Emma Sulkowicz: A Rumpus Roundup


Emma Sulkowicz graduated from Columbia University yesterday. She might have gone unnoticed had she not also been carrying around a mattress.

In her sophomore year at Columbia, Sulkowicz was raped. Like many rape victims, Sulkowicz considered her attacker a friend, and he was someone she had slept with twice before. On the night of the assault, Sulkowicz says she had not been drinking. She and her attacker were in her room having sex. Then Sulkowicz says that she was slapped, pinned down, and penetrated anally. She screamed for it to stop, but it didn’t.

Sulkowicz hesitated in reporting the assault until two other women who had been victims of her attacker encouraged her to speak up. Sulkowicz first filed a complaint with Columbia University. The school botched both the investigation and the hearing:

Sulkowicz, though, claims that Columbia administrators made errors and acted, frankly, idiotically during the hearing process. One took incomplete notes of her story, writing that she was tipsy that night. Adjudicators “kept asking me to explain the position I was in,” she says. “At one point, I was like, ‘Should I just draw you a picture?’ So I drew a stick drawing.” She says one of the three judges even asked whether Paul used lubricant, commenting, “I don’t know how it’s possible to have anal sex without lubrication first.”

A week after the panel, Sulkowicz received an email informing her that her attacker was deemed “not responsible.”

Once it was clear that the University was not going to act, Sulkowicz filed a complaint with the NYPD. The NYPD, perhaps unsurprisingly, mistreated her.

Sulkowicz and 22 other women also filed a federal complaint against the school alleging that the university is in violation of Title IX for its failure to protect women on campus.

Flyers went up around the Columbia campus with the names of other alleged rapists and “rape lists” were scrawled onto bathroom walls.

In the fall of 2014, Sulkowicz began her senior year. She also began carrying around her 50-pound mattress anytime she was on campus (but not off campus). The mattress is a symbol of protest, but its also performance art entitled “Carry That Weight,” part of her senior thesis.

To support her, students hosted a protest leaving mattresses outside of the home of university President Lee Bollinger. The university then charged the students with a $471 cleanup fee. Students followed up by protesting the fee with a giant check made out of a mattress.

Sulkowicz’s alleged attacker was eventually identified as Paul Nungesser.

Sexual assault has become an issue of concern for President Obama, and Sulkowicz attended the State of the Union address in January with New York Senator Gillibrand. Sulkowicz was promptly “let down.”

Student protests have lead to a new policy by Columbia University. New students will be asked to attend hour-long workshops of their choosing. This policy was immediately protested as ineffectual.

A few weeks into the new year, a fourth student came forward with a complaint about Paul Nungesser.

Paul Nungesser insists he has been targeted by a cabal of women. He says Sulkowicz lied about the assault and actually really liked him a lot.

Nungesser has filed a lawsuit against Columbia University, President Bollinger, and the professor giving Sulkwicz class credit (but not against Sulkowicz), alleging that the school violated Title IX by allowing Sulkowicz to earn credit for the performance art project.

Sulkowicz took her mattress to Columbia’s Class Day, a graduation ceremony held prior to commencement. When her name was called, Sulkowicz, along with the now-famous mattress, walked across the stage. President Lee Bollinger refused to shake her hand.

Columbia’s commencement was held this afternoon. Early this morning, an anonymous person or persons began pasting large posters calling Sulkowicz a “Pretty Little Liar.”

Sulkowicz yesterday declared her project was complete and retired her mattress.

Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American (Rowman & Littlefield, April 2022). His writing has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, Southern Review of Books, The Offing, 45th Parallel Magazine, Little Fiction, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and elsewhere. He tweets @IanMacAllen and is online at IanMacAllen.com. More from this author →