The Columbia University student who drew national attention for carrying a mattress around campus to protest her alleged rape will now be taking her mattress to a new venue: the United States Capitol.
Emma Sulkowicz claims that in August 2012 she was raped by a fellow student in her dorm room, and since last fall she has been hauling a mattress around campus as a senior art thesis dubbed “Carry That Weight” while demanding that her alleged rapist be expelled. The campaign drew national attention and imitators across the country.
Now, Sulkowicz has been invited to attend President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night as the special guest of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.
Gillibrand has made combating sexual assault one of her top priorities in Congress, leading a campaign to change how the military handles sexual assaults and teaming up with Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri to push for reform at colleges as well. While Sulkowicz apparently will not be bringing her famous mattress to the speech, Gillibrand said she hoped Obama might use her attendance as an opportunity to discuss sexual assault.
“I hope the President will seize this opportunity to shine a national spotlight on the need to flip the incentives that currently reward colleges for sweeping sexual assaults under the rug,” she told The New York Daily News.
Gillibrand and Sulkowicz have interacted in the past. Sulkowicz first spoke publicly about her alleged assault in April 2014 at a press conference held by Gillibrand.
Whether Sulkowicz was actually raped, however, remains up for debate. She herself admits to prior sexual encounters with the student she accused, Paul Nungesser, and even says her alleged rape began consensually and only turned into sexual assault when Nungesser became violent with her.
Sulkowicz also only filed a complaint in April 2013, eight months after the actual event. A Columbia campus tribunal found Nungesser “not responsible,” and when she finally filed a police report in May 2014, they declined to pursue the matter.
In the absence of any formal punishment, Nungesser has been targeted in other ways, with his name published in Columbia’s student newspaper and included on a “rapist list” plastered in bathrooms around campus. Nungesser maintains that all his encounters with Sulkowicz were consensual, and he told The New York Times that the experience has cost him most of his friends.
In the wake of an alleged gang rape at UVA that aroused national anger only to be exposed as a hoax, Gillibrand’s gesture may invite criticism that she is perpetuating a witch hunt herself. Gillibrand’s office did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
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