Should a College Student Really Need to Drag Around a Mattress to Get Her School to Care About Sexual Assault?

A visual arts major is trying an unconventional method to get Columbia University to pay attention to campus rape.
Sep 3, 2014·
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Lugging a twin-size dorm-room mattress has put a spotlight on Columbia University senior Emma Sulkowicz—one that she hopes will shine a light on the problem of sexual assault on college campuses. She says she's bringing her bed to classes, to the gym, and even to hang out with her friends and will continue to do so until her rapist leaves campus.

Sulkowicz says she was raped in her dorm room on the first day of her sophomore year of college. She reported her attack. Two other women named the same person as their attacker. All three allegations were dismissed, and the accused student remains on campus.

In her visual arts thesis project, titled Carry That Weight, Sulkowicz turns her inward struggle into something tangible. “I feel like I’ve carried the weight of what happened there with me everywhere since then," she explains in the video.

Sulkowicz is one of 23 students to file a Title IX complaint against Columbia University and Barnard College with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in April. In each of three separate complaints, they detail pressure from counseling services not to report attacks and inadequate disciplinary proceedings, The New York Times reports. Following the federal complaint and student protests, Columbia released a revised Gender-Based Misconduct Policy on Aug. 15.

Along with a stricter code of conduct, including implicit consent, the college will open a Sexual Violence Response and Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center next month and has added six staff members to help respond to such crises.

After a sexual assault, women like Sulkowicz often turn to the school administration seeking justice and refuge from their assailant, but Columbia and 75 other universities are under federal investigation for alleged failures in dealing with allegations of rape.

For those accused of attacking another student, sexual assault discipline varies from school to school but often includes a hearing in front of a panel for a ruling and, if found guilty, punishment. In Sulkowicz’s case, she said she suffered through a hearing involving insensitive and invasive questions. The panel found her attacker not guilty. Her appeal of that decision was denied, and her attacker suffered no repercussions. Sulkowicz’s rapist continued to harass her and even found his way into the dark room of her photography class.

“Every day, I am afraid to leave my room,” she told Time in May.