As long as her alleged rapist goes to Columbia, Emma Sulkowicz, CC ’15, plans on carrying a navy blue, extra-long twin-sized mattress wherever she goes.
Entitled “Carry That Weight,” the mattress is both the visual art major’s senior thesis and a step in her journey to come to terms with her experience. Over the past year, Sulkowicz has become a prominent critic of the University’s sexual assault adjudication policies, retelling her story to various administrators and media organizations to raise awareness.
“The past year of my life has been really marked by telling people what happened in that most intimate and private space,” Sulkowicz said, referring to the dorm bed where she was allegedly raped on the second night of her sophomore year.
“I was raped in my own dorm bed and since then, that space has become fraught for me. I feel like I’ve carried the weight of what happened there since then,” she added.
Months after her alleged rape, Sulkowicz reported the incident to the school. Her case, one of three individual complaints filed against the same student, was closed, and her rapist found “not responsible.” She appealed, but it was denied and the decision was upheld.
Frustrated and hoping to draw attention to the issue, she brought her story to the media, and has been featured by Time magazine, the New York Times, and MSNBC, among others. Last May, Sulkowicz was one of 23 students to file three separate federal complaints against Columbia for violating Title IX, II, and the Clery Act. She also filed a report with the NYPD.
Sulkowicz’s piece, while intensely personal, has gained support from student activist groups who feel it highlights their struggle to improve the way Columbia deals with sexual assault.
“For [Sulkowicz], this is not necessarily entirely an activist statement, but this is her home, the place where she lives and works and breathes and has friends. It’s a place to grow and learn, and she has to have it violated day after day after day by the person who violently assaulted her. And that's disgusting,” fellow activist Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, CC ’15, said on behalf of No Red Tape Columbia.
“We talk a lot about when is it worth it to compromise our safety and put ourselves in risky situations to push this conversation forward, but we’re at a point right now where the administration has demonstrated time and time again their inability to work with students on these issues,” she added.
Ridolfi-Starr, who is herself a survivor of sexual assault and lead complainant in the federal complaint, said the burden of the mattress reflects Sulkowicz’s repeated appeals to Columbia to reconsider her case.
“[Sulkowicz] has done everything in her power ... hoping that the school will realize the heinous mistake they’ve made,” Ridolfi-Starr said. “But it’s been made clear to us that [sexual assault] policy changes will never include a retroactive review of closed cases, and that leaves her in a very difficult position.”
For her piece, Sulkowicz sought guidance from visual arts professor Jon Kessler over the summer, after she took a class with him during sophomore year.
“Carrying around your university bed—which was also the site of your rape—is an amazingly significant and poignant and powerful symbol,” Kessler said. “I felt I had something to offer in terms of how artists have done endurance performance pieces in the past, and the connection between activism and performance.”
Kessler feels the piece possesses enormous potential to make an impact on campus culture. “The best art comes from a very personal place and from personal commitment and belief—otherwise you’re just doing an assignment,” he said.
“As a physical metaphor, the piece has tremendous power.”
Both Kessler and Ridolfi-Starr, however, are wary of potential responses from the University administration.
Kessler, citing the recently leaked email from Columbia Title IX Compliance Officer Virginia Ryan, said that “with all this evidence coming up ... it's so clear the way uni feels about this issue.”
“You look at the seeming significance of the [sexual assault policy] changes made over the summer, but those changes are really just there to appease the media and to appease parents. They're not made with students’ best interests in mind.”
“So yeah,” he said, “I think the University would love to see this go away.”
“I would not be surprised if [administrators] attempt to intervene with some kind of a policy mumbo-jumbo about a violation somewhere,” she said. “They’re dying for an excuse to get rid of her.”