In 2015, Emma Sulkowicz carried a mattress across the campus of Columbia University for nearly a year, energizing a national conversation on college sexual harassment.
“Carry That Weight” was her senior thesis for a degree in performance art, coming from a personal experience: she alleges to have been raped by a fellow student, and, she said, she’d carry the mattress until he no longer went to school at Columbia. Some at Columbia considered her a hero, while others–siding with the accused– considered her a bully.
The mattress was a visual reminder of the burden of sexual assault. Sulkowica gives this explanation for her choice:
I was raped in my own dorm bed… I feel like I’ve carried the weight of what happened there with me everywhere since then. A mattress is the perfect size for me to just be able to carry it enough that I can continue with my day, but also heavy enough that I have to continually struggle with it.
At times, students stepped in to help her carry the mattress up stairs and into rooms.
Sulkowicz’s rules of engagement for the project dictated that she could not ask for help from others, but she could accept help if someone offered it. Students responded by helping her carry the weight “as an act of solidarity with the countless survivors of sexual assault” and as a protest against the University administration’s policies handling for sexual assault.
When the case against the accused was dismissed, he filed a lawsuit against Columbia for harassment.