Take Back the Night sheds light on prevalence of campus sexual violence

Delaney Allen

Video by Ravyn Cullor. 

Ad

Although daunting, the stage overlooking the Sutherland Community Garden Thursday night was a safe and judgment-free space for survivors to share stories of their sexual assault.

The annual Take Back the Night event, coordinated by the Women and Gender Advocacy Center and Campus Feminist Alliance, returned to Colorado State University to conclude Sexual Assault Awareness month.

FAST FACTS:

  • According to the webpage for the event, the first documented Take Back the Night event took place October 1975 in Philadelphia, where residents rallied together after the murder of a young woman walking alone. 
  • Take Back the Night has been a reoccurring event for over 35 years in the United States on college campuses and universities across the country.

“I think we’re doing a good job of trying to expose that sexual violence happens and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s a tremendous barrier for obtaining a degree,” said Monica Rivera, the director of the WGAC at CSU. “We really are serious about student success, so we need to be talking about sexual violence and the impact it has.”

The event started with a “speak out” in the Sutherland Community Garden at the Lory Student Center. Survivors of sexual violence could choose to tell their stories on stage to the crowd.

After the speak out, attendees marched from campus to Old Town Plaza, where they listened to keynote speaker Emma Sulkowicz, a former Columbia University student famed for their art project, “Mattress Performance.”

T-shirts
Customized t-shirts hanging outside the LSC to raise awareness for survivors of sexual violence during CSU’s annual “Take Back the Night” on Thursday, April 25. (Skyler Pradhan | Collegian)

“Mattress Performance,” as Sulkowicz explained, was partly a senior-year project and partly in response to how Columbia discredited their allegations that they were sexually assaulted by another student.

Sulkowicz said Columbia University found their perpetrator “not responsible” after they reported the assault. Unsatisfied with the decision, Sulkowicz began to carry an extra-long twin mattress everywhere they went on campus.

“Mattress Performance,” Sulkowicz said, is a metaphor.

Participants prepare for the march to Old Town, Fort Collins during CSU’s annual “Take Back the Night” on Thursday, April 25. (Skyler Pradhan | Collegian)

“I felt like I was metaphorically carrying the weight of the rape everywhere, so I did it with a mattress,” Sulkowicz said. “The work was clear because it was straightforward.”

Ad

Sulkowicz ended up carrying the mattress for nine months, the duration of their senior year, and even into their college graduation ceremony in 2015.

Now, Sulkowicz is widely known as a performance artist and anti-rape activist.

Sulkowicz said, in the eyes of a university, the best way to prove your innocence as a survivor is to demonstrate that you had no agency.

Sulkowicz said they were instructed to shift their story into a version where they were “terrified” and “couldn’t move,” adding insult to injury. Sometimes, as a survivor, this version isn’t true, and revealing that you still have some agency can discredit your story.

“Though I’m an okay performance artist, I’m a terrible actor,” Sulkowicz said. “I was terrible at acting like the broken victim they wanted.”

Keynote speaker Emma Sulkowicz shares their story with participants and empowers audience members during CSU’s annual “Take Back the Night” on Thursday, April 25. (Skyler Pradhan | Collegian)

Sulkowicz said their story was widely disregarded and misrepresented in the media.

“One headline at the time read, ‘Emma Sulkowicz carried her mattress everywhere she went in order to get her rapist expelled.’ I did not make ‘Mattress Performance’ in order to get him expelled,” Sulkowicz said. “I made it because I knew he wouldn’t be. I’d been taught that art is self-expression.”

In a famous photo distributed by Getty Images, Sulkowicz carries the mattress alone, with two students walking behind them. Sulkowicz said that photographers would dissuade passersby from helping them carry the mattress for a more candid photo opportunity.

However, contrary to what the pictures may show, Sulkowicz said that people would often assist them with carrying the weight of the mattress.

“The photos make it look solemn and grave, which in many ways it was, but people often overlook how silly it was for me to be carrying a mattress,” Sulkowicz said.

Sulkowicz further explained that the project was not meant to punish or shame their perpetrator, but rather to shed light on the emotional and mental weight carried by survivors of sexual violence.

“I was terrible at acting like the broken victim they wanted,” Sulkowicz said.

“Women supporting other women is so important,” said Claire Hawkins, a community member who attended the event. “I have friends and family members who are survivors, and I want them to know that their experiences matter and they are heard if they want to be.”

Hawkins said that spreading awareness around the pervasiveness of sexual violence is an important step in supporting survivors.

“We are marching through the streets with a police escort. People are noticing that,” Hawkins said. “Maybe one person was impacted by this today, and that’s what’s really important.”

Resources on CSU campus for survivors or secondary survivors of sexual violence include the Victim Assistance Team.

Students can call the hotline at 970-492-4242 or meet with an advocate directly during regular business hours.

“For us to succeed, our politics must be one of positivity, hope, and faith of people’s ability to change,” Sulkowicz said. “Mattress Performance taught me that feminism should be just as groundbreaking as it is bridge-building, as stoic as it is compassionate, as serious as it is creative, as sad as it is joyful and as terrifying as it is adventurous, playful and fun.”

Delaney Allen can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @DelaneyAllen0. Ravyn Cullor contributed to this report.