Carry That Weight (Mattress Performance): Rape Accusations in the Age of Social Media, Part 2

Featured image courtesy of Andrew Burton/Getty Images

New York Magazine

New York Magazine


The first story was run by the New York Post in 2013, naming neither Sulkowicz nor Nungesser, in “Columbia drops ball on jock ‘rapist’ probe: students”. On April 7, 2014, Sulkowicz appeared with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), claiming: “My rapist—a serial rapist—still remains on campus, even though three of the women he assaulted reported him to my university’s Office of Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct.” She became an overnight sensation, with interviews with Democracy Now! and Business Insider, as well as her own writing in Time Magazine. On May 3, 2014, her interview was on the front page of the print and online editions of the New York Times.

In August of 2014, the sexual assault claim Emma Sulkowicz filed with the New York Police Department was investigated by the District Attorney’s Office of New York City. Nungesser was called in for an interview with the District Attorney’s Office, in which they could not find probable cause for an investigation of the alleged rape. The “probable cause” standard is the belief that there could be a possibility that Nungesser had, in fact, raped Sulkowicz, and the District Attorney’s office could not meet that standard for an investigation. Sulkowicz also declined to press charges against Nungesser, claiming that the ordeal would be “too draining”.

During this time until September 2014, Sulkowicz was planning her performance art, Carry That Weight (Mattress Performance), as her senior thesis. Written on the walls of her art studio at Columbia’s Watson Hall were the rules of her thesis: she had to carry the mattress she had bought on Columbia University property, it had to remain on the campus when she wasn’t there, she couldn’t ask for help carrying the mattress, but she could accept help to carry it. In September 2014, she began carrying her mattress around campus. She would go on to walk onto the graduation stage with the mattress held by several of her friends and supporters.

She planned to stop carrying the mattress at either her graduation or the expulsion of Paul Nungesser. Proceeding Sulkowicz’s May 3 interview with the New York Times, Nungesser’s name appeared on “Sexual Assault Violators” lists written in Columbia’s Hamilton, Lerner, and Butler restrooms, and appeared in flyers in those restrooms next to the words “[Serial Rapist]”. The Columbia Spectator published Nungesser’s name, drawing both praise and criticism to the student newspaper.

The Editor-In-Chief, Abby Abrams, and the Managing Editor, Steven Lau, wrote that “we feel that to hide or redact his name at this point would be doing a disservice to students on campus and to the truth of this story.The choice to include his name in this article was a difficult one. We understand that this decision carries significant consequences — reputational and otherwise—for Nungesser, and we do not treat this matter lightly. However, we believe it is necessary to include his name.”

A Trial by the Press and Social Media

Cindy Ma- Columbia Spectator

Cindy Ma- Columbia Spectator


The next few months of Sulkowicz’s performance was heavily covered by the media. Jerry Saltz of New York Magazine would go on to include it in his top 19 art shows of 2014. Roberta Smith of the New York Times would go on to call the piece “”strict and lean, yet inclusive and open ended, symbolically laden yet drastically physical.”

Hillary Clinton also would refer to Sulkowicz at the Democratic National Committee Woman’s Leadership Forum. “One student at Columbia University in New York, a survivor of sexual assault, began carrying her mattress around campus.  She was tired of being overlooked, tired of waiting for change, and that was the best way she could think of to draw attention to the dangers facing female students.  That image should haunt all of us, and I’m very pleased that President Obama is supporting a new effort to address sexual assault on campuses across the country”, said Mrs. Clinton.

Bust Magazine ran the story “’Rapist Is A Gendered Slur,’ According To This Man Accused Of Rape By Three Women”, Identities.Mic ran the story “12 Photos Show How the “Mattress Girl” Campus Protest Has Become a National Movement”, and ran the story “Uni student vows to carry her mattress round with her until college expels her alleged rapist”. Noticeably absent from many of the articles about the incident- the fact that he was cleared by the student tribunal of sexual assault three times on the low standard of “preponderance of evidence”, the fact the the District Attorney’s Office of New York City could not find enough evidence under a lower standard of “probable cause”, and that Sulkowicz refused to press charges.

