NYMag

What’s It Like To Become A Mattress-Carrying Voice For Rape Survivors? We Asked

Emma Sulkowicz's thesis has set off a massive discussion about rape and accountability.

UPDATE: Columbia University sent a statement after the publication of this story. It was added at the bottom of the page at 3:48 p.m. EST.

The majority of rapes go unreported to the police — 60% according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. That means the average survivor stays silent. Well, Emma Sulkowicz is anything but average.

The Columbia University senior is carrying a mattress around campus — as part of a performance art piece — until her alleged rapist leaves the school. Her decision to do so has garnered her an overwhelming response from the press, fellow survivors and detractors alike, putting her life, past and troubles under an unprecedented kind of microscope.

The visual arts major went through all the traditional channels after she was allegedly raped by a serial offender during her sophomore year — but after the school failed to bring her attacker to justice, then the police and now, potentially, the government (she is one of 23 students who have filed federal Title IX complaints against Columbia in April for mishandling sexual-assault cases), she decided it’s more important to be heard than to win.

MTV News caught up with Sulkowicz Thursday (September 4) in the midst of the media blitz around her thesis project, titled “Carry That Weight,” to see what it’s like to be one of the 40% that has decided not to stay quiet.

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So what exactly is going on with your case now? Is anything currently being done? So right now my case is closed. I reported it near the end of my sophomore year and then the case was closed November of my junior year — because it took them seven to eight months to actually hold the hearing because my attacker kept postponing it. And then news picked up on it toward the end of my junior year and now here I am.

Are you still filing your federal Title IX complaint? What’s up with that? Against the school?

Yeah. Yeah, that’s still in the works.

So this project is another way to call attention to that? Yeah, I mean I’ve reported it to the school, they didn’t do anything. I reported it to the police, and the police were traumatizing beyond belief. The district attorney said that a criminal case would take nine months to a year — which, I would have graduated by then.

Yeah, I feel like this piece is way more important because it not only has to do with what’s going on in my life, but with other people’s lives as well. It’s way more worth my time than pursuing a case with the district attorney. Or even a civil suit against the school.

How long have you been carrying the mattress so far? So today is going to be day three.

What has that been like so far? Have people been helping you? I’m just really lucky that my first trip with the mattress three of my best friends showed up and helped me carry it to class. One of my best friends stuck around and helped me carry it back from class. Yesterday, other people showed up and helped me carry it to my 8:40 a.m. class. I’ve only made one trip so far — I’m not allowed to ask for help [in keeping with her own set of terms for the thesis] — but I’ve only had one trip so far where I was carrying it alone and then strangers came and helped me. And one trip where no one helped me at all.

How are professors responding when you bring a mattress into class? One of the rules of the piece is that I’m alerting all of my professors about the piece before I bring it in so that they can deny me a spot in their classes. So far, my philosophy of art teacher seemed excited about it and told me I should talk about it to the class. Another teacher said, ’Oh, it’s fine, just put it against the back wall.’

One teacher just didn’t respond to any of my emails and I emailed him twice. He finally responded very shortly before the class, ’Please don’t bring it in. It’s going to be a hectic day.’ I didn’t see it before class started, so who knows what’s up with him … Aside from that one teacher, people have been pretty positive.

Has the reaction on the whole been positive? I know people — and the Internet — can be awful sometimes. I’ve gotten so much positive feedback, but of course as much as I tell myself I’m prepared, I’m never prepared for when someone who I considered a friend starts writing that I’m crazy on the Internet and stuff. He started writing all these tweets saying, ’I know her in person. She’s crazy. She’s totally insane. She’s such an attention-grabber.’ That was really hurtful and shocking.

One person wrote something pretty gross on my Google Plus account, so I’ve been deleting a lot of my Internet accounts because it’s just been places for people I don’t know to write creepy things.

But I’ve gotten so many hundreds of kind emails and Facebook messages that I feel like it’s more positive than negative.

Have a lot of people come to you with their stories? Yes! One of the strangest emails for me to receive, I feel like, is when people ask for advice. A lot of women have emailed me saying, ’I was raped and I never talk about it to anyone. I need your advice on how to live my life.’

And of course I feel like I’m probably one of the last people you should ever ask, because I’m obviously dealing with it in such an extreme way. But it’s been really interesting how many people have confided in me — a complete stranger to them — when they didn’t feel like they could confide in anyone they actually knew … I guess that’s the nature of the crime. It makes people feel very desperate and unsafe. I guess it’s showing me how pervasive the problem is.

Has he seen you with the mattress? Your attacker. Has he said anything? I can’t really see that well when I’m carrying the mattress — because 50% of my peripheral vision is blocked off. So I don’t know if I’ve walked by him yet. But we have a no-contact policy — so when someone brings a case at the school, we’re not allowed to contact each other once the case is closed. Or else it’s considered retaliation. So he can’t contact me or else he’ll get expelled.

To learn about rape culture and what you can do to combat it, head over to Look Different.

So what do you think — realistically — is the best outcome that could come from all this? That he would leave campus and I wouldn’t have to carry the mattress anymore.

Have you heard anything from the school? That’s the only thing that I’m really concerned about. The administration — no one has said anything about the piece yet. I guess that it’s expected of this kind of administration, but it seems strange.

Editor’s Note: We reached out to Columbia University for comment and they provided us with the following, along with links to information about their gender based misconduct and sexual assault resources:

The University respects the choice of any member of our community to peacefully express personal or political views on this and other issues. At the same time, the University is committed to protecting the privacy of students participating in gender-based misconduct proceedings. These matters are extremely sensitive, and we do not want to deter survivors from reporting them. The University therefore does not comment on these matters.

In recent months, Columbia has announced a new Gender-Based Misconduct Policy for Students, opened an additional Sexual Violence Response and Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center, expanded mandatory training for incoming undergraduates on consent and the importance of bystander intervention, and launched a new “Step Up” campaign to help prevent gender-based misconduct from occurring in the first place.

“If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, call the 24-hour National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (1-800-656-4673), or visit Rainn.org.”

Senior writer/editor at MTV News. Former Mashable associate editor & CNN columnist. "Stuff Hipsters Hate" co-writer. Moshpit fan.
@BrennaEhrlich