Within the past two weeks, two independent news stories have gone viral, both surrounding the issue of assault and the (unsatisfying) penalties levied against those who commit it. The first story is that of Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia student carrying her mattress around campus as a permanent reminder of her rape at the hands of a classmate who has not yet been disciplined. The more recent story is that of Ray Rice, running back for the Baltimore Ravens, who has been suspended from the NFL indefinitely after a video surfaced of him beating his wife unconscious. And while it’s always a good thing for these appalling acts against women to get national attention, I think it’s worthwhile to ask ourselves just why these two stories are eliciting responses right now, and what they have in common.
For many, the facts of the Ray Rice scandal may be old news, but they’re pretty shocking, and I think they bear repeating. Rice was issued a two-game suspension in late July after a video surfaced that showed him dragging his unconscious fiancée out of an elevator. The paltry suspension obviously disappointed many, but the Ravens were adamant that they “respect[ed] the efforts Ray has made to become the best partner and father he can be.” After two games, they were back to business as usual (though Rice’s indictment in a criminal court for assault did lead the NFL to increase the suspension time for future assault cases).
But then fast forward to Monday, when the security footage from within the elevator was made publicly available. And lo and behold — to no one’s surprise, the footage depicts exactly what we deep down knew to be true (and what the Atlantic City police had long since confirmed): Rice’s fiancée was unconscious not because Rice accidentally pushed her too hard in defending himself from her attacks (as he claimed in the wake of the incident), but rather because he hit her so hard that she passed out.
Rice has since been unceremoniously fired from the Ravens, and suspended from the NFL indefinitely. Some claim to have knowledge that the NFL had seen the new tape even before issuing its meager suspension, while others within the League insist that Monday, the day they suspended him indefinitely, was the first time they knew of its existence. Many are up in arms with the NFL at the thought that they knew this information and suppressed it.
But isn’t it almost irrelevant when the NFL saw it? If everyone is being honest with themselves, what else did we think could possibly have happened in that elevator? Cameras outside the elevator showed the two of them clearly arguing. Cameras of them coming out showed him dragging her near-lifeless body out. It doesn’t take a genius (or an undue pessimist) to connect the dots. What’s happening now is merely a mass attempt on the part of the NFL, on the part of outraged society, on the part of Rice’s teammates, to absolve ourselves of blame for being so quick to overlook, forget or choose not to see what was so painfully clear in July.
Which brings me to Emma Sulkowicz. Again, she’s become something of a ubiquitous name on the Internet, but to summarize her story: Now a senior at Columbia, Sulkowicz was allegedly raped at the start of her sophomore year. Columbia dismissed her allegations and her rapist remains on campus to this day. To protest the collective apathy surrounding her story, Sulkowicz has chosen to carry her mattress around campus as a visualization of the burden she carries with her every day.
Now, of course, her story has come to light again. People share links of her tale on Facebook and sympathize; part of her performance is that people are allowed to help her carry her mattress (symbolically lightening her emotional burden) if they offer the help, which now they are. But, like with the video footage of Rice and his fiancée in the elevator, why does it take such dramatic lengths to force people to care about this issue?
These are hardly unrelated events: We as a society have a systemic inability (or unwillingness) to face the ugly truth of rape and assault. They’re chronic problems, but we only pay attention when someone (or something) forces us to. I went to a talk in May where Gloria Steinem said one of the most mind-blowing facts I’ve ever heard: Since the attacks of Sept. 11, more women have died of domestic violence-related causes than all Americans in 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Do we need to see a video, or force a rape victim to carry a physical manifestation of her violation, for us to sit up and take notice of that?