On-campus sexual assault activist Emma Sulkowicz attended Tuesday's State of the Union as a special guest of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who's long been an advocate for stronger protections against sexual violence. But even with Sulkowicz sitting in the audience, President Obama didn't mention rape or sexual assault in his address — to Sulkowicz's disappointment.
Speaking with New York Magazine on Wednesday, Sulkowicz said she was "let down" by the president. His speech was optimistic, and featured some pretty badass moments, but it was also largely silent on sexual assault and violence against women.
Sulkowicz explained to New York:
I can’t say I was entirely surprised because since when has violence against women ever been a man’s issue? I am not going to lie, I was let down because I felt like there were points in his speech where he could have brought it up. I was really hoping he would mention it, since the issue has been raised to a new level.
The Columbia University senior, whose hybrid performance art-protest project "Carry That Weight" has garnered her national media attention, added that "no one seemed to know who [she] was" despite her newfound mattress-carrying fame. "But that's okay," Sulkowicz said.
Although Obama's speech was centered around the theme "middle-class economics," the omission of rape and sexual assault — whether on college campuses, in the military, or among America's low-income women — was glaring. 2014 was a watershed year for on-campus sexual assault, with the Department of Education announcing that more than 50 colleges and universities were under investigation for possible Title IX violations (as of October 2014, that number jumped to more than 80 schools). Gillibrand, along with Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), also made a push for federal sexual assault protections with a groundbreaking new bill.
Gillibrand wrote in a letter to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault last April:
When our young people go on to higher education, it should be an opportunity to learn, grow, pursue their dreams and prepare for their future careers. But the price of a college education should not include a 1 in 5 chance of being sexually assaulted. I urge the White House Task Force to seriously consider our proposals that would immediately address the scourge of sexual assault on our college campuses and help keep our students safe.
Curtailing rape in the military, too, has been making some progress over the last two years. However, a bipartisan bill introduced by Gillibrand in the Senate failed to receive enough votes in 2014. Meanwhile, McCaskill's military sexual assault bill, which was less strong than Gillibrand's but at least grants rape victims more power during their prosecutions, passed the Senate unanimously.
But for now, Sulkowicz will continue to carry her dorm mattress around Columbia's sprawling New York City grounds — until her alleged assailant is expelled from campus and sexual assault is taken more seriously by universities nationwide. "Sometimes it takes a federal hand to make the colleges listen," Sulkowicz told The New York Daily News.
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