A Columbia University student who says she was raped in her dorm room on campus is launching a performance art piece to call attention to her experience as well as the larger epidemic of sexual assault at US colleges. Emma Sulkowicz, now a senior majoring in visual arts, will carry a dorm room mattress with her everywhere she goes “for as long as I attend the same school as my rapist,” she told the Columbia Spectator. “The piece could potentially take a day, or it could go on until I graduate.”
Sulkowicz claims she was raped on the first day of her sophomore year of Columbia. She reported the assault to the college, along with two other women who claimed to have been raped by the same man, but all three cases were dismissed. Sulkowicz detailed in an interview with Time magazine the university’s alleged mishandling of her case, from a panelist who “kept asking me how it was physically possible for anal rape to happen” to a dean with authority to unilaterally decide the outcome of all sexual-assault case appeals. An article in Al Jazeera America details her experience of going to the NYPD, which was hardly better, as officers insinuated that she was lying and hadn’t been raped because she couldn’t remember the color of her assaulter’s eyes.
Sulkowicz is also part of a group of Columbia students who, earlier this year, filed complaints against their school with the federal government “charging systematic mishandling of assault claims and mistreatment of victims.”
In the piece for Time, Sulkowicz explains the trauma she’s faced over two years of having to share a campus with her rapist. “Last semester I was working in the dark room in the photography department. Though my rapist wasn’t in my class, he asked permission from his teacher to come and work in the dark room during my class time. I started crying and hyperventilating,” she wrote.
Her senior thesis project, titled “Mattress Performance” or “Carry That Weight,” makes that burden visible and tangible. It also relates to how sexual assault survivors, if they choose to speak out, are forced to make extremely personal information public. As Sulkowicz told the Spectator:
I think the other thing about beds is that they’re — we keep them in our bedroom, which is like our intimate space, our private space where we can retreat if we don’t want to deal with anyone at that moment, but I think 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. So I think the act of like carrying something that is normally found in our bedroom out into the light is supposed to mirror the way I’ve talked to the media and talked to different news channels, etc.
Columbia promised earlier this year to revisit and reform the way it handles sexual assault, according to the New York Times, but there’s been no comment on Sulkowicz’s case specifically. It will be interesting to see how the school responds, if at all, to the attention the performance piece generates, and what will happen if Sulkowicz shows up at her, and her alleged rapist’s, graduation ceremony with the mattress in hand.