During her senior year at Columbia University, Emma Sulkowicz carried a 50-pound mattress around wherever she went, a performance-art project, "Carry That Weight," representing that the man who Sulkowicz said raped her walked free on campus. This conspicuous protest captured headlines and made the “mattress girl” a national talking point in the conversation about campus sexual assault.
In many ways, Sulkowicz’s story mirrors the trends and shifting debate over how academe adjudicates these crimes.
She remains for many a dominant symbol of how students can fight campus sexual violence. She was the subject of multiple profiles in The New York Times, including a piece extolling her mattress-centric performance art, which doubled as her senior thesis. She stood alongside U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, as the lawmaker announced legislation aimed at combating sexual assault -- and was her guest to the 2015 State of the Union.
But eventually articles more sympathetic to the man Sulkowicz accused -- Paul Nungesser -- came, including one in The Daily Beast that included friendly Facebook messages between the two after the alleged assault occurred. The exchanges appeared to back Nungesser's consistent statement that the encounter was consensual.
A Columbia disciplinary panel had cleared Nungesser of responsibility in Sulkowicz’s case (New York City police decided not to bring charges, though Sulkowicz filed a report in 2014). Nungesser felt so ostracized on campus that he sued the university in 2015 for complacency in his harassment, asserting that because Sulkowicz would receive academic credit for her protest, Columbia was condoning it. Though he failed in court twice, Columbia settled with him recently for an undisclosed amount of money.
The conclusion to this saga comes at a time when President Trump’s Education Department has focused on the plight of men who say they have been falsely accused of sexual assault, or who were found responsible by their colleges without appropriate due process. National research indicates no more than 8 percent of rape accusations to law enforcement are false. Research also indicates that only a slim number of rapes that occur are actually reported.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently met with representatives from these groups, who are critical of President Obama’s 2011 order that reinterpreted the federal anti-discrimination law, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. This still serves as the guidance for how institutions should judge sexual assault -- and DeVos could be on the precipice of major changes to it. Sulkowicz’s case can serve to inform the federal government, and colleges, about these decisions, experts say.
Nungesser to many serves as an example of a man wrongly accused, his reputation destroyed. But while the narrative DeVos and others discuss is about colleges denying due process rights, Columbia in fact never found him responsible for anything. And the university stood by its decision despite a public campaign that had many questioning the university's approach to sexual assault accusations.
Sulkowicz filed a complaint in 2013, alleging Nungesser, a close friend with whom she had had consensual sex twice previously, held her down in a dormitory in 2012 and raped her despite her pleas.
After the campus adjudication process, Nungesser wasn’t found to have done anything wrong -- and Sulkowicz in 2014 launched her project, hauling with her a mattress akin to the ones Columbia provides in its campus housing, a physical burden to demonstrate the aftermath of a rape. By her own rules, she was required to keep the mattress with her at all times, only accepting help if it was offered to her -- and it would remain with her as long as Nungesser stayed on campus, too.
Nungesser never left. Sulkowicz carried the mattress with her at her graduation in 2015, continuing to attract press coverage.
Alexandra Brodsky, a civil rights lawyer and co-founder of the advocacy group Know Your IX, now working with the National Women’s Law Center, said she still can recall her first visceral reaction of hearing about the project, and the images of Sulkowicz holding the mattress at various places on campus.
Most conversation of sexual violence centers on the act, but few focus on the lingering effects, Brodsky said -- survivors do “carry a weight,” sometimes in the form of debt they’ve accrued when they drop out of college, or struggles with academics as a repercussion.
“I think Emma gave voice to that in a really arresting way,” Brodsky said.
Student activism, particularly around sexual violence, accelerated around this time under the Obama administration, said Catherine Kaukinen, a professor and chairwoman of the criminal justice department at University of Central Florida. Kaukinen helped write and edit a new book, Addressing Violence Against Women on College Campuses (Temple University Press).
Sulkowicz’s work led to tremendous media coverage and replications of her demonstration at other campuses, Kaukinen said -- students would hold a mattress, pillow or something else representing defiance of sexual assault at their institution.