Social media also followed the Columbia Rape Accusations, especially on the media sites Tumblr and Twitter. On the Tumblr blog 365 reasons to be a feminist, #259 is listed as “Because Emma Sulkowicz”, which had 194 notes. Carry That Weight (Mattress Performance) is described on the blog as “Part activism, part peformance art, Sulkowicz will carry a mattress, like the one on which she was sexually assaulted, around campus until her rapist is no longer on campus.”

The popular opinion on social media is best described in the writings of the rogue feminist Tumblr blog, stating “of course, let’s also remember the lengths Emma Sulkowicz has had to go to in order to get this kind of attention – she should not have to carry her f***ing mattress to school everyday for this injustice to be recognized – this is the kind of thing marginalized people have to do when they are silenced and their suffering is regularly ignored and condoned: they have to resort to continuous, arduous, creative protest for a shot at any recognition. and still, as far as i know, Emma Sulkowicz’s rapist has not been punished”.

At this time, Emma Sulkowicz would go on to win the National Organization for Women’s Susan B. Anthony Award and the Feminist Majority Foundation’s Ms. Wonder Award. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) would also invite Emma Sulkowicz to the 2015 State of the Union Address as her guest in January 2015. Forward would name her as one of the Forward 50 2015, a list of the top 50 Jewish people of that year.

Nungesser Speaks Out

Mustafa Abdulaziz- Newsweek

Mustafa Abdulaziz- Newsweek


In an interview with The Daily Beast writer Cathy Young, Paul Nungesser ended his silence about the incident in February of 2015. In a piece named “Columbia Student: I didn’t rape her”, his ordeal was described as “cleared of a rape charge but faced a harsh trial-by-media. Now, as new details come to light, he’s speaking out and fighting back.” The impartiality of the writing has been called into question, given Cathy Young’s personal views on campus rape and the fact that the magazine generally publicizes conservative pieces.
Regarding the year which the alleged sexual assault occurred, he claimed “we were beginning to develop a very close friendship; it was an intimate friendship where we would hug each other and so on, but always platonic.” During that year, both parties admitted to at least three sexual encounters, with the accused sexual assault being the last.
During the party with Alpha Delta Phi, in which Sulkowicz described him as “drunk”, he claims he only consumed two mixed drinks and was buzzed. He claims that they both agreed to anal sex, then went to other sexual activities, and fell asleep. Following the encounter, Nungesser claims that he kept a friendship with Sulkowicz that slowly grew apart due to the demands of Columbia University and activities.
Facebook messages verified by Emma Sulkowicz as “authentic and not redacted in any way” show that two days after the alleged assault (August 29, 2012), Emma Sulkowicz and Paul Nungesser messaged each other. According to the record, it went:

Nungesser- Small shindig in our room tonight—bring cool freshmen.

Sulkowicz- lol yusss

Sulkowicz- also i feel that we need to have some real time where we can talk about life and thingz

Nungesser- word

Sulkowicz- because we still haven’t really had a paul-emma chill sesh since summmerrr

The next year they proceeded to grow apart more, and Sulkowicz and Nungesser did not keep in constant communication. Nungesser claims that if one tried to meet up with the other, it was not unusual to skip out due to busy schedules. Sulkowicz texted him after she reported him to Columbia’s Office of Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct.

“So, because they [Columbia’s Office of Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct] suggested it, I sent him a text message listing a few times during which I would be free and said that I was ready to talk. However, when he texted me back, it hit me that there was no way I could meet him one-on-one somewhere. It triggered so much pain and fear that I couldn’t bring myself to text him back.” To Nungesser, he thought it was business as usual for two college students that led busy lifestyles, especially for a foreign student that would visit his parents in Germany during breaks.

The following three years- and beyond- would be the site of a national conversation that Nungesser did not know he was a part of. The first he heard of the accusation, he claims: ”My first reaction was, ‘It has to be a misunderstanding’”.

The next few months he would keep his head down and silent as he was referred to as an “alleged rapist” by the media, a “serial rapist” on campus, and a “rapist” on social media. He would go to see Sulkowicz and her supporters holding mattresses around campus, putting his name on fliers, and slandering his name on the internet and international television.
In short, after multiple investigations which supposedly proved his innocence, he was subject to a trial by the jury of media, television, the internet, and his fellow students. Unlike the previous investigations, it needed no logic, no evidence, no support. Regardless of his innocence or guilt, the young man had unwillingly become the image of rape in American universities.

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