More Than Just A Mattress: Emma Sulkowicz

by / 11 Comments / 578 View / September 9, 2014

Mattresses aren’t easy to pick up and carryneither are the emotions and fear that come after being sexually assaulted. 

Emma Sulkowicz, a senior at Columbia University, feels both.

Sulkowicz was allegedly raped in her own dorm bed on her first day of her sophomore year. Following her sexual assault, she recounts in an article she wrote for the Time Magazine, saying: 

“I didn’t report it at first because I didn’t feel like dealing with the emotional trauma. But then I met two other women who told me the same person who had assaulted me assaulted them, and I decided I had to do something. We all reported our cases, and all three were dismissed.” The verdict? Her rapist “wasn’t guilty.”

Although the administration claims they have done everything in their power to investigate, this is not a sentiment held by many.

“There are a lot of people who don’t understand how the investigation the school did was inadequate, or who claim that because Emma decided not to continue working with the police to press charges she has nothing to complain about” says Caroline Lee, a first year student at Columbia College. 

Even with the university’s efforts to make themselves seem more proactive about sexual assault, the efforts have been described as though they “direct the blame and attention towards students and away from the administration,” says Columbia College student Taylor Hardy. 

The dismissal of her complaint by Columbia University administrators is not endemic only to Columbia, but to the greater network of institutions of higher-education. At college campuses nationwide—from the Ivy’s to the State Schools—this problem persists. 

In response to the administration’s inability to charge her rapist with wrongdoing, Sulkowicz began carrying a mattress around with her everywhere she went on campus.  Not only is this a form of a silent demonstration against the administration, it also her senior thesis project: Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)

Her goal: to get her “rapist off campus.”

Is it working? Her efforts have been profiled internationally; and this is not much ado about nothing. Sulkowicz is carrying her mattress around campus with her. 

After the  first day of my Statistics class at Columbia, as I walked across the quad on my way to grab lunch, I saw her carrying her mattress with the help of a few other students. 


Days later, I saw her in Ferris, one of the dining halls on campus, with her mattress propped against a wall close to her. 

This is more than just a “Mattress Performance,” it is both a metaphorical and physical statement against sexual assault and the policies and procedures of the University. 

Not only is this performance for her own experience but also for the assault survivors of the greater Columbia and Barnard community.  Or even across the world. 

In doing this, Sulkowicz becomes “a national symbol for the weight that tens of thousands of college students around the country have carried or will go through during their years at  university,” says Taylor Hardy. 

Despite the seeming worldwide support of Sulkowicz’s project, there are still many that are not sympathetic to her cause. “Victim-blaming and the accusatory scrutiny of the police and university administration,” as identified by Caroline Lee, often happens in sharp contrast to the support that survivors receive.  Further, there have been inflammatory comments made against Sulkowicz and her project online. 

Although Emma Sulkowicz is not having the easiest time carrying the mattress around campus, with the resounding support she has garnered world-wide, it’s refreshing to know that this could be the impetus for a creation of a much stronger university support system for survivors. 

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  • CUStudent

    Nice article, but why on earth did you choose to interview a freshman who probably got on campus like yesterday and is probably not entirely aware of the campus climate, when there are dozens, if not hundreds, of upperclassmen who have experienced the system, been involved in activism, and have, in general, been present while most of this has been going on?

    • LauraCU

      Valid point. But on the other hand there are “freshmen” who have been involved with the campus for longer than just a few days—like for months or even a couple of years already(due to a variety of reasons), so assuming that they have a weak knowledge of the campus environment is pretty myopic as a blanket statement. And while most freshmen probably don’t have a strong grasp of what’s going on, could you say anything better about the upperclassmen here?

      • CUStudent

        Just saying, 99% of the freshmen you claim were involved on campus before being a student here were probably only involved via appblr, College Confidential, and Days on Campus.

