almaIllustrated by Nelson Hua (Original photo by Rachel So // Licensed under CC2).

“[M]y first reaction was shame. The same shame that I felt back when I was in a violent marriage. It’s a sort of guilt that would make me crawl into a shell and remain silent. But today, for a reason I can’t explain, I’d had enough.” Beverly Gooden, quoted in “#WhyIStayed,” Mic.com

Voices and Victimhood

About seven months ago, I published a piece meant to draw attention to the way we learn about rape at the law school. Rather than criticize the pedagogy, which I found appropriate, I preferred to comment on how victim silence constrains and diminishes academic discourse. I voiced my hope that we students, who will eventually shape the law, would realize that we do society a disservice when we fail to allow experience to inform legal evolution. Our experiences demonstrate when law functions as intended and when it does not.

The piece represented the narrowest and most immediate implication of victim silence for us law students. The timing was strangely prescient, for I wrote immediately before the onset of homegrown controversy. In April, the New York Times slammed Columbia University for its lackluster institutional response to sexual assault claims. Then came an influx of emails you may have noticed from President Bollinger and, more recently, Dean Scott regarding the university’s sexual conduct policy. The government certainly took note, launching a nation-wide investigation of 55 universities and their compliance with Title IX, which governs sex-based discrimination in education.

Front and center in the New York Times exposé was a student who shared her experience—very graphically, as a forewarning—and has since been stuck in the limelight. Largely ignored as she attempted to navigate the university and criminal systems, Emma Sulkowicz recently decided to turn her senior thesis into a performance art piece. Each day, she will carry her mattress around campus until her alleged rapist leaves Columbia. The almost Biblical symbolism cannot be misinterpreted, and the response has been overwhelming; she has collected allies who walk with her in solidarity to share the burden of her experience and her endeavor to effect a smidgeon of change.

I met Emma when I accidentally stumbled across a rally held on her behalf. I found myself at a loss for what to say to her, but the moment I mentioned I was a law student she immediately asked me what evidence rules say about the admissibility of prior acts of behavior.[1] No one had ever explained to her how cases are built, or whom to ask. All systems failed her. Incredibly, she still found her platform:

“‘Carry That Weight’ might be called an artwork of last resort. It is the culmination of two years of pain, humiliation, frustration and righteous anger that began in 2012.” Roberta Smith, “In a Mattress, a Lever for Art and Political Protest,” New York Times

Amidst countless attributions of bravery,[2] some are not so moved by the sudden explosion of victim-initiated pushback and government scrutiny. The word I would use to describe the response is: tired. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist George Will besieged American universities in the Washington Post, saying that “when [universities] make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate.” A funny thing when rape becomes coveted!

Unlike Ebola or some devastating disease, victims do not spontaneously proliferate. Astonishingly, victimhood is not catching. Not only is there no such thing as privilege with respect to being raped, but also we would do anything to make the experience go away—including fall into the pattern of silence. Yale Law graduate Mary Adkins succinctly related, “In order to avoid victimhood and maintain simple, victimless personhood, women can be extraordinarily, stunningly rational; we can rationalize away acts of violation simply because we don’t want them to have been real. Perhaps if I decide it didn’t happen, it didn’t; perhaps if I decide it doesn’t matter to me, it doesn’t. But other times, victimhood is thrust upon us.”

And really, I don’t like the word “victim.” I think it implies a certain amount of permanent, inerasable immobility, and I hope to never be so tethered to such a wretched low in my life. In fact, that hope animated the reasons I myself never reported what happened to me. I distinctly remember falling into the rationalization trap and thinking, “All I want is to be past this.” Forget justice, forget retribution, even if I can’t forget what has happened.

Silence of victims does not signify our absence; our voices may have grown louder, but if anything, universities have discouraged, not encouraged, those voices. My “favorite” anecdote comes from Amherst College—a dean encouraged a student, who was raped and then stalked by the accused, to go home until the assailant graduated, “to take time off from [her] education so that [her] rapist could comfortably conclude his.” So to Mr. Will I say: the only thing currently proliferating is systemic failure, along with a greater awareness and desire to correct it. No more, no less.

