This week, Emma Sulkowicz, the student who carried a mattress around the University of Columbia for the entire year in protest of the university's handling of her sexual assault complaint, graduated with a degree in Performance Art. She decided that she would bring the mattress with her, and with a little help from her friends, she carried the mattress across the stage.
Also graduating? The student she accused of sexually assaulting her in 2012, Paul Nungesser.
Sulkowicz's mattress at graduation was the culmination of a year-long protest that has put the accuser at odds with the University of Columbia. Nungesser filed a lawsuit, not against Sulkowicz, but against the University of Columbia for failing to protect him from harassment. Nungesser has denied the accusations and was cleared by the university of any wrongdoing on three different charges of sexual assault.
The lawsuit focuses on a professor who approved the project and the university that failed to protect him from harassment. The act of carrying the mattress around campus was a part of Sulkowicz's Senior Thesis, "Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)." He is seeking monetary compensation for "damages to be determined at trial for harm to his reputation, loss of educational opportunities and future career prospects."
This case has generated international headlines and is one of many cases in what are being called a sexual assault crisis on America's college campuses. It has also brought to light the way the media covers sexual assault and, as a piece by Julie Zellinger points out, "the treatment of victims could be part of the reason why rape and sexual assault are some of the most underreported crimes in the world and as many as 95 percent of campus rapes go unreported."
While Emma Sulkowicz did not succeed in having the accused expelled from Columbia University, her year of art-as-activism sparked an important national conversation about sexual assault. President Obama announced last year the launch of "It's On Us" a campaign that aims to raise awareness about sexual assault, and to "create an environment in which sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported." In addition, legislation addressing how campuses deal with sexual assault cases was introduced in Congress and in the State of New York.
Sulkowicz's Alma Mater also introduced a new sexual respect education program.
Emma Sulkowicz is an example of the high price victims of sexual assault play when they come forward with accusations. The day after the graduation, posters appeared at Columbia University calling her a "pretty little liar." The New York Times reported university president Lee C. Bollinger turned away as she walked towards him, rather than shaking her hand as is customary.