Emma Sulkowicz, the “Mattress Girl” of Columbia University, has been honored by the National Organization for Women (NOW) with its Woman of Courage Award.
Sulkowicz received the honor at NOW’s 2016 Forward Feminism conference, held June 24-26. It’s actually the second honor Sulkowicz has received from NOW, having previously received its Susan B. Anthony Award in 2014, when she was honored for “transforming the national conversation on sexual assault.”
The Woman of Courage Award is intended for women who, through personal bravery, have advanced the cause of women, or undermined sexist, anti-woman institutions. Past winners include Lily Ledbetter and Rep. Barbara Lee.
Sulkowicz attracted attention nationwide starting in 2014 for her senior art thesis, which involved her carrying around a dorm mattress everywhere she went. Sulkowicz claimed fellow student Paul Nungesser had raped her during her sophomore year, and that Columbia had failed to punish him.
Sulkowicz claimed her project, titled “Carry That Weight,” represented the “weight” she carried from seeing her rapist go free. She said she would only stop carrying the mattress when she graduated or Nungesser was expelled. He never was, so Sulkowicz even carried her mattress at graduation.
But while Sulkowicz became famous as an alleged rape victim (she even attended the State of the Union), the narrative of her alleged assault was coming under fire. Nungesser made a vigorous defense of himself, pointing out that both police and Columbia found he had done nothing wrong. In a lawsuit he filed against Columbia University, he argued the sexual encounters between the two were consensual, and produced Facebook messages and other evidence that portrayed Sulkowicz as a jilted love interest whose passion for Nungesser turned to hatred after he showed little interest in their sexual hookups becoming something more.
Since graduating, Sulkowicz has continued to pursue a career in avant-garde art. Just a few weeks after leaving school, Sulkowicz appeared in a sex tape reenacting her alleged rape, which was presented as a work of performance art. Earlier this year, she had an art exhibition in California which featured herself along with a robot replica of her which answered questions pertaining to her alleged rape.
After receiving the award, Sulkowicz made a post about it on Instagram, where she praised NOW for validating her artistic response to her alleged assault, presumably including her sex tape.
“I dedicate this award to everyone who has not told me to get over it,” she said, quoting her speech from the awards ceremony itself. “Thank you for validating my fear and my way of handling it. Thank you for creating a world in which we can tackle the things that terrify us by doing the unexpected right thing.”
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