        I actually can say better about the upperclassmen; claiming that the upperclassmen don’t understand the situation shows that you yourself are not fully aware of the depth and history of this particular issue. Emma’s project did not happen in a vacuum–the activists who have been involved in this movement for the past year are massively more informed about the issue than most students, especially freshmen. Activists from CU Democrats spent Fall 2013 collecting signatures for a massive petition to reform sexual assault policy on campus, even tabling on College Walk in sub-freezing weather. Activists from No Red Tape and the Students Coalition against Sexual Violence spent Spring 2014 and the entire summer negotiating with administrators, raising awareness, and proposing recommendations for policy and curricula change. You’re also forgetting that there several people at Columbia, like Emma, who have been open to the media about their *lived experiences*, not just random postulations of why they think CU might be bad at handling this, of being sexually victimized on campus and reporting it to Title IX coordinators. Given the sheer number of people available to speak to this topic who have either relevant activism or lived experiences (freshmen have not been here long enough to have gained significant activism experience at CU and I hope to god that a frosh who’s been here for only two weeks hasn’t experienced reporting a Title IX violation), interviewing these particular freshmen about this was neither relevant nor appropriate.

        • Lovely. Just Lovely.

          While you may identify how better interviews could have been conducted in a diverse fashion, this comment is absolutely unwelcoming to new students and really seems to beg the question if you even sympathize with Emma given you spend so much energy attacking people who are defending her.

          • CUStudent

            If you really think that I’m attacking “people who are defending [Emma]”, then you probably haven’t seen the comments on similar articles where people actually are attacking them. There are a lot of journalists writing about this topic who, for the most part, are getting it right, including Bwog, Spectator, New York Times, CNN, and more. This topic is extremely sensitive and complicated and, therefore, requires an extremely high standards of journalism. Especially since the author is a CU student who probably has access to those who have been the most directly involved in this issue, choosing to interview people who are not immediately relevant to this discussion while neglecting to interview those who have direct experience with activism and the CU Title IX reporting system both silences survivors and contributes little meaning to the national and local conversation on this topic.

  • Katafao

    While you all were arguing about a small minute detail of this article, there were first-year students at today’s rally(at Columbia) who have come out as survivors of sexual assault on this campus. One first year student literally came out and said that she’s only been here for like two weeks, but that she’s already been raped, and that because of what’s been going on she has absolutely no clue what to do about it.

    Let’s talk about the fact that for the one first-year that came forward with her story today, there are probably a couple more that have been assaulted or raped in the first-few weeks here.

    Let’s talk about the fact that there were people who were roofied on “East Campus” during the first week back.

    Let’s talk about the fact that there’s a whole area of campus where people are warned not to go to because it’s where men go to “score”?

    Let’s talk about the fact that when I was sexually harassed at a party, when I went to a staff member on campus there wasn’t much he said he could do because it was “after the fact” and I didn’t know his name.

    What the fuck is wrong with this University?

    Instead of debating the faults of the article(every article has some), why don’t we focus our energies at trying to support the issue.

    Why aren’t we talking more about this?

    • Maria

      What’s wrong with this University? Columbia published a report yesterday or the day before detailing the incidence of campus sexual assaults and what the attacker’s punishment was.

      They clearly stated in their report that they allowed a student who was found guilty of sexual assault back on campus after he was removed. They’ve also left people who were assused by multiple people run loose.

      It’s obvious they don’t care—and that’s the problem. If I were to leave out a citation on a paper I risk being kicked out for plagiarism. If I were to assault someone, I probably wouldn’t even get a slap on the wrist here(this is a hypothetical here).

      That’s the problem.

      • Fiora

        The University has released another statement, and her parents have released a statement about the ordeal too. Columbia doesn’t have the power to kick her rapist out, they just don’t.

        Her cry for attention is obvious. Why should their be a push to kick someone out when we cant even determine whether he’s actually guilty?

  • Noam

    Emma Sulkowicz’s senior thesis won’t be used as an impetus for the creation of a stronger support system for survivors. If anything, it will push survivors of sexual assault on this campus further into hiding.

    This debacle clearly tells the students of Barnard and Columbia that we can’t trust our administration to act in our best interests. It’ll be a long while before this demonstration(and all of the subsequent ones that happen) will translate into true changes on campus

  • Lena Johnson

    It’s because Columbia doesn’t care, obviously

  • moishe pippick

    If Ms Sulkowicz is reading this: please press charges! Never mind getting Nungesser off campus, if he’s guilty he could go to jail for years. More importantly, it will send a clear message to rape victims to report their assault. I know that the criminal justice system is far from perfect but if it gets Nungesser off the streets it will be worth it. Without pressing charges, Sulkowicz allows her rapist to escape the real consequences and sends a dangerous message to other rape victims.