Earlier today, Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia University student who garnered international attention for her senior thesis project, Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight), graduated from college with her mattress right by her side. With the help of a few friends, Sulkowicz carried the mattress across the commencement stage in continued protest of how the school handled her alleged sexual assault in 2012. Its message was both incredibly powerful and entirely empowering.
“The past year of my life has been really marked by telling people what happened in that most intimate and private space,” Sulkowicz told the Columbia Daily Spectator in a video interview last September. “I was raped in my own dorm bed and since then, that space has become fraught for me. I feel like I’ve carried the weight of what happened there since then.”
“The [mattress art] piece could potentially take a day, or it could go on until I graduate,” she continued.
For those unfamiliar, Sulkowicz was allegedly raped by a classmate in her dorm room during her sophomore year, and Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) was her attempt to turn her pain into performance art. The project, in part, also came from frustrations with how her assault was handled by the university and police. Sulkowicz filed a complaint against her alleged attacker, Paul Nungesser, with Columbia University in April 2013, but he was found “not responsible” later that year. Two other women came forward to accuse him of assault on campus. Sulkowicz then filed a complaint with the New York Police Department (they did not pursue charges) and a Title IX complaint against the university in 2014 — a federal law that prohibits gender-based discrimination in federally-funded education programs. When her efforts proved fruitless, she came up with the idea for Carry That Weight. (Nungesser denied all accusations in an interview with The New York Times, and said that he had plans to sue both Columbia University and Sulkowicz’s thesis advisor, also for violation of Title IX.)
As part of the project, Sulkowicz would carry a mattress with her wherever she went on campus until she graduated or Nungesser was expelled. The project was meant to be a visual representation of the emotional weight she carried as a result of the attack, forcing a topic often hidden away or ignored to be brought to light. She would be allowed to accept help carrying the mattress, but only when offered — and soon after Carry That Weight began, many were more than happy to coordinate with her to make sure she wasn’t carrying it alone.
“The idea of carrying a mattress got stuck in my head the way a song gets stuck in your head, and I unpacked why carrying a mattress is an important visual for me,” Sulkowicz told New York Magazine last year. “I thought about how I was raped in my own bed at Columbia; and how the mattress represents a private place where a lot of your intimate life happens; and how I have brought my life out in front for the public to see; and the act of bringing something private and intimate out into the public mirrors the way my life has been.”
Her project struck a chord with sexual assault survivors nationwide, and sparked a greater discussion on victim-blaming and how we talk about sexual assault in general. Students rallied across the nation in solidarity with Sulkowicz, and some even carried their own mattresses in protest. That Sulkowicz would choose to carry her mattress at graduation seemed both obvious and essential: We don’t get to decide when to stop carrying the weight of our past trauma, even in moments that should be our most joyful.
But not everyone was in support of Sulkowicz’s decision. According to the Columbia Daily Spectator, the university sent an email to graduating seniors on Monday that stated, “Graduates should not bring into the ceremonial area large objects which could interfere with the proceedings or create discomfort to others in close, crowded spaces shared by thousands of people.” The publication was quick to point out that similar memos were not sent in previous years, and it was unclear if the move was meant as a direct attack on Sulkowicz. Either way, she brought her mattress along with her — and the audience responded with applause and support.
According to the Justice Department, only 20% of campus assault victims report their assault to the police out of fear of reprisal, not being believed, or getting their attacker in trouble. If Sulkowicz’s project helped to make it easier for victims — women and men — to come forward, then it will have done immeasurable good. Regardless of your feelings on the project, Carry That Weight helped shift the dialogue on how we talk about sexual assault, and we can think of few things as essential today. Carry That Weight may finally have come to an end, but we remain as grateful as ever that Sulkowicz brought so much attention to something so important, yet so often swept under the rug.