Columbia University senior Emma Sulkowicz says she was raped by a fellow student in her own dorm bed at the start of her sophomore year – but to her dismay and frustration, she received little to no support from her own school. Two years on, the Visual Arts major is protesting her university's inaction by carrying her mattress everywhere she goes until her alleged rapist is expelled.
"Rape can happen anywhere. For me, I was raped in my own dorm bed," the 21-year-old student told the Columbia Spectator. "Since then, that's become fraught for me. I feel like I've carried the weight of what's happened there everywhere since then."
Sulkowicz's protest is part of her senior thesis project and is titled "Mattress Performance" or "Carry That Weight". She says the durational performance piece could last a day or until she graduates, "for as long as I attend the same school as my rapist". As part of the performance, Sulkowicz is not allowed to ask for help from others to carry the mattress, though others can offer it of their own accord.
Watch a video interview with Emma Sulkowicz below:
Sulkowicz reported her alleged rapist to the school in last April, but the university judged him "not responsible" for the assault. Columbia also reached the same verdict when two other women had filed complaints against the same man.
The Columbia senior is part of a group of students that has filed a federal complaint against the school, alleging that the university has systematically mishandled rape claims and mistreated survivors of assault. In the past year, students from 67 schools have filed similar complaints, accusing their universities of violating Title IX, a law which prohibits sex discrimination in education. The White House has also committed to ending campus rape with the creation of a new task force to curb sexual assault.
Pretty depressingly, the situation isn't much better in UK universities. This week, Oxford student Maria Marcello penned an now-viral essay detailing how her uni failed to punish her alleged rapist, even after he bragged about the assault and stalked her on a night out.
Alongside the overwhelming support she received, Maria Marcello also noted that some told her that it was her fault for drinking at university. "A large amount of heavy drinking at universities is done by men," she wrote. "How often are they sexually assaulted when they’re as drunk as I was, and why should I expect less?"
It's one thing to applaud Sulkowicz and Marcello for taking a stand against campus rape and assault, but it's another to stand with them. They're right: female students shouldn't expect less at university – especially from the institutions that are meant to protect them.
If you want to campaign to help end US campus rape, check out student-led lobby group Know Your IX.
Follow Zing Tsjeng on Twitter here @misszing