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They tell us "Mattress Girl" has made a sex tape. It's much bigger than that.

What she has done is much, much more interesting.

Trigger warning: This post includes nudity and deals with issues of rape and sexual assault and may be triggering for survivors of abuse.

“Mattress Girl makes sex tape” is a pretty alluring headline.

Because the American media, in particular, can’t get enough of Emma Sulkowicz, the US university student known for protesting her alleged college rape by carrying a mattress around the campus of Columbia University. For months.

And yes, part of the ‘sex tape’ headline is true. She has released a very graphic video of herself engaging in what begins as apparently consensual sexual intercourse.

And then the sex abruptly turns violent.

The eight-minute film is titled ‘Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol’  (This Is Not A Rape) and depicts Sulkowicz and an anonymous male actor entering a dorm room, stripping off and engaging in sex, before the male actor suddenly slaps Sulkowicz and begins strangling her. A distressed Sulkowicz can be heard saying ‘no’ and ‘stop’ while the man removes his condom and continues to penetrate her as she whimpers in pain. The footage is deliberately shot as though from four hidden surveillance cameras in the dorm-room, offering four different angles of the simulated rape as it unfolds.

You can watch the video here, if you choose to do so. 

Confronting? Certainly.

If you’re not familiar with this story, read this: This woman is the brave face of a revolution 1 in 5 of us need.

And Sulkowicz knows this. She has gone to extraordinary lengths to present her video in a particular way.

In a detailed Trigger Warning that accompanies the video, she advises that the sexual acts depicted in the video were consensually agreed upon by the actors involved in the film, however the footage has clear and intentional allusions to rape and so may be highly triggering for some viewers. Sulkowicz also advises that despite the apparent parallels, the performance piece is not a re-enactment of the incident that was the focus of her protest – her own alleged dorm-room rape which occurred in 2012.

That is something that has been disputed by some critics. Not least because, in an earlier release of the video, the date on the footage was the same as the assault.

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But the penetrative sex in the film is real and this has caused considerable debate about the use of actual intercourse, as well as simulated rape, in sexual assault advocacy.

Interestingly, in the video’s introduction, Sulkowicz asserts that she has the right to give and with-hold consent over who watches her engage in a sex-act.

She argues that, just as a woman has the right to consent to one sex-act but not another, or one person but not another, she also retains a moral right to give and withold her consent concerning who is permitted to watch her engage in sexual intercourse. She says that to watch a woman without her consent is a different form of sexual assault.

Sulkowicz then withdraws her consent to anyone who intends to watch the video in order to hurt, objectify, dehumanise or violate her.

“Do not watch this video if your motives would upset me, my desires are unclear to you, or my nuances are indecipherable…. If you watch this video without my consent, then I hope you reflect on your reasons for objectifying me and participating in my rape…

“Please, don’t participate in my rape. Watch kindly.”

Of course, because rape-culture is a THING that really does exist, thousands of men paid no more attention to her terms of consent than the male actor did the moment she began saying ‘no’ and whimpering ‘stop’.

And while this proves a broader point that there is a widespread culture of ignoring a woman’s consent and disregarding her moral right to establish and maintain her own sexual boundaries, it is the way in which this point has been made has sparked widespread discomfort and debate.

On the one hand, there are those who are openly critical of Sulkowicz and view this as an empty attempt to garner more public attention.

Then there are those who feel deeply concerned for her wellbeing and are worried that this video might expose her to unwanted scrutiny and harassment (because, again, rape culture really is a THING).

Emma Sulkowicz.

Others still are sympathetic towards Sulkowicz, but believe that simulating a rape does not advance sexual assault advocacy at all, and only eroticises sexual violence while triggering many sexual assault survivors in the community.

And finally there are those who take quite a difference stance, arguing that the reason why we are all so confronted by this video is because it challenges our pre-existing attitudes and beliefs about how victims of sexual assault are ‘supposed’ to behave.

These proponents argue that by refusing to play the part of the stereotypical damaged, asexual victim, Sulkowicz is taking control of her own narrative through the most taboo means available: her own sexuality.

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I’ll admit, I’m conflicted. But regardless of where you stand on those various points, what is revealing is that just like with everything involving sexual assault, the public focus has remained squarely on the woman’s choices and actions. There has been virtually no comment whatsoever about the choices or actions of the male director, Ted Lawson, or the male actor who remains anonymous, or the thousands of male viewers who have posted vicious slut-shaming and rape-apologetic comments beneath the video.

Emma Sulkowicz previously made headlines for pledging to carry her mattress around Columbia University campus until her rapist was expelled.

But perhaps there should be. And perhaps instead of always focussing on women’s hemlines, or their alcohol consumption or in this instance, their wildly contentious artistic performances, what we should really focus on is the conversations that fit around those things. Like these comments under the video:

What the art project really succeeds in capturing is not so much a rape in progress, but rather rape-culture itself in action.

Everything from saying that a woman can’t change her mind midway through a sexual act (even one that turns violent) through to claims that ‘real’ rape victims would have a lot more cuts and bruises are made.

As are the claims that women who say ‘no’ and ‘stop’ have no one to blame but themselves if they appear to enjoy the foreplay or if they assisted in unwrapping a condom or undressing themselves.

And of course, while these comments are not remotely surprising to any one even slightly familiar with sexual assault advocacy (and Sulkowicz has extensive experience in this area), it is interesting to see the complete lack of self-awareness that these men (and some women) demonstrate in forcefully penetrating a discussion space on a website set up by a woman, who has very clearly stated that she does not give consent to anyone who does not come to the conversation ‘kindly’.

Nor do these individuals seem to grasp the irony of the fact that they are only highlighting the need for more sexual assault advocacy.

And while the court of public opinion will remain out on whether Sulkowicz’s performance is an acceptable form of advocacy, what is clear is that its target, rape culture, is very much alive and intact.

How does Sulkowicz’s video make you feel? 

If this post has brought up issues for you, contact 1800 RESPECT by calling 1800 737 732, or visit their website by clicking here.

More on this story:

Emma will do the same thing every day. Until her alleged rapist is expelled.

The shameful response to Emma Sulkowicz’s mattress protest at graduation.

These Facebook messages were enough to convince the world he didn’t rape her. They shouldn’t have been.

Tags: sex , health-and-wellbeing
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