Columbia University senior Emma Sulkowicz, 21, says she was raped in her own bed at the beginning of her sophomore year. This week, two years after the alleged assault, Sulkowicz, a visual-arts major, has made a promise to carry her mattress around campus every day as part of her senior thesis. It is, she says, a symbol of the burden sexual-assault survivors carry with them every day.
"The act of carrying the mattress from inside my room out into the light has mirrored the way my life has changed, as I've brought my personal story out into the light," Sulkowicz told TIME. "This project is a way to heal one of the most difficult things that happened to me. As I will build muscle and get stronger, hopefully I will also build emotional strength."
Sulkowicz started the performance-art project on Tuesday, and she said she is determined to continue carrying the mattress wherever she goes — to class, the library, the gym — as long as her alleged rapist is still on campus. That means her project could last until graduation day in May 2015 — unless her alleged assailant is either expelled or chooses to leave the school. Last year, Sulkowicz and two other women reported the same person to the university. All three cases were dismissed.
Sulkowicz's initiative also brings further attention to colleges' lackluster performance in handling reports of sexual assault, as reported in a recent TIME cover story.
As part of the project, Sulkowicz is not allowed to ask for help, but can accept it, if offered — a further analogy to the burden that sexual-assault survivors carry with them.
Sulkowicz is one of 23 Columbia and Barnard students who filed a federal Title IX complaint in April alleging that the university mishandled sexual-assault cases.
"Rape can happen anywhere, but I was attacked in my own dorm bed," she said. "For me that place that is normally very intimate and pure was desecrated and is very fraught. The piece is about carrying the memory of that everywhere I go."