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Image of Emma Sulkowicz by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang (image courtesy Emma Sulkowicz)

Back in 2014, Emma Sulkowicz was a senior undergraduate student at Columbia University studying the visual arts. Having long-struggled against the university’s Title IX policies that failed to hold accountable the man Sulkowicz accused of rape, they decide on “Mattress Performance” as a thesis project — an endurance piece of sorts that would involve Sulkowicz carrying a 50-pound mattress across campus for the entire academic year until graduation. (Disclosure: Emma and I were in the same year at Columbia and were acquaintances during our time at school.)

Almost immediately, Sulkowicz became a central figure in a nationwide fight to reform lax university guidelines that often failed to adequately investigate cases of sexual misconduct. Reactions in the media were fierce: journalists on one end of the spectrum referred to the young artist with glowing respect, while the other end vilified Sulkowicz as a dishonest “Mattress Girl.”

But Emma Sulkowicz is not a “Mattress Girl.” They aren’t even a girl.

Despite the many articles and Wikipedia pages that refer to Sulkowicz as a woman, they actually identify as gender non-conforming and use the pronouns they/them. The omission — or dare I say the erasure — of Sulkowicz’s queer identity indicates the public’s continued unwillingness to reckon with the notion that queer people can be victims of sexual violence.

As one possible queer prologue to the #MeToo movement we know today, Sulkowicz’s story is a prime example of how reporting on sexual misconduct can often miss critical angles of the power dynamics at play. In light of the recent Avital Ronell scandal at New York University, in which both the accused assailant and victim identify as queer, it’s important to began having these discussions about the relationship between queer bodies and sexual violence.

Addressing these concerns, I spoke with Sulkowicz on the matter. Below are some edited and condensed excerpts from my conversation with Emma. You can find the full discussion on Hyperallergic’s Art Movements podcast here.

*     *     *

Hyperallergic: Three years after “Mattress Performance” began, what’s your opinion on the performance piece?

Emma Sulkowicz: At a certain point, I thought that the point of art was to express my emotions. I thought that I was doing art “correctly” by making something that accurately described how other women and gender non-conforming students that my accused rapist had attacked felt. And that’s always important for me to say when I talk about “Mattress Performance,” because it wasn’t just about me. We only reported our assaults after encountering each other.

H: While listeners might remember you for “Mattress Performance,” what they likely don’t know about you is that you identify as a queer person and use the pronouns they/them. For the public, if the concept of a female victim of sexual violence was already controversial, then the notion that the drama surrounding your endurance piece occurred around a queer person of color was simply “too much” to digest. How has the erasure of your queer identity in the media profiles affected you?

ES: Another victim of my attacker identifies as transfeminine. I remember when they were going through their sexual assault hearings that one of my rapist’s defenses was, “I’m not gay, I would never sexually assault this man.” It completely obliterated the victim’s gender identity and denied any queerness on the attacker’s part. But of course, he had assaulted multiple gender non-conforming people. I see this as his way of expressing his own violent queer sexuality.

Being the victim of assault helped me realize that I was gender non-conforming. I think it’s important to talk about the slippage of [identifying as] in-between. On one level, identifying as “they” is gendered, but it is also ontological. For me, I became aware of my gender fluidity through the experience of receiving The New York Times with my photo on the front cover. This was an object dropped on my doorstep every morning of my childhood. I always saw the chracters on its cover as flat or unreal. Seeing myself turned into an object in that way helped recontextualize all the time I had been physically turned into an object through sexual assault, and all the times that men had seen me as nothing more than a fleshlight, a sex doll, or a means-to-an-end. “They” evokes my slippage between man and woman, but it also evokes the way that I see the slippage between human and object. Sometimes that feeling of being objectified happens through acts of violence. “They” is about reclaiming that feeling and turning it into something powerful and politically important.

H: As cliché as it sounds, it’s important to speak your truth and to assert  your own humanity in today’s society. One criticism that I think is valid about the #MeToo movement is that queer people are often forgotten in the fight against rape culture.

