Sulkowicz, who says on the first day of her sophomore year, she was raped by a classmate, intends to drag her mattress with her everywhere she goes on campus, building to building, class to class, until her alleged attacker is expelled or leaves voluntarily, whether that takes days, weeks, or the rest of her tenure at the institution.
"I was raped in my own dorm bed. Since then, it has basically become fraught for me, and I feel like I've carried the weight of what happened there with me everywhere since then," Sulkowicz says in a video interview for the Columbia Spectator. She explained her thesis, which she refers to as "Endurance Art," is meant to embody the act of carrying something normally found in the private space of the bedroom into the light of day.
Writing for Time, Sulkowicz details how her ordeal went far beyond sexual assault itself, describing the extreme difficulty and discomfort she faced when reporting the incident to authorities, including the university and the NYPD, to seek justice.
"During my hearing, which didn't take place until seven months after the incident, one panelist kept asking me how it was physically possible for anal rape to happen," Sulkowicz said.
"I was put in the horrible position of trying to educate her and explain how this terrible thing happened to me," she added.
Her alleged attacker was found not responsible and continues to attend classes.
"Every day, I am afraid to leave my room. Even seeing people who look remotely like my rapist scares me. Last semester I was working in the dark room in the photography department. Though my rapist wasn't in my class, he asked permission from his teacher to come and work in the dark room during my class time. I started crying and hyperventilating. As long as he's on campus with me, he can continue to harass me."
Sulkowicz is one of 23 students to join a federal complaint against Columbia and Barnard Universities alleging Title IX violations with regard to the mishandling of sexual assaults on campus, and they're not alone in the fight change the way reports of rape are handled by colleges and universities.
In an effort to bring more transparency to the federal government's role in the due process of sexual assaults on campus, the Department of Education released for the first time in May a list of the colleges under investigation for Title IX violations.
In the same month, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., held roundtables to discuss legislation aimed at improving how college campuses report and combat sexual assault, citing the "complex labyrinth between different rules, different standards of proof, different, state statues."
"We can't even agree on the definition of consent," she said.
And apart from federal legislation, states are taking matters into their own hands.
California's new "affirmative consent" model legislation, also called "yes means yes," unanimously passed in the state senate and will be on the governor's desk later this month.
The bill, SB 967, specifically requires parties be conscious and not intoxicated, able to give the required consent. The bill, introduced by state Sens. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) and Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), further specifies that "lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent" and states that prior sexual relations or a relationship do not imply consent.
The necessity and relevance of language which clearly defines consent is apparent in light of Cee Lo Green's recent scandal.
Whether Sulkowicz' performance art will lead justice remains to be seen, but her efforts to take matters into her own hands are not without precedent.
"I was recently friended on Facebook by Lena Sclove, who has been such an inspiration for me," Sulkowicz told New York Magazine's Daily Intelligencer, speaking of the Brown Student who publicly shamed her alleged attacker into withdrawing from the institution after being unsatisfied with the results of reporting sexual assault through conventional channels.
"To see the way that she was able to create a safe space for herself definitely made me realize that after I had made the police report I had that as an option to me as well," Sulkowicz said.
Sulkowicz added her goal was to make sure her alleged attacker's name had a record attached to it so future victims might have an easier time prosecuting. "I felt like I had a civil and public duty to report as well."
The rules of "Carry That Weight" are that Sulkowicz may not ask others for help carrying her load, but may accept help freely offered.
"I'm hoping that not only do I get better at carrying the mattress, but . . . I'm very interested in seeing where this piece goes and what sort of life it takes on," Sulkowicz said.
Sulkowicz will carry her mattress until her alleged rapist is expelled or leaves voluntarily, but the metaphorical weight of assault, not so easily to put down, is a burden no one should have to bear alone. The National Sexual Assault Hotline number 1-800-656-HOPE can connect callers to local crisis centers across the country for guidance.