Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz has been hauling a mattress around campus in protest to how her sexual assault case against student Paul Nungesser was carried out. Her alleged attacker was cleared of responsibility. I was recently talking to my brother about Emma Sulkowicz and her “Mattress Performance” that she has been doing since last fall. My brother goes to Columbia University, and has seen Sulkowicz carrying this mattress on campus. I learned that on her graduation day, which was just a few days ago, May 19, she carried her mattress on stage with her to receive her diploma. And the president of the university did not shake her hand. Her choice to carry her mattress onstage is very controversial. After all, commencement means to start, or to begin, so perhaps this would have been a good time to try and relieve her burden, and start fresh. However, this burden will never really leave her, and while she could have put down her mattress, the weight of the burden will sadly stay with her forever.
I then became interested in how this all happened and started researching about the case. I came across a New York Times Magazine article by Emily Bazelon entitled, “Have We Learned Anything From the Columbia Rape Case?” This article looked at the story through different lenses, Sulkowicz’s and Nungesser’s, to provide a more complete story of what happened.
Sulkowicz and Nungesser were engaged in a relationship prior to the assault, which is part of what makes this particular case not so black-and-white. But despite this, she has chosen to take a stand against what she knows is a serious issue, both personally and for all victims. The “Mattress Performance” was a “powerful image of a woman publicly shouldering the burden of a violation she felt in her bedroom” (Bazelon). She felt violated and felt the university did not properly handle her hearing, and she dealt with her burden in a way that made the issue unable to be ignored any longer. It demanded to be talked about, because she was carrying around a 50 pound mattress to all her classes.
What Sulkowicz did was a brave act, standing up for sexual assault victims everywhere, and highlighting the sad fact that universities often deal with these cases poorly, not hearing the victim out. Perhaps her bravery will even inspire other victims to speak out.