Throughout the past few years, more and more instances of campus rape and assault have garnered media attention, placing huge amounts of public scrutiny on college administrators, campus policies, and the victims of these crimes. According to New York Magazine, Emma Sulkowicz is one of 23 students who are part of a federal Title IX complaint filed against Columbia University in April for “mishandling sexual assault cases.” Unlike the other students at Columbia and other universities across the country, Sulkowicz has decided to address her rapist, and her school, in a very public way.
Mattress Performance or Carry That Weight is Sulkowicz’s aptly named and deeply personal performance piece that not only fulfills her senior thesis, but also addresses a traumatic experience she endured while in her second year at Columbia. Sulkowicz alleges that a classmate raped her in her own dorm bed on the first day of her sophomore year of college. The incident has haunted Sulkowicz ever since, particularly because of how Columbia handled, or rather, mishandled, the accusation.
“Every day, I’m afraid to leave my room,” Sulkowicz told Time back in May, of the fact that her rapist still attends Columbia. “Even seeing people who look remotely like my rapist scares me,” she says. “As long as he’s on campus with me, he can continue to harass me.”
Mattress Performance is Sulkowicz’s way of addressing what happened to her, while calling attention to Columbia’s policies when it comes to sexual assault on campus. In the ongoing performance piece, Sulkowicz, who studies visual arts, will carry around her dorm room mattress to signify the burden that she has carried since she was raped. She intends to carry the mattress “for as long as I attend the same school as my rapist,” which could be until she graduates in 2015, or sooner, if Columbia decides to expel the classmate who committed the crime.
“I was raped in my own dorm bed, and since then that space has become fraught for me,” Sulkowicz explains. “I feel like I’ve carried the weight of what happened there with me everywhere since then,” of the emotional toll she has endured since the assault. Mattress Performance is a visual representation of the shame that Sulkowicz has felt since she was raped, and is directly challenging Columbia to take notice, and take action. As New York Magazine notes, “Though she and two other students reported that the same student assaulted them, all of their claims were swept under the rug, and the male student was not expelled from campus,” of the way that Columbia, and many other colleges, have mishandled or completely ignored rape allegations.
With sexual assault statistics decidedly not in her favor, Emma Sulkowicz was incredibly brave to come forward about her rape in the first place. It is now up to Columbia to decide if she will have to carry the weight of her mattress, and her assault, with her until she graduates.