In a commencement speech Sunday at Barnard College, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, made several references to the case of Emma Sulkowicz, a Columbia University student who carried a mattress around campus on her back to protest how the school handled her claim that she was raped.
The only problem is, Sulkowicz’s accusations have come under intense scrutiny after the man she says raped her recently filed a lawsuit which includes possibly exculpatory evidence.
Whether Power was aware that Sulkowicz’s story has been called into question is unclear. But she used it several times in the speech as a point of reference to discuss problems facing women in the U.S. and around the world.
“Consider the enduring problem of sexual violence on college campuses, only a tiny fraction of which is reported by victims,” Power told Barnard College graduates. Barnard is a women’s college associated with Columbia.
“Even as we are aware of the seriousness of this problem, it takes a woman picking up a mattress and carrying it around her campus to make people really see it. A mattress that a good number of the women in this graduating class have helped carry. And men from Columbia, too.”
Sulkowicz, a visual arts major, began carrying a mattress on her back last year to protest how Columbia University administrators handled her claim that she was raped on campus in Aug. 2012.
Sulkowicz claimed that a classmate, Paul Nungesser, choked her and anally raped her in her dorm room. A campus tribunal cleared Nungesser of wrongdoing in 2013.
After Sulkowicz’s story made national headlines and after Nungesser was publicly outed, he filed a lawsuit against the school last month. He claimed that by allowing Sulkowicz to carry the mattress around campus, he faced harassment and intimidation. He noted that he and Sulkowicz had had consensual sex before she claims to have been raped. (RELATED: The Text Of The ‘Mattress Girl’ Lawsuit Will Shock You)
In his suit, Nungesser produced numerous text messages and social media conversations from before and after the night when Sulkowicz claims he raped her. The messages show that Sulkowicz made comments about having anal sex with Nungesser before before the night in question. She also messaged Nungesser several times after that night suggesting that they should meet up.
Nungesser’s attorneys claim that the messages show that Sulkowicz concocted the story about being raped. They also claim in the suit that she was obsessed with Nungesser and mad that he had relationships with other women.
Though the case is not yet settled, Power’s references to Sulkowicz’s mattress drew applause from the Barnard College audience.
From a wmn carrying a mattress on her campus to Afghanistan's Wmn's Nat Cycling Team, reaching true equality req showing change is possible.
— Samantha Power (@AmbassadorPower) May 17, 2015
“Now, I have talked about what it will mean to secure lasting equality – slaying the bats in our bat caves; taking on the struggles of others seeking dignity; and using a range of means – from mattresses to human contact – to make the invisible visible,” Power said.
“That impact – that is what equality is all about. It is a memorial that forces us to see a dark part of our history. A woman who picks up a mattress to show us a problem we are overlooking.”