How One Mattress Sparked a Movement

Photo by Andrew Burton
Photo by Kristina Budelis

There is no doubt in the informed collective consciousness that sexual assault and rape has become an enormous issue on college campuses nationwide. It reflects a greater problem in society today where, mostly women, are blamed for their rape more than the rapist themselves either due to their clothing, level of intoxication, or just appearing to ‘ask for it’ in a plethora of unimaginably contrived ways. However, the modern feminist is combating these cultural ideologies with protests and campaigns aimed to shift common thinking. From parades like Slut Walk to movements like Project Not Asking for It, students have made a point to make a stand against these cultural standards. Emma Sulkowicz, a recent graduate of Columbia University, has become a well known face in the fight against college administrations’ handling of such sexual assault cases. Before her internationally renown piece ‘Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight), Sulkowicz was just another of the 1 in 4 women that report surviving sexual assault on college campuses.

On the first day of her sophomore year at the university, Sulkowicz claims she was raped, in her own dorm room bed, by fellow student Paul Nungesser, who is currently suing Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger for defamation. Sulkowicz came to the university eight months later, along with two other girls who made separate claims of assault, to report the alleged rape. The university, despite finding Nungesser guilty of assaulting one fellow student a year prior to Sulkowicz’s case, found him ‘not responsible’. Sulkowicz even tried taking the case to the NYPD to no avail. And that’s when her art piece was born.

For her senior thesis Sulkowicz carried a standard 50 pound extra long dorm mattress with her everywhere around school until her alleged rapist no longer attended Columbia University or they graduated. Sulkowicz is very specific in her interview with The Cut to identify her piece as more performance than protest, but that hasn’t stopped hundreds of news outlets from sharing the story, and other students, both in Columbia and around the world, from performing protests to create an international dialogue about protecting young women on college campuses.

Unfortunately, no action was taken against Nungesser and Sulkowicz ended up dragging that dull blue bed across the stage during her graduation just two days ago, where President Bollinger appeared to refuse to shake her hand after she received her diploma, which officials assure was not at all a snub. What’s even worse? The same day, someone (or some people) covered Morningside Heights in posters of the ‘Mattress Girl’ and Lena Dunham with the words ‘Pretty Little Liar’ plastered over the image and even created a Twitter called @fakerape to publicize the stunt and ‘to educate people about fake rape claims & how damaging they are.’ Dunham also hopped onto Twitter to defend the Columbia student. Luckily, Emma’s friends and supporters have been helping to rid the neighborhood of the posters. However, this overreaction to Sulkowicz’s piece just shows the misogyny laced into societies consciousness.

Through this year long process, we have watched Emma Sulkowicz try every avenue available to her to try and bring justice to the case, but it has become clear that the bureaucratic systems surrounding reports of rape are uninterested in the expeditious and tactful response that victims deserve. With Columbia’s action, or lack there of, it is clear that colleges/universities are most preoccupied with publicity than they are with the safety and comfort of their students. However, Sulkowicz’s performance was not in vain. ‘Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)’ has started a dialogue surrounding the rampant sexual assault found on college campuses. Sulkowicz was given the opportunity to attend a press conference discussing the problem of sexual assault on campus with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. A national organization, Carry That Weight Together, has also started up to bring awareness. Columbia has even now required a sexual respect class for all students and created an Office of University Life to help students when reporting cases like these. The changes are small, and we can’t say that they will be foolproof, but at the very least, Columbia (and ideally other universities) knows that students will not stay silent.

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