Sulkowicz is born in New York, to Sandra Leong and Kerry Sulkowicz, psychiatrists from Manhattan. She is of Chinese, Japanese and Jewish descent.
At Columbia, Sulkowicz plans to study mechanical physics but ends up studying visual arts instead. She joins Alpha Delta Phi (ADP), Columbia’s co-ed “hipster frat”. As she puts it:
Only the most hipster of the hipster kids can get in.
Sulkowicz and Nungesser, a film fanatic and rower, meet at the fraternity.
He was a nice person; a cool person who was secretly really crazy.
Nungesser and Natalie (pseudonym) start a relationship. Natalie claims she felt emotionally and sexually exploited during the relationship, but was unable to identify it as abuse. She says she was suffering from serious depression before meeting Nungesser and had recently ended an emotionally abusive relationship. She would later wonder whether he used her vulnerability to manipulate her. She claims Nungesser often forcefully pinned her arms back against the mattress during sex; Natalie would cry during and after they slept together. Not until months after their break up did Natalie claim to recognize this as non-consensual intercourse. Later, after Sulkowicz’s alleged rape, Natalie and Sulkowicz meet at a party, and they both decide to make formal complaints.
I knew if no one punished him, he would keep on raping women… If I didn’t report it, he would keep harming people for the rest of his time on campus. He had to be stopped. That’s why I decided to report it.
During their freshman year, Sulkowicz and Nungesser’s friendship deepens. According to Nungesser’s later suit against Columbia, even before they have a sexual relationship, Sulkowicz brings up the topic of anal sex:
ES: Fuck me in the butt
PN: ehm, maybe not? jk I miss your face tho
ES: ahahah. you don t miss my lopsided ass?
PN: I do, just not that much
Later, Sulkowicz claims her comment is taken out of context.
Back in freshman year, I used to say the phrase ‘Fuck me in the butt’ to mean ‘OMG, that’s sooo annoying’. We all said stupid shit freshman year. Over time, I worked that kink out of my lexicon, but now and then I still say stupid things. We all say stupid things!
The relationship progresses to “friends with benefits”. In the spring of 2012 they have sex twice, the second time, according to Nungesser, includes anal sex, which Nungesser has not experienced before. Sulkowicz said she had tried before with other men and enjoyed it.
One of the main reasons their relationship does not become deeper was that Sulkowicz had previously been having sex with Nungesser’s close friend, known as John Doe. While Nungesser is back home in Germany for the summer, she messages him that she had tested positive for an STD (Chlamydia) after having having drunken sex at a party with John Doe, and his best friend Joe.
I’ve officially had sex with all of John Doe’ best friends. . . – did lotsa drugs -jk -just got very drunk – well anyways – now i have an std-i actually hate John Doe like if a girl is about to puke – don’ tput your unprotected dick into her. . . I realy don’t want to be known as the girl who contracted an std because she was drunk you know? it is more his fault for f-cking me unconscious – i mean i was conscious but clearly not in my right mind. . . i was literally blackout. . . like i puked all over the place.
From May 2012 through August of 2012 Sulkowicz sends many Facebook messages to Nungesser, expressing her love for him.
“Paul I wuv you so much. Please stay w me foevah” – “paul I miss you so much” – “like u know when you tell people you miss them and you don’t really mean it? – i actually mean it – i miss you so much – ahhh” – “pookie – i miss you” – “I LOVE YOU – SO MUCH” – “I MISS YOU MORE THAN ANYTHING – “I love youuuu” – “and l would LOVE to have you here – omg – we could snuggle” -“PAUL I MISS YOU PAUL I MISS YOU PAUL I MISS YOU” – PAULLL” – “DUDE I MISS YOU SO MUCH” “I love you Paul “
According to a later police report, Sulkowicz claims that when she and Nungesser start to have consensual sex he hits her across the face, chokes her, and pushes her knees onto her chest and leans on her knees to keep them up. He then grabs her wrists and penetrates her anally. Sulkowicz tells Nungesser to stop, but he does not. She struggles with him and tries to push his arms away, but he keeps going and suddenly stops without ejaculating. Nungesser claims in his later suit that he and Sulkowicz engaged in consensual sex, including vaginal and anal sex, followed by oral intercourse.
On Sulkowicz’s birthday, Nungesser sends Sulkowicz a message:
oh hai happy born day you better be celebrating muchos, no? donde estas tu i mi viva – see i’m so desperate with out you, i even try to speak spanish – anywho: merry happy days
She responds the next morning:
I love you Paul. Where are you?!?!?!?!
Nungesser claims they start to drift apart; they see each other at meetings and parties, but plans to get together alone never come to anything. Nungesser says he assumed it was simply a matter of hanging out with a new crowd and, due to Sulkowicz being in a new relationship. He claims the drift is:
Very amiable; nothing was changed or different or weird or anything in her behavior.
One day before the end of classes, Nungesser receives two new accusations. The first is from Natalie, a former girlfriend alleging he had emotionally and sexually abused her for the duration of that relationship. The second is from Josie, who claims that in April 2012, he had tried to kiss her at a party. Josie had written off the incident as drunken aggression, but after a mutual friend of hers and Nungesser’s tells her that he was participating in a hearing panel related to sexual assault, she contacts the Office of Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct. She says she remembered thinking:
What if I wasn’t as tall and strong as I am? What if I was really drunk? Those ideas made me very scared for other women.
