A senior studying visual arts at Columbia University has pledged to carry around her dorm mattress everywhere she goes as long as her rapist is enrolled at the same school — a visual performance that both highlights the weight Emma Sulkowicz carries as a rape victim, and the university’s failure to tackle sexual assaults in a way that punishes the alleged rapists while eliminating victim shame.
Sulkowicz was raped by a classmate on the first day of her sophomore year of college. The student who assaulted Sulkowicz is still a student on campus, despite having two separate sexual assault complaints filed against him by women at the university.
Sulkowicz is one of 23 students who are part of a federal Title IX complaint filed against Columbia in April for mishandling sexual-assault cases. Though she and two other students reported that the same student had assaulted them, all of their claims were swept under the rug, and the male student was not expelled from campus.
Now, she’s using her senior thesis to explore sexual assault in a way the campus hasn’t seen before. With Carry That Weight or The Mattress Performance, Sulkowicz aims to protest her attacker’s presence on campus and bring an intimate but rampant issue to light — literally.
“A mattress is the perfect size for me to just be able to carry it enough that I can continue with my day, but also heavy enough that I have to continually struggle with it,” the senior explains in her video. “I think the other thing about beds is that we keep them in our bedroom, which is our intimate and private space… The past year or so of my life has been really marked by telling people what happened in that most intimate, private space and bringing it out into the light.”
From the Columbia Spectator:
“I was raped in my own dorm bed, and since then that space has become fraught for me. And I feel like I’ve carried the weight of what happened there with me everywhere since then.”
Sulkowicz’s visual thesis is unique but not the first of its kind, especially on Columbia University’s campus.
From Think Progress:
Columbia University is no stranger to bold acts of protest against sexual assault. Back in 1999, students there started using red tape to symbolize their administration’s inaction on issues related to rape and violence, proclaiming that “red tape won’t cover up rape.” This past school year, current students resurrected the so-called “red tape protests” again, which quickly spread to other college campuses. And last spring, fed up with the lack of progress on the school’s sexual assault policy, Columbia students made national headlines by scrawling the names of accused rapists on bathroom walls all over campus.