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Editorial: Response to Emma Sulkowicz’s talk

On Thursday, Emma Sulkowicz spoke to Brown students about her experience with sexual assault and its influence on her senior thesis. Her story made national headlines when Columbia allowed her alleged rapist back on campus. In her talk, she explored the idea of consent in a sometimes controversial manner. In particular, Sulkowicz argued that there is no scientific, objective method of proving sexual assault; in other words, the only people who can truly assess consent are the two involved. Yet date-rape drugs such as GHB, when accurately determined to be in someone’s system, indicate lack of consent or the lack of the ability to give consent in a sexual encounter.

‘Consent’ is a seemingly simple word. Oxford Dictionaries defines it as the “permission for something to happen or agreement to do something.” Yet when it comes to sexual assault, our idea of consent can be murky. Sulkowicz, for instance, addressed the idea of violent sexual encounters and BDSM. Made popular through novels such as “Fifty Shades of Grey,” these acts further complicate our idea of sexual assault. There was a point in time when the presence of bruises would automatically indicate rape. But as Sulkowicz addressed, bodily harm could now reflect a form of consensual sex. In her case, the bruises from her alleged rapist are not a definitive indication of sexual assault — as argued by Sulkowicz herself.

When it came to her ideas on drugs and consent, her argument began to falter. Sulkowicz insisted that the presence of date-rape drugs in someone’s system does not conclusively prove sexual assault. Some people, she said, might ask to be given drugs such as GHB in an effort to live out a sexual fantasy. In this case, consent has been given to be drugged. Therefore, according to Sulkowicz’s argument, laboratory results indicating the presence of date-rape drugs cannot accurately demonstrate a lack of consent.

In sexual assault cases, however, the issue is not whether someone consented to receiving a date-rape drug. The issue lies in whether someone consented to sex. Date-rape drugs such as GHB lower inhibitions, cause memory loss and lead to drowsiness. Essentially, the ingestion of these drugs renders someone incapable of giving consent in a sexual encounter.

Sulkowicz’s ideas on sexual assault and consent are possibly troubling for survivors. It is, perhaps, an incredibly isolating experience to believe that the only people who can evaluate whether consent was given are those involved. It is essential that we assure students that sexual assault cases can be objectively investigated through rape kits and accurate laboratory testing.

Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editors, Alexander Kaplan ’15 and James Rattner ’15, and its members, Natasha Bluth ’15, Manuel Contreras ’16, Baxter DiFabrizio ’15, Mathias Heller ’15 and Aranshi Kumar ’17. Send comments to


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