“In order to heal, I’m supposed to forgive; I’ve been told that many times. But how do you forgive somebody that’s done that to you? You tell me that.” Nathaniel Penn, “Son, Men Don’t Get Raped,” GQ

Mindfulness and Moving Forward

Even though I am (for lack of a better word) a victim, what I ultimately care about is law, and law’s ends. I care that the law provides justice to those who desire it, and I care that we, even as students, do all that we can to make that possible. My legal interests lie outside of sex and gender, but my baseline mindfulness of law’s possibilities–of how experience can and should inform–drove me to speak on the issue of sexual assault in this community.

Let me be frank: I hesitated to write the original piece, and then to submit it, because I couldn’t decide whether or not I wanted my name attached. I suffered from the acute realization that it was something my peers, professors, and yes, my future employers could see. I passed it to friends for a reading, and overwhelmingly they told me I was brave. Just like Emma.

That word alone, though well-intentioned praise, made me angry, and so I decided to attach my name. I was livid from the implication, the reminder that I stood out somehow by speaking. Isolated, alone—the very feelings I had thought would disappear when I decided to share something of this nature.

Why should it be brave to tell the truth of a lived experience? Beyond the social climate that has led us down this road, what kind of a system have we created to make us reluctant to discuss sexual assault? To make it the norm to say nothing? I assure you, if someone stole one of your possessions, silence and hesitance would not be your gut reaction.

But we see that chilling effect everywhere in the realm of gender-based misconduct. We have collectively created an environment where the NFL can ignore a video of Ray Rice punching his wife out cold, then dragging her body like a life-size marionette from the elevator—at least, until the court of public opinion makes silence impossible. Or we have awareness projects that are popular but faceless. Even within the ranks of the U.S. military, thousands of men and women, to whom we owe the greatest debt of gratitude, serve this country—only to be assaulted and left to navigate and bury the trauma on their own. Apathy characterizes the unaffected, and fear, whether born of shame or real self-preservation, douses victim response. It means radio silence from all sides. In essence, we are left with a positive feedback loop, and the trend perpetuates and amplifies a culture of silence.

On the rare occasion, the few decide to speak. At worst, our experiences are deemed unbelievable.[3] I assure you, we wish they were pure fiction. This is particularly the case when our own acquaintances and, yes, significant others, do us the honor of making “liars” of us. But once we speak, nothing in this world can put the lid back on the proverbial Pandora’s box; at best, if you want to say anything, you become caught in a maelstrom of telling and retelling–the guru of unparalleled chutzpah, and the consultant for all things sexual assault.[4] Because you’re one of the few talking, you seem loud. That lonesome stature may even prompt you to shout to fill the void.

This is the side effect of silence. And then, speech becomes an extraordinary feat. Dealing with sexual assault can make even the mundane seem nigh impossible. Words are power and can empower, but grasping for them can be an overwhelming thought for someone who has been exploited.

But if I speak alone, my view becomes the only view, and that is inherently problematic in the practice of discourse and particularly in the formulation of law. Just as there are diverse experiences within cultural, racial, and ethnic groups, so are there many viewpoints among those who have experienced sexual assault. Moreover, the issue is not one of Emma or Lane, nor is it even of the one in four assaulted. It is the voices of many, set against a failure both systemic and communal.

So, Columbia—we need to talk.


[1] Thank you, Professor Richman, for teaching me the answer.

[2] It’s worth mentioning that “brave” has become the typical label for victims who speak up. The Columbia Spectator quoted a student as saying, “I really appreciate how public and open [Emma Sulkowicz] is about what happened to her because, so often when people experience a traumatic event, they keep it under wraps and they hide it. . . I think it’s so brave that she’s so public about it, and so I just wanted to be a part of supporting her and her bravery.” Similarly, a critical mass of comments on the article invoked this idea of bravery.

[3] For example, a student from Swarthmore reported that “[w]hen [she] told [an administrator] she had been raped, he was incredulous. He told her the student was ‘such a good guy,’ . . . that she must be mistaken.”

[4] After the first article, I was asked to be involved in several conversations about the law school’s sexual assault curriculum. In truth, I am pleased the community cared enough to ask. I find that this law school is incredibly responsive to commentary on its curriculum, and its faculty has done much to cultivate a culture of dialogue.