Column: Time for young feminists to look beyond the mattress and campus rape

It’s a striking juxtaposition, to say the least. In the news this week we’ve seen photos of hundreds of girls and young women, many of them pregnant, recently rescued from captivity and sexual slavery at the hands of Boko Haram, the militant Islamist group in Nigeria. We’ve also seen photos of young women, smiling in their robes and mortarboards on graduation day at Columbia University in New York City, helping a classmate carry her mattress to the podium as a symbol of the trauma she says she experienced from an alleged rape.

That mattress, the centerpiece of a senior thesis art project by Emma Sulkowicz, has also become a symbol of a national “epidemic” of rape and sexual assault on college campuses. Sulkowicz, also known as Mattress Girl, said she was raped by an on-again, off-again boyfriend during her sophomore year. When Columbia’s adjudication process found insufficient evidence to expel the young man, Sulkowicz decided to carry around her dorm-room mattress in protest and as endurance performance art.

There’s lots more to Sulkowicz’s case — a lawsuit recently brought by her alleged assailant has turned an already murky story into something downright sludge-like — but suffice it to say it was a big year for her and also for the way we perceive women in institutions of higher learning. In fact, it’s fair to call the 2014-15 academic year the Year We Decided Women Aren’t Safe on College Campuses.

We learned about high-profile rape cases at Vanderbilt and the University of Montana, about “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces,” and Rolling Stone’s misreported story of a phantom University of Virginia gang rape. It’s hard to talk about higher education at all these days without mentioning the activism around sexual assault and women’s issues.

As a trending topic (and one that’s constantly sprouting subtopics), this thread of feminist discourse is compelling because it manages to be both exasperating and necessary. For every fatuous notion that ricochets around social media (mansplaining! microaggression!), the campus assault meme could also be sparking conversations worth having about gender and power, and the overall state of women in the world.


So why aren’t we having those conversations? Why is Mattress Girl generating more headlines and postings than the victims of Boko Haram? Why (other than the usual vagaries of the class divide) are so many young women ignorant of the big picture captured by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting stats — that if you lived in, say, Gallup, N.M., in 2013 you were 47 times more likely to get raped than if you were enrolled at Harvard?

Why, when there is so much serious work to be done, does this new generation of feminists only look inward instead of out at the big world?

I know it’s reductive, even insensitive, to say, “Hey, campus activists, why don’t you visit a Nigerian refugee camp and see what real mass trauma looks like?” For all I know, when these women aren’t protesting the overrepresentation of white male authors in their classics curricula, they’re volunteering at inner-city domestic violence shelters or developing global strategies to empower women in the developing world. (Call me an optimist.)

But as United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power demonstrated last week when she sent a tweet comparing Sulkowicz’s mattress artwork to the emergence of a female cycling team in Afghanistan (a place that’s historically been a bit worse for women than the Upper West Side of Manhattan), there’s a tendency to draw false equivalencies among feminist issues. And just as we are told not to “privilege” one kind of trauma over another, any suggestion that young American activists might want to also focus on traumas other than their own probably will be dismissed as schoolmarmish finger-wagging.

So I guess that makes me a schoolmarm. I hope the wounded women at our colleges and universities find a way to heal themselves and then get to work in the places they’re needed most. I hope they take all the passion, anger and energy they’ve applied to making college administrators figure out when yes means yes and no means no, and harness it to address problems far beyond their own. Because even the cursory headlines devoted to Gallup’s crime data or Boko Haram show us that there are countless women out there who won’t survive without someone fighting for them. There is important work to be done. And none of it requires carrying a mattress.

Twitter: @meghan_daum

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