Emma Sulkowicz Attending State Of The Union & Hopefully Obama Will Address Campus Sex Assault
President Obama will deliver his anticipated State of the Union address on Tuesday night, and there will be one special guest in attendance: Sexual assault activist Emma Sulkowicz will be attending the president's address as a guest of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).
If you don't know Sulkowicz's name by now, you should. The Columbia University senior sparked a nationwide movement in 2014 after she continued to carry her dorm mattress to and from class on the historic New York City campus. Called "Carry That Weight," the performance art-turned-protest symbolized Sulkowicz's journey as a sexual assault survivor. The 22-year-old art student alleges she was raped in her dorm room during her sophomore year, and filed a report with the university (she did not press criminal charges). The administration eventually cleared her assailant of any wrongdoing, and Sulkowicz must continue to attend classes with her alleged attacker still on campus.
According to the New York Daily News, Gillibrand, an unwavering advocate for on-campus sexual assault legislation, invited Sulkowicz to send a message to the president. It actually shouldn't be too much a surprise: When Sulkowicz first told her story publicly, she did it at a press conference with Gillibrand at her side.
While Obama has some big announcements to make about college education in America — specifically, his new goal of making community college free — Gillibrand hopes the president will take the time to address sexual violence:
I hope he will also talk about working with our bipartisan coalition in Congress to make campuses safer, too. I hope the President will seize this opportunity to shine a national spotlight on the need to flip the incentives that currently reward colleges for sweeping sexual assaults under the rug.
Sexual violence is a major platform for Gillibrand, who has led the way in the Senate for legislation not only curbing rape and sexual assault on college campuses but also in the military. Last July, the New York Democrat, along with Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), introduced an all-encompassing bill that would strengthen Title IX regulations and increase penalties for universities who violated sexual assault policies under the Clery Act, which requires colleges to publicly disclose information about on- and off-campus crimes. The measure had bipartisan support in the Senate, and has been referred to committee.
At this time, it's unclear whether or not Obama will bring up on-campus sexual assault — an issue that dominated much of the 2014 news cycle — during Tuesday's State of the Union. Gillibrand told the Daily News that she hopes Obama will discuss the Senate bill, as well as urge the Senate to pass the strong legislation in 2015.
Sulkowicz's presence at the State of the Union address may be affirming for many survivors — and contentious for some students. Over the last few months, Sulkowicz, who has graced the cover of New York magazine and swiftly became the face for the nationwide Carry That Weight campaign, has experienced fervent backlash for being the "Mattress Girl." She told The Huffington Post in December, not long after her alleged rapist publicly denied the accusations in The New York Times:
People assume just because you're getting a lot of attention, it's all good attention, and that's what makes it desirable and what makes a person want to lie about being raped. All of this attention has really physically, emotionally torn me down. Sometimes I wake up and don't feel human anymore.
Following the rabid fallout of the Rolling Stone sexual assault story, there's a lot of suspicious eyes on survivors of sexual violence. Here's hoping the president stands his ground on Tuesday night and firmly reiterates that curbing sexual assault "is on us." Images: Getty Images, Carry That Weight International/Facebook