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‘Carry That Weight’ Changes the Conversation on Campus Sexual Assault

On October 29th, a group of Columbia University students left 28 mattresses on the steps of university president Lee Bollinger’s house. Within an hour, the mattresses were in a dumpster, and the students responsible were hit with a $471 fine to cover the clean-up cost. But while Columbia’s administration was quick to dismiss the incident, students around the country have done the opposite.

The mattresses were part of Columbia undergrad Emma Sulkowicz’s senior art thesis, a protest project called Carry That Weight. Sulkowicz has pledged to carry a mattress with her everywhere she goes on campus until the man who she says sexually assaulted her is no longer at Columbia, whether he is expelled, chooses to leave, or graduates in May 2015. Her protest has received a degree of national attention that would be unlikely if it happened anywhere other than an Ivy League university based in Manhattan – but Sulkowicz and her fellow campus activists have acknowledged their privileged position and are focused on directing that attention to other schools. On the day that students carried those 28 mattresses, representing the 28 students who have filed Title IX complaints against Columbia, organizers at over 130 schools participated in a national day of action in solidarity with survivors of sexual and domestic violence on campuses. 

The protests are part of a larger nationwide movement to reform campus sexual assault policies –one whose necessity is exemplified by Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s recent Rolling Stone feature on a harrowing sexual assault at a University of Virginia fraternity. And that movement was already in motion before Sulkowicz picked up her mattress.