When Emma Sulkowicz picked up her mattress, she didn’t know she was going to start a movement.
Sulkowicz, a visual arts major at Columbia University, is currently engaged in a senior thesis project that requires her to carry her dorm mattress everywhere she goes as long as her rapist remains enrolled at her school. She contends that Columbia University mishandled her rape case, so her mattress has become a powerful visual symbol of the burden that survivors bear when they’re denied justice.
Sulkowicz sparked international headlines when she first began her project in September. She also inspired college students across the country to get involved. Under the terms of her thesis, Sulkowicz isn’t allowed to ask for help carrying her mattress, but she is allowed to accept assistance if others offer it — which has given supporters a meaningful opportunity to lend a hand. Students and faculty are now organizing “collective carries,” in which they work together to lift a mattress, to stand in solidarity with Sulckowicz and sexual assault survivors everywhere.
And Wednesday marks a national day of action to further that activism on college campuses throughout the United States. “Together, we are building the movement to make sexual assault on college campuses unacceptable,” the website for Wednesday’s event explains.
“There was a huge outpouring of support,” Allie Rickard, one of Sulkowicz’s fellow art students who first started organizing collective carries at Columbia last month, told ThinkProgress. “I’ve had people from all over the world reaching out. Pretty much every day I’ve been finding new pictures of students, faculty, and staff doing their own versions of the project — carrying mattresses around, holding rallies, doing speakouts.”
After she founded the group Carrying The Weight Together, Rickard started working closely with the other sexual assault prevention activists on Columbia’s campus. It became clear pretty quickly that Sulkowicz’s project was really resonating with people.
“It just really took off! I think a lot of other people felt a pretty deep connection to the symbolism and to the message of her piece,” Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, one of the activists on campus who’s organizing alongside Rickard, told ThinkProgress. “We decided that we should do something strategic with that, and make this a moment where we really channel this energy and passion into a collective national day of action.”
So on Wednesday, people across the country are invited to carry pillows or mattresses as a symbol of support for rape survivors. More than 70 colleges and high schools have committed to host events, and supporters are already starting to flood the #carrythatweight hashtag with messages and photos. The public display of solidarity is an act of “radical visibility,” according to Rickard, that will help “battle the cultural and community-level forces that stigmatize survivors and make them invisible.”
As the issue of college sexual assault has continued to dominate the media, and as the White House has turned its attention to reforming schools’ policies in this area, the movement to support sexual assault survivors has gained significant momentum. Ridolfi-Starr and Rickard hope their day of action will help emphasize the fact that survivors need resources on both a personal and an institutional level — they need their friends and family to believe them when they say they were raped, and they need their school administrators to take their cases seriously when they file a report.
Ultimately, they’re hopeful about the fact that activists’ work is slowly bringing about a culture change in this area.
“I am optimistic. I think we certainly have a long way to go, but the more courageous survivors and smart organizers keep carving out space and forcing people to confront this, I think the more we’ll be making progress,” Ridolfi-Starr said.