Similar movements, events and showings against rape, like Denim Day -- wearing jeans as a sign of support, or Take Back the Night, had grown less popular on campuses, but restarted with the Obama administration focusing on the issue of campus sex assaults, Kaukinen said. Vice President Biden pushed for and successfully declared a month devoted to dating violence awareness.
During the Columbia controversy, students began scrawling the names of alleged rapists on bathroom walls and slipping fliers identifying them on top of the toilet paper dispensers.
Sulkowicz's case wasn’t entirely clear and highlighted the struggle of institutions to balance the rights of both parties, said Laura Dunn, founder of SurvJustice, which advocates for survivors.
This was evident with Columbia’s settlement with Nungesser. The university hasn’t commented beyond a statement: “Columbia recognizes that after the conclusion of the investigation, Paul’s remaining time at Columbia became very difficult for him and not what Columbia would want any of its students to experience,” the statement said. “Columbia will continue to review and update its policies toward ensuring that every student -- accuser and accused, including those like Paul who are found not responsible -- is treated respectfully and as a full member of the Columbia.”
In an interview, Annie E. Clark, the executive director of End Rape on Campus, criticized Columbia’s response -- she said the institution still hasn’t demonstrated clear and public support for survivors, as it did with Nungesser in the statement. Clark’s organization helped file a complaint with the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights against Columbia, with 20 others signing on, including Sulkowicz. The complaint blasted Columbia’s handling of sexual assault, faulting the institution for too easily letting those accused off the hook.
Clark also lambasted certain news media and their tendency to “normalize a rape myth” with lengthy articles and segments focused on students who were wrongly accused of rape -- a tiny percentage, she said.
She said that recently, media and the university’s response focused largely on Nungesser’s well-being.
Dunn agreed, to an extent -- the media hasn’t tried to delve into policy nuances or campus processes for sexual assault; instead it has picked up on the “next shiny thing.” She said the rights of the accused may be a hot-button issue, but the lawyer in her craves a robust discussion about these issues that wasn’t necessarily encapsulated in the media coverage of Sulkowicz’s case.
Though coverage of Sulkowicz tended to snowball, by the estimation of Cynthia P. Garrett, co-president of Families Advocating for Campus Equality, few people in the country were aware Nungesser had been cleared.
FACE, which Garrett joined just several years ago, tries to push for “equal treatment” and due process rights for those who have faced sexual misconduct violations unfairly. Garrett is adamant that the Title IX guidance Obama issued is flawed, as well is colleges’ implementation of it. The Office for Civil Rights, too, is punitive and coercive, she said.
“An accusation is often equated to guilt,” she said of the current system.
Sexual assault prevention advocates were furious that DeVos met recently with representatives from Garrett’s group and especially with other groups, some so-called men's rights organizations widely seen as hostile to women who have experienced sex assault. To these critics, the meetings signaled that the secretary was giving credence to the myth that false rape allegations are rampant.
Garrett said false accusations have slowly become more acceptable to talk about. She balks at the notion she’s a rape apologist -- she has two daughters, and thinks anyone who commits criminal rape should be thrown in jail, not just off campus.
She characterized the meeting with DeVos as beneficial, with many students falsely accused -- students of color and queer students included -- telling her their stories. Some sobbed as they recounted their tales, Garrett said.
In her interview, Garrett was harsh on Columbia officials for allowing Sulkowicz’s art project to continue -- something she viewed as retaliation.
Kaukinen said that obviously Columbia did feel it failed Nungesser in some way, and she wouldn’t be shocked if this result influenced campus policy.
Dana Scaduto, the general counsel at Dickinson College and former board chairwoman for the National Association of College and University Attorneys, said that without all the facts, she could not address the legality of Sulkowicz carting her mattress around campus and whether that infringed on Nungesser’s rights.
From an institutional perspective, the media reports were quite damaging to preserving the integrity of adjudicating Sulkowicz’s case, she said. Reporters initially wrote Sulkowicz’s retelling as fact, without seeking follow up with Columbia -- which, admittedly, per privacy laws, couldn’t discuss the proceedings -- or Nungesser, she said.
“Colleges and universities, we do care about the students who go through the processes, and we do our best to handle these matters responsibly, as OCR expects us to handle them, but that complexity is lost,” Scaduto said.