ES: Society has a lot of difficult believing that queer people can be victims, but it also cannot believe that queer people can be assailants. This is something so important to me because one of my attacker’s defenses at Columbia was that he could have never attacked a genderqueer person because he wasn’t gay — whatever the fuck that means. There is a societal resistence to believing that two things can happen simultaneously.

H: People have trouble believing that two things can be true at once. Unfortunately, violence is not unique to any one gender. Looking at the case of sexual misconduct with Professor Avital Ronell at New York University, there is a similar disbelief that a woman could ever be an assailant.

ES: Reading through The New York Times article on the Ronell case, there were so many classic defenses that I’m familiar with people using. It said that the Title IX investigation concluded that there was not enough evidence to find Professor Ronell responsible for sexual assault, partly because nobody observed the interactions in his apartment or her room in Paris. If we are going to say that sexual assault cannot be true if there isn’t a third person present to take notes, then that means pretty much no sexual assault on Earth has ever happened.

H: And what I don’t think people understand is that Title IX campus investigations usually place the burden of proof on the victim, whereas legal court cases place the burden of proof on the accused. What this means is that the law is already stacked against the victim from the beginning of an investigation. Even though Title IX exists, even though Ronell’s supporters think she is a victim of a witch-hunt, it’s actually stacked in her favor.

ES: And by that logic, we should always have someone watching us to have sex.

When people say that the #MeToo Movement has gone too far, it’s important to remember that social movements are organic, weird things with a bunch of people laying claim to it. Within the #MeToo Movement, there are people doing it the way I would and also some people who are making a huge mess. Similarly, if Professor Ronell is laying claim to this position of feminism, then I don’t think she is performing very well. There are a lot of feminists and there are a lot of people who claim to be feminists. By sexually assaulting a student, you are no longer being a very good feminist.

H: But of course, Ronell wouldn’t call these events as sexual assault or even harassment. I think these debates reveal a generational gap. Our young generation requires an intersectional approach — you cannot have feminism without acknowledging issues of race, economics, class, gender, and sexuality. And as queer people, we understand that our bodies are up for play in this discourse. That there is so much at stake in supporting a feminism for all people. But for these connections to be ignored, and for Ronell to say that there was no issue in her interactions with her graduate student is to ignore the power politics already at play between an advisor and an advisee.

ES: That’s so true. We see feminism as inseparable from any other social movement because we have a more holistic view. One thing that’s changed for our generation is that language has developed to a point where we are able to understand when we’ve experienced violence. After “Mattress Performance,” many women from past generations contacted me and said, “Wow, your work helped me realized that what I experienced twenty years ago was rape.” We live in a time when words have changed. We have a term called ”Harvey Weinstein”; we have terms to describe sexual assault. The dangers and experiences of violence are felt more today because we can articulate them. Being able to make work that is personal has become more urgent and political; more natural, even for our generation in a way that artists in the past may not have really felt.

*     *     *

You can listen to the interview with Emma Sulkowicz on the August 30, 2018 edition of the Art Movements podcast.

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Zachary Small

Zachary Small was the senior writer at Hyperallergic and has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, Artforum, and other publications. They have...

30 replies on “Queer Identity in the MeToo Movement: A Conversation with Emma Sulkowicz”

  1. Emma accepted the 2016 “Woman of Courage” award from the National Organization for Women. Now the public is bad for thinking she’s a woman.

    You really make it hard, Ivy Leage millennials. You really do.

    1. There are so many wonderful Robyn Reeders on social media. I saw one on Instagram whose bio reads, “The power of imagination makes us infinite.” Based on your above post, the profile obviously isn’t yours.

      It’s a shame that you can’t read an article (or did you?) about someone openly speaking about their experience with sexual assault in the public and an eventual realization of their queer identity. It’s a shame that you actually confirm the hypothesis of literally every #MeToo article we’ve posted on this site in the last two weeks that queer victims are not believed and attacked. Emma is allowed to accept the “Woman of Courage” award as others saw them fit to hold the title. The entire point of our discussion on intersectionality is that a person can identify with gender non-conformity and with being a woman, if they so want. Honestly, I’m not sure if Emma feels this way and I wouldn’t speak for them. I’m sure if you really wanted to know, you wouldn’t post a mean message on a public forum and email your question directly.

