MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS (PIX11) -- She says that she was sexually assaulted on a mattress in her dorm room, and now a student at Columbia University is carrying a mattress wherever she goes until the young man who she claims raped her gets punished.
Emma Sulkowicz is carrying the 20 pounds of foam wrapped in a mattress cover everywhere she goes on campus, as both a protest against what she calls Columbia University's inadequate handling of sexual assault complaints and as a performance art piece.
Sulkowicz is a senior arts major at the Ivy League college, and the mattress haul is the centerpiece of the project for graduation from her major, titled "Carry That Weight."
When PIX11 News encountered Sulkowicz transporting the mattress from a class to her dorm and back to another class on Wednesday, she had, at various points along the route, gained supporters -- both women and men -- who helped her with her load. She said that the terms she'd set for her project, which symbolizes the emotional weight she's been forced to carry since her sex assault two years ago, requires that she never ask for help lugging the approximately 4- by 7-foot item. Anyone who offers to help is welcome.
Another condition she has set in the project is that she carry the mattress at all times on campus until the male Columbia student who she says sexually assaulted her on a mattress in her dorm room is expelled from the university.
Sulkowicz is one of 23 women who have filed a federal complaint against Columbia, calling on the 210 year-old institution to more strongly pursue sex assault cases and to more firmly punish students found by university investigators to have carried out sexual misconduct.
The complainants, who have gained public support from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, (D) NY, and other elected officials, say that even when Columbia determines a student has committed a sexual assault, the worst punishment has been suspension. That sentence allows an attacker to eventually return to classes and to receive a degree.
Columbia University has not yet responded to a request from PIX11 News for comment for this story, but it has issued a statement in the past regarding complaints about its handling of sexual assault cases:
"To avoid chilling complainants from coming forward and to respect all parties involved, the University does not comment on the particulars of disciplinary proceedings regarding sexual misconduct. In addition, the University is mindful of the multiple federal laws that govern these matters and provide important protections to survivors of sexual violence and to students engaged in our investigative process. These laws and our constitutional values do not permit us to silence debate on the difficult issues being discussed.”