Why One Columbia Graduate Carried Her Mattress Across the Stage — And Why It Matters

Happy Friends Studying Together
On Tuesday May 19, activist and recent college graduate Emma Sulkowicz carried her mattress across the stage of Columbia University’s graduation ceremony, with three friends helping her shoulder the weight.

It would be a shocking spectacle for any other graduation ceremony, but for Sulkowicz and her classmates, it was just another day.

Since the school year began in September 2014, Sulkowicz began carrying her mattress to protest the school’s values — or lack thereof — regarding sexual assault. Sulkowicz herself is a rape survivor, and she began speaking out about the lack of protection in American colleges for rape survivors after she discovered that the school took no actions against her rapist, who was also a student at Columbia and who was allowed to finish out his education, graduating on the same stage as Sulkowicz.

As her senior thesis performance art project, Sulkowicz decided to carry her mattress everywhere she went on campus — for as long as her rapist was allowed to attend classes, which ended up being the entire year.

The project, titled “Mattress Performance” (and alternatively “Carry That Weight”) quickly grabbed the attention of major media outlets and it also brought new light to the health concerns of young women, particularly college students, across the country.

As nymag.com recently wrote, it’s difficult for researchers to determine concrete numbers regarding sexual violence and sexual health on college campuses. In some cases, as in Sulkowicz’s case, university administrations simply don’t provide resources for students who are recovering from traumatic events.

In other cases, resources are available, but the fear of stigmatization and judgment from peers causes students to avoid seeking help.

STDs and STIs, for example, are fairly common among young adults today — but only 40% of sexually active young women are tested for common and treatable infections like chlamydia.

And on-campus rape, researchers are finding out, is happening more often than previously estimated. According to a new study conducted at an unnamed university in Upstate New York, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, approximately one in every five women have been the victims of attempted or committed rape — during their freshman year of college alone.

It’s because of brave women, like Sulkowicz, that more women and men have finally begun to speak out about sexual violence and health concerns. The results are far higher — and more worrisome — than researchers predicted just a few years ago, but the recent findings make it clear that these issues are too widespread to be ignored any longer.