When thinking of the most intimate spaces in life, one’s bed certainly makes the list. It’s a comforting place, symbolically representing privacy and self. But what happens when that space is interrupted, desecrated? Columbia University senior Emma Sulkowicz comes right to the point in an interview with the Columbia Daily Spectator:
I was raped in my own dorm bed … since then that space has become fraught for me.
Since Sulkowicz, a visual arts major, carries the emotional weight of her severe, painful sexual assault everywhere she goes, she decided to express that inner torment outwardly through a performance piece. In “Carry That Weight,” she literally HAULS her dorm-room mattress everywhere she goes—and will continue to do so until her rapist is expelled from campus or decides to leave on his own.
She was assaulted in August 2012, and reported the crime to both the university and police a year later (not an unusual time lapse for those who have experienced sexual assault). But she found herself treated in a way that made her feel unsafe and distrustful. The university required Sulkowicz to detail the traumatizing event in front of a disciplinary panel, and, as she told Amy Goodman from Democracy Now,
one of my hearing panelists kept asking me about lubrication because she couldn’t seem to understand how anal rape could happen without [lubrication]. Which is ridiculous, because rape is forced … that’s why I was in pain.
After deciding that Sulkowicz was eligible for a hearing, her alleged attacker postponed the hearing for 7 months due to academic engagements (essays, midterms, assignments, etc). And then the disciplinary panel ruled her attacker “not responsible,” even though two other students came forward with separate accounts of sexual assault against the same person. One of those students was denied a hearing due to lack of evidence, but in the second case the alleged rapist was initially found guilty. However, he was granted an appeal by Columbia’s Dean James J. Valentini, who then arranged a new hearing without the presence of the survivor, who had already graduated. The alleged rapist was deemed not guilty.
Emma does not expect much help from the university in expelling her rapist from campus—thus she is fully prepared to carry her mattress until she graduates. In doing so, her performance piece has touched the hearts of survivors across the country. Students have spoken out about their own sexual assault experiences, and student organizations on various campuses have demanded more comprehensive and preventive policies for sexual assault and gender-based violent crimes on campus. By symbolically bringing the horror she went through privately in a dorm room into the public sphere, she has highlighted how survivors carry the weight and burden of rape—including the stigma, isolation, silencing and victim-blaming—on their shoulders every day.
The self-written rules of her performance piece do not allow Sulkowicz to ask for help, but if it’s offered she may accept it. As a result, students from all over campus have helped Emma carry her mattress anywhere she needs to go, standing in solidarity with her and her artwork. Even those of us nowhere near Columbia University can help carry that weight, standing in solidarity with her and doing all that we can to help eradicate sexual violence on school campuses.
Sulkowicz’ alleged rapist still remains on campus and Columbia University has yet to reach out to her.
Photo of Emma Sulkowicz (left) smiling as others help carry her mattress from Carrying The Weight Together website.