You’ve probably heard of Emma Sulkowicz, even if you’re unfamiliar with her name.
She’s the Columbia University senior who has committed herself to toting around a mattress until the school expels the fellow student she says raped her, or he leaves on his own. She’s been carrying it around since August. In doing so, she’s generated a lot of buzz, namely because it’s really difficult to ignore a woman toting a mattress with her wherever she goes on campus.
Some background: In a piece for Time, Sulkowicz wrote she was raped by another Columbia student the first day of her sophomore year. The rape took place in her dorm room, she said. Sulkowicz reported the rape to Columbia after she encountered two other women who said they had been victimized by the same individual. Like many survivors of sexual assault, Sulkowicz was reluctant to report her rape accusations because she didn’t want to relive the trauma of the event.
Months later, the university held a hearing, and the student Sulkowicz accused was found not guilty. She appealed to Columbia’s dean. The school refused to expel her alleged assailant. Sulkowicz thought Columbia mishandled her case, and she is one of 23 students from Columbia and Barnard who filed federal Title IX complaints alleging the schools mishandled their cases. Sulkowicz filed a police report, the New York Times reported, but didn’t follow through with the necessary steps to prosecute the student because she was too distraught.
“Every day, I am afraid to leave my room,” she wrote. “Even seeing people who look remotely like my rapist scares me. Last semester I was working in the dark room in the photography department. Though my rapist wasn’t in my class, he asked permission from his teacher to come and work in the dark room during my class time. I started crying and hyperventilating. As long as he’s on campus with me, he can continue to harass me. … When I was raped, I was screaming ‘no’ and struggling against him. It was obviously not consensual, but he was turned on by my distress.”
There has been a rejuvenated effort to do something about campus rape because it affects so many women — and because of the revelation the way many universities handle rape cases is systemically flawed at best and at worst, illegal. “Columbia students say administrators tell those who file assault claims that they must not discuss their cases outside the confines of the campus disciplinary process, though similar practices at other schools have run afoul of federal regulators, and victim advocates call them blatantly illegal,” the New York Times reported. One in five women have reported experiencing an attempted or completed assault while in college. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) is particularly dedicated to reforming the way colleges handle sexual assault cases, as is the Obama administration. Earlier this year, the White House announced the formation of the “It’s On Us” campaign, which is focused on stopping campus rape and reforming the reporting and hearing process.
“I saw institutions that perhaps had not prioritized the rights and power of the victim … institutions [that] certainly could be guilty of trying to minimize this problem because of how it reflects on” them, McCaskill told The Washington Post.
Sulkowicz is a visual arts major. She decided to use her rape, and what she saw as Columbia’s mishandling of her case, as inspiration for her senior thesis. So everywhere she goes on campus, she’s accompanied by a 50-pound, extra-long twin mattress, covered in a navy-blue fitted sheet. “Carry That Weight” is part protest, part performance art, and it’s captured nationwide attention. Sulkowicz was the cover story of an issue of New York magazine dedicated to campus rape.
“In my case, I was raped in my own bed,” Sulkowicz told “Democracy Now” host Amy Goodman. “Of course, rape can happen anywhere, but for me, it sort of desecrated one of the most intimate and private places of my life and the way that I’ve brought my story from a place that I keep secret out into the public eye sort of mirrors carrying the mattress out into the light for everyone.”
Now Sulkowicz has piqued the attention of the reigning high priestess of performance art, Marina Abramović, who has already met her parents.
“I really want to meet her,” Abramović told New York magazine at the after-party for her new show, “Generator,” at the Sean Kelly Gallery. There are reportedly plans for her to do so next week. “Many people don’t have the willpower to stick to something no matter what, and that’s what she’s doing,” she said. Abramović told the magazine she was curious about Sulkowicz’s next step: “An artist doesn’t make a name with one piece, they have to make a body of work.”