We can't forget Emma Sulkowicz, Columbia University sexual assault survivor

May 21, 2015 at 12:00 p.m. ET
Image: Emma Sulkowicz Carries A Mattress To Protest Columbia’s Lack Of Action After She Reported Being Raped During Her Sophomore Year, Sept. 5, 2014 In New York City. Photo By Andrew Burton/Getty Images

On Oct. 29, I joined the Columbia University "Carry That Weight" protest. As a Barnard student, I knew how much the entire university needed this demonstration that my classmates were organizing. In the drizzling rain, Columbia and Barnard students lugged several mattresses throughout the entire university and still had enough energy to protest loudly on Columbia's iconic Low Steps. Shouts and cheers echoed across the campus, and yet the rain almost drowned us out. But the mattresses kept standing, and my passionate classmates continued to speak. People say protests like these are geared toward giving people a voice, but it's actually about making other people listen. Emma Sulkowicz's protest, "Mattress Performance: Carry That Weight," proves that this deafness needs to end.


For her senior thesis, Sulkowicz committed to carrying her university-issued mattress everywhere she went until her assaulter left Columbia, either by graduation or by expulsion. In other words, Sulkowicz was prepared to carry her mattress through the entirety of her senior year until both she and her assaulter graduated. The piece has since evolved into a nationwide movement, led by Columbia student groups No Red Tape and Carrying the Weight Together. As Sulkowicz continues to carry her mattress, our society finally takes a serious look at how we understand and deal with the issue of sexual assault.

The judgement day, however, has finally come: Columbia graduation was this week, and Sulkowicz had her mattress with her as promised, along with a few friends to help carry it.

Earlier this week, though, there were rumors that Sulkowicz would not be allowed to bring her mattress to graduation. According to the university newspaper, Columbia Daily Spectator (or Spec, as we Barnard and Columbia students call it), the administration had issued a new rule the day before Columbia College Class Day: Students would not be allowed to bring "large objects" into the graduation area. You could argue that this rule is reasonable, but its timing is unnerving. How could it not be in response to Sulkowicz's protest? "Carry That Weight" may have the gotten the university talking, but the battle is clearly not over.

More: Why won't Columbia respond to rape victim's protest?

No Red Tape is not ready for the conversation to end. The whole university, or at least a large portion of the student body, is finally addressing the impact rape culture has had on the campus and how the administration is in major need of a policy tune-up. This is not the time to reclog our ears; Columbia University still has a long way to go. Active No Red Tape member Lhana Örményi shares that the organization has larger goals: "…Columbia should use its power of the press to raise awareness about the prevalence of sexual assault in general." This is a widespread issue, and the university, along with the rest of our society, should take a serious look at how we understand and deal with the issue of sexual assault.

Ultimately Sulkowicz did carry her mattress throughout her graduation week. The university didn't make her leave it outside, but as The New York Times reports, President Lee C. Bollinger turned away from Sulkowicz as she walked onstage to shake hands and officially graduate. The university may insist that it handles sexual assault cases fairly, but major blind spots remain.

More: Campus rape, and what officials are not doing about it

I still remember my classmates' chants from Oct. 29. I have heard my friends' stories, and I have helped carry the mattress. Anyone who says that sexual assault survivors don't have a voice clearly hasn't been listening. Emma Sulkowicz's voice is powerful and heavy and kept its strength through her entire senior year and beyond. We can't let ourselves become deaf to it again.