A performance art project by Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz has recently garnered a lot of attention. For her senior thesis, Sulkowicz is carrying her 50-pound dorm room mattress everywhere until she graduates, unless the university expels her alleged rapist. Sulkowicz claims she was raped two years ago by a male student in her dorm, but was too scared to file a complaint until meeting two other victims of the same student. She felt that the university officials and police mishandled her case and failed to take proper measures to investigate. Her project “Carry That Weight” sheds light on her plight and serves as a form of artistic protest.
In the United States, the number of reported sexual assault cases on university campuses has increased by 50%, from 2,200 in 2001 to 3,330 cases in 2011. This has been attributed to an increased willingness of victims to come forward; however, in many cases, students like Sulkowicz who are brave enough to report are disappointed by the lack of support provided by their university administration. To address this issue, the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault was formed this year, and the US Department of Education is in the process of investigating dozens of educational institutes on how they handle sexual abuse.
Then what is the situation in Korea? The number of sexual violations reported in universities amount to a couple hundred a year, at most. Statistics from 2011 showed that the majority of perpetrators were undergraduate students (102 in total) and professors (36). Rape accounted for 21 of the reported incidents. These relatively low numbers may be due to the fact that many students live with their families, the conservative dating culture, or the absence of mixed dormitories at universities. However, it is more likely that most victims of sexual violence simply remain silent.
It has only been 20 years since a comprehensive law was introduced to combat sex crimes in Korea. This law was notorious for being inadequate to protect the rights of citizens. Until 2013, marital rape was only punishable in cases where married couples were in the process of finalizing a divorce, and only women were legally recognized as victims. It was also common for rape victims to be harassed by their attacker until they agreed not to take legal action, as it precludes prosecutors from taking the case to trial. Perhaps for this very reason, only 41% of reported sex crimes led to prosecution and only in 25.4% was a sentence given.
Though the legal framework has been fortified, misogynistic attitudes and leniency towards male sexuality often add to the trauma experienced by victims, especially during interrogations. A study released in 2013 showed that 53.8% of policemen believed rape is caused by scantily dressed women. 37.4% held the notion that intoxicated female victims were at fault for making themselves vulnerable. During trials, victims commonly face inappropriate questions about their personal life, and decisions are often based on the wholesomeness of the victim’s profile rather than the crime itself. In rare cases, the victims are sentenced because they are suspected of gold-digging motives, or the veracity of their statement is questioned.
Since the national system is so flawed, it follows that Korean universities do not have a competent system either. Perhaps one of the most scandalous incidents was Korea University’s handling of a female medical school student who was sexually violated by three classmates. Though the student reported this offence to the university, it turned a blind eye to her situation until public pressure made it impossible to ignore. Even then, the university took three months to take any disciplinary action. During this time, the victim had to sit an exam in the same room as her perpetrators, was harassed by their families, and subject to a number of vicious smear campaigns.
Such lack of legal protection and social stigma contribute to establishing an atmosphere of fear among sexual assault victims. Korea is far behind in providing protection for victims; however, that does not excuse universities from doing so. Universities need to better protect their students by taking a zero tolerance policy against sex offenders. There must also be increased transparency and awareness of how sexual assault complaints are managed, and provision of proper legal assistance. More effort is needed to create an environment in which victims can feel safe enough to come forward. We need to help carry the weight of sexual assault victims and let them know they need not suffer in silence.