On Tuesday morning, Emma Sulkowicz carried her mattress across the Columbia University commencement stage. By doing so, she also carried herself and her one-woman protest against rape back into the headlines.

[Columbia student takes her protest onto commencement stage]

Columbia President Lee Bollinger literally turned his back on her, appearing to refuse to shake her hand as Sulkowicz strode across the stage with the mattress. (Columbia says the missed handshake was unintentional). Sulkowicz shrugged and kept marching as the crowd applauded. Afterward, she said she was done with her project.

But the bitter debate her project helped ignite across the country isn’t yet done with her.

Emma Sulkowicz brought a mattress to Columbia University's Class Day to protest what she said was the school's mishandling of her sexual assault complaint. (Columbia Daily Spectator)

Hours after the graduation ceremony, posters featuring a photo of Sulkowicz alongside the words “pretty little liar” and the Twitter hashtag #RapeHoax appeared around Columbia’s campus. The large black and white posters were plastered on subway signs and on boarded up buildings, street lights and newspaper kiosks.

It’s unclear who is behind the #RapeHoax campaign, but the same people also appear to have started a “Fake Rape” account on Twitter and Flickr (the Flickr account has since been taken down). Neither Sulkowicz nor the unnamed individuals behind the #RapeHoax campaign immediately returned requests for comment made late Thursday night.

As with every twist and turn during the 10-month saga of Sulkowicz’s public protest, reaction to the posters was immediate and intense. Photos showed New Yorkers tearing down the posters in disgust on Wednesday morning, only for similar photos to be mockingly posted on the “Fake Rape” Twitter feed as well.

Sulkowicz has yet to comment on the posters, although she did take to Facebook on Thursday to praise an article that criticized the posters and the campaign against her.

The 22-year-old launched her protest last August, carrying a mattress around campus to protest how Columbia handled her sexual assault complaint. Sulkowicz says that during her sophomore year she was raped by a fellow student, whom she didn’t name but has since been identified as Paul Nungesser.

“I will be carrying this dorm room mattress with me everywhere I go for as long as I attend the same school as my rapist,” she told the Columbia Daily Spectator last fall. “The piece could potentially take a day or it could go on until I graduate.”

Her dramatic gesture quickly gained the attention of media and her fellow students. She was profiled in the New York Times and lauded by anti-sexual-assault groups. Sulkowicz turned the protest into her senior thesis, calling the project “Carry That Weight.” And on Oct. 29, 130 schools around the country participated in a “Carry That Weight Together” event as part of a National Day of Action against sexual assault.

[How a mattress became a symbol of student activism]

But Sulkowicz’s very public protest also drew criticism, particularly after Columbia cleared Nungesser. In an interview with the Daily Beast, Nungesser not only denied raping Sulkowicz but said he had been victimized by a smear campaign falsely labeling him a rapist.


Emma Sulkowicz carries a mattress in protest of what she says was Columbia University’s lack of action after she reported being raped during her sophomore year on Sept. 5, 2014, in New York City. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Last month, Nungesser sued Columbia, its board of trustees, president Bollinger and one of its professors, claiming that the school failed to protect him from Sulkowicz’s “harassment campaign” even after he had been cleared. “Columbia University’s effective sponsorship of the gender-based harassment and defamation of Paul resulted in an intimidating, hostile, demeaning . . . learning and living environment,” the suit alleged.

[Columbia sued by male student in ‘Carry that Weight’ rape case]

Sulkowicz’s appearance with the mattress on stage on Tuesday led to another round of criticism. Conservative writer Heather Wilhelm slammed Sulkowicz for protesting but not initially referring the case to police. “The result, sadly, is mattress feminism: a squishy, no-backbone ideology that eschews female agency, rejects critical thinking, and encourages women to be helpless doormats — or downright delusional — when it comes to the topic of sexual assault,” Wilhelm wrote.

Nungesser’s family also released a statement slamming Sulkowicz and her “false narrative.”

“Our son’s graduation should have been a joyous moment for our whole family. We are extremely proud of Paul for graduating, even more so because of the harassment campaign he was subjected to. For over two years, he had to fight false accusations and a public witch-hunt, even though Columbia and the NYPD exonerated him,” the statement said. “Responsible for this nightmare is not just the woman, who received an academic degree for the attempt to shame Paul away from campus, but even more at fault is the University that conferred this degree. A university that bows to a public witch-hunt no longer deserves to be called a place of enlightenment, of intellectual and academic freedom.”

But the posters put up Tuesday night are part of a broader reaction to rising criticism of sexual assault on campus. Just as Sulkowicz’s protest has become a rallying cry for anti-sexual-assault activists, so, too, has it become a symbol to her critics of the dangers of rushing to side with female accusers.

Lurking in the background is the scandal surrounding Rolling Stone’s article on alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia. After The Washington Post and other media exposed serious flaws in Rolling Stone’s reporting, the magazine retracted the article.

Shortly after Rolling Stone’s article started falling apart, an opinion piece in USA Today bemoaned the “great campus rape hoax” allegedly sweeping the nation. “The truth is that there’s no epidemic outbreak of college rape,” wrote Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor. “In fact, rape on college campuses is — like rape everywhere else in America — plummeting in frequency. And that 1-in-5 college rape number you keep hearing in the press? It’s thoroughly bogus, too.”

Reynolds was referring to an often-cited CDC study finding that nearly one in five women have been raped. “Even one rape is too many, of course, on or off of campus,” he wrote. “But when activists and politicians try to gin up a phony crisis, public trust is likely to be a major casualty.”

And then, of course, there is the pushback to the pushback. The #RapeHoax posters didn’t last long before they were literally torn down. Twitter users tore away at the “Fake Rape” account online, accusing it of bullying. And the Flickr account was quickly blocked.

“I went public with my story because I wanted to show the world how flawed the college process for handling cases of sexual assault is,” Sulkowicz has said.

Ultimately, that may be the only thing that the two sides agree on.