in conviction and most reported rapes never go to court.

Do women lie that they were raped? Yes of course they do, just as a proportion of all crime reports are false. But only between 2 and 8% of rape reports in the US are false. In the UK, the figure is 3%. Calling someone a liar because they didn’t report rape, or they had the energy to stand up for themselves, or they didn’t scream blue murder during the rape is unreasonable. There seems to be a tendency to disbelieve rape victims. We don’t pick apart someone’s story quite as much if they claim they were physically or verbally assaulted, but with sexual assault the victim’s veracity and even share of the “blame” are open to question. Perpetuating this attitude is self-destructive. It leads to a society which is dangerous for all of us. Any of us, at any time, of any gender, can be sexually assaulted (even rapists themselves). We all have a stake in eradicating victim blaming attitudes.