      But then again you aren’t the nice Robyn from Instagram. You’re our comments troll ⫷ °⧭° ⫸

      1. She even gave an acceptance speech for her woman award. You pretend her true gender identity has been “erased” by the simpletons, while she’s on record relishing in her woman status. This oppression story isn’t holding up. Just talk about your millennial pathologies without feigning victim status; that’s the annoying part, and what the alt-right uses as fodder to mock the left.

        Trolling the art world is the Hyperallergic brand – it’s already in the name – so don’t act startled when you get called out, nor mistake counter-criticism for trolling. This is the house you built and “shaming” others won’t get you out.

          1. Because she has no gender, she has only bile and spite and a foetid yeast disease for an organ. She’s OVER is she ever actually was.

  2. Brave, empowered and yet, struggling. Why is they having such a hard time now that the spotlight is gone – Patriarchy and TERF-infected Feminism. You got it – that’s why.

  3. Couple minor typos from an ol’ proofreader: change difficult to difficulty (Society has a lot of difficult-y); and the first smart quote for “Harvey Weinstein” is pointing the wrong way.

    [Please erase my comment when implemented – no pun intended. 🙂 ]

  4. I don’t see the fundamental difference between Queer Rape and Straight Rape. Sulkowitz was taken to be a woman because they defined themself as such to the media (as noted by another correspondent). The confusion seems irrelevant to the fact that they were compelled into some kind of sexual act against their will. This is not a criticism of anyone’s gender (whatever that might mean), it’s a criticism of what goes for journalism and public discourse.

    1. SHE begged him to come over and “do me in the butt”. HE won his lawsuit. HE turned out to be INNOCENT. The “other victims” were Emma’s friends who ALL RETRACTED THEIR INITIAL CLAIMS. SHE made the same claim of rape to her prior BF. Between 2014 and 2017 there was ZERO talk of Emma being anything other than female. Not part of her claim, not in any interviews, not in any of her art. This woman is straight up crazy.

      1. The reason why the guy didn’t give Emma the time of day was because she was well known as being a “be careful she’ll accuse you of rape” girl due to her doing it multiple times prior.

  5. No more interest in the continuing losing of this loser. Get back to me when she fellates a flamethrower.

    1. Did you really name your profile after a secondary character from a Dickens novel? Funny that he’s described as such: “A once-wealthy businessman, Noggs lost his fortune, became a drunk, and had no other recourse but to seek employment with Ralph, whom he loathes.” Sorry things haven’t worked out for you. Don’t take it out on other people, though </3

  6. She tried to ruin another’s life because she felt rejected and embarrassed. She should feel shame, however, I sense she is incapable of that. She is also acutely dishonest.

  7. “And what I don’t think people understand is that Title IX campus investigations usually place the burden of proof on the victim, whereas legal court cases place the burden of proof on the accused.” Huh? Since when has guilty until proven innocent been the standard in criminal trials? Even in civil cases with a preponderance standard the plaintiff still has the burden of proof. Your sheer ignorance is astounding, and all the more disturbing having attended one of our most prestigious universities.

  8. “And what I don’t think people understand is that Title IX campus investigations usually place the burden of proof on the victim, whereas legal court cases place the burden of proof on the accused.” Huh? Since when has guilty until proven innocent been the standard in criminal trials? Even in civil cases with a preponderance standard the plaintiff still has the burden of proof. Your sheer ignorance is astounding, and all the more disturbing having attended one of our most prestigious universities.

  9. an investigation into her claims against nungasser found that her account could not be substantiated, and in fact columbia settled a lawsuit with him because they were in the wrong for allowing this “woman” to publically name and shame him. she is a liar and has profited from her destructive and defaming accusations. there is no justice in injustice.

  10. Are you kidding me? This woman-‘and ill call her woman because she said she was years ago- is a fraud. Everything she’s done is for her narcistic self. Even that rape porn video. Sick!

  11. This is so stunningly mindless:
    “I see this as his way of expressing his own violent queer sexuality.”

  12. If she / they / whatever spent 1/10th the time and energy on dealing with her own mental issues as she does on chasing spotlight, she’d be a highly productive member of society by now. You know, kinda like Paul Nungassar.

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