On Tuesday, Columbia University senior and visual arts major Emma Sulkowicz embarked on a very unusual thesis project: She plans to carry around a mattress to every one of her classes until the man who allegedly sexually assaulted her over two years ago leaves campus.
"I'll do this until he leaves on his own or if the school expels him — anything that means we're not going to school together. But I'm prepared to do it until I receive my diploma," Sulkowicz told BuzzFeed.
Two other women have also filed complaints against the student who Sulkowicz says raped her after hitting her across the face, choking her, and pinning her down when she was a sophomore. Sulkowicz, while attending a summer residency at Yale, had to carry a mattress out of a bedroom for a video project. That is where she got the inspiration for this project.
"The idea of me carrying a mattress sort of stuck in my head. I guess I decided to unpack why I was so fascinated with that idea. I was raped in my own dorm bed, so I think the idea of carrying the mattress represented, in my mind, carrying the weight of the memories that I have of that night and carrying the weight of how the school dismissed not only me but the other two women who reported against him, and the way the police harassed me when I reported my case."
According to Sulkowicz, the accused attacker was allowed to postpone his hearing for about seven to eight months, which dragged through her summer vacation and gave enough time for one of the other women who filed a complaint against him to graduate.
Because of the difficulty Sulkowicz has faced so far, she has taken every precaution in planning this performance piece. For instance, she purchased the mattress herself instead of using the one Columbia provided, as furniture cannot be removed from the dorm rooms. And she is sure to alert all professors that the art piece is happening, so that they can choose to deny her a spot in their class if they believe she will be too disruptive. So far, though, all her professors have been very supportive.
"The only reactions I've really received have been via email, text, and Facebook, and everything has been extremely positive — I've only received one really negative response to my piece. I guess I underestimate how much the negative responses really do hurt my feelings — I knew I was prepared for negative responses, but I always underestimate how painful it really will be, especially when it comes from someone I had considered a friend."
Sulkowicz isn't the first to speak out against sexual assault on the Columbia University campus, but her piece is sure to draw attention to the nationwide issue in an entirely new way. Sulkowicz told BuzzFeed that she hopes colleges will admit that their policies concerning sexual assault aren't working and that they will take steps to improve communication between student activists who want to change how rape culture is dealt with at universities.
"One of my rules is that I'm not allowed to ask for help when carrying the mattress, but if anyone offers help to me, I can accept it. I'm super sore and tired from today, but I know that over time I will build muscle and I will get stronger, and I'm so thankful that my friends are willing to help me carry the mattress when they see me."
Columbia University did not immediately respond to request for comment.