The Office sends Nungesser an email instructing him to vacate his room at ADP the next day “to ensure the safety of all the parties involved in this matter” and move to another dorm for the few remaining days of the school year.
A list of “sexual assault violators” is written on the walls of various womens’ bathrooms on the Columbia campus. While the names are redacted in the reports, it is believed that Nungesser’s name is one of those mentioned. The messages are repeated over several days, titled “Rapists on Campus.” All names are written in the same style this time, suggesting a single author, and include the names of a big campus DJ, an athlete training for the Olympics, and a male student who worked at the Bwog, a campus news blog. Sulkowicz says she does not know who was behind the graffiti, but that the list includes the name of the man who had assaulted her.
I think that it’s important for people to know the names, because it’s a matter of safety
And also comments a few days later:
The fact that the University sends Public Safety to tape down the bathrooms—I think that’s a stifling of sorts. For other graffiti they wouldn’t tape the bathroom down. If it were a drawing of a smiley face, they wouldn’t do that.
In an article written for Time, Sulkowicz talks habout the alleged rape, the circumstances of the hearing, and her criticisms of Columbia’s processes:
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.
I’ve lost friends because some people just don’t understand what it means to be raped. One friend asked me if I thought that my rapist would be expelled from school. I said, “I really hope so.” And he said, “Poor guy” because I think many men see rape as kinky sex that went wrong. They say girls are confusing and it’s hard to tell when you’re supposed to stop. When I was raped, I was screaming “no” and struggling against him. It was obviously not consensual, but he was turned on by my distress.
I think the school is pressured to find him not guilty because up until now Columbia could just push these things under the rug and no one would know. But that means the Columbia administration is harboring serial rapists on campus. They’re more concerned about their public image than keeping people safe.
After seeking guidance from visual arts professor Kessler over the summer, Sulkowicz starts carrying her mattress wherever she goes on Campus.
Rape can happen anywhere. I was raped in my own dorm bed, and since then that’s become fraught for me. And I feel like I carry the weight of what happened there with me everywhere…For my senior thesis I will be doing a piece called ‘Mattress Performance’ or “Carry that Weight’ where I will be carrying this dorm room mattress everywhere I go for as long as I attend the same school as my rapist.
Carrying around your university bed—which was also the site of your rape—is an amazingly significant and poignant and powerful symbol. I felt I had something to offer in terms of how artists have done endurance performance pieces in the past, and the connection between activism and performance…The best art comes from a very personal place and from personal commitment and belief—otherwise you’re just doing an assignment…As a physical metaphor, the piece has tremendous power.
Sulkowicz’s parents make a statement, supporting their daughter and criticizing what they see as Columbia’s lack of action:
If Columbia remains passive in the face of Emma’s suffering, and does not attempt to rectify the injustice done to her, survivors at Columbia will feel discouraged from entrusting themselves to the system that Columbia has recently worked so hard at putting into place.
Emma’s performance piece, “Carry That Weight,” has galvanized forces around the world for gender equality, sexual assault policy reform, and empowerment of the disenfranchised, and has received praise from the art world. Needless to say, we are proud…However, as Emma’s parents, we do not want her recent celebrity to be a distraction from the fact that the University’s failure to place sanctions on the man she reported for rape, Jean-Paul Nungesser, CC ’15, is a cause of her continued suffering. The investigation, hearing, and appeals process that followed her complaint to the University were painfully mishandled. We feel that they violated standards of impartiality, fairness, and serious attention to the facts of the case.
If Columbia does not act to expel him before then, their graduation will not relieve Columbia of the burden of this episode. Instead, in this important moment in the history of sexual assault on college campuses, Columbia will remain indelibly in the public mind as the university where good men and women did nothing.
Abramovic declares her support for Sulkowicz, and expresses interest in working with her in the future.
Many people don’t have the willpower to stick to something no matter what, and that’s what she’s doing.
Hundreds of students carry 28 mattresses and leave them at the door of Bollinger’s home, in a protest organized by No Red Tape, an anti-rape campus group whose members wear red X’s and stickers urging passers by to “Imagine a world without rape”. The mattresses bear slogans like “NO MORE” and “CARRY THAT WEIGHT”. Students:
The administration isn’t really paying attention to what’s important. They’re dancing around the issue, saying it’s not really Columbia’s problem but society in general’s. Though they’re the people who are not expelling the rapists.
As a trans man, I feel sometimes that … I need to be involved in the male part of it. The entire reason that assault happens is because of the attacker, not the victim.
In an article written for Time, Sulkowicz talks about what she is thankful for, including her family, boyfriend, and supporters:
My education. I learned about performance art in high school, whereas so many people will never know what it is. And, although Columbia betrayed me, I am thankful for how I’ve learned to think clearly and critically about my situation, and for the opportunity to collaborate with inspiring student activists and a wonderful art faculty and community there. Everyone who has believed in me. Everyone who has helped carry the mattress. Everyone who has carried mattresses in support around the world. Everyone who has stood up for themselves and spoken out. Everyone who has worked to end the silence. These are the people who make real change.
Sulkowicz says she was disappointed the president did not mention sexual assault on college campuses in his State of the Union speech.
I can’t say I was entirely surprised because since when has violence against women ever been a man’s issue? “I am not going to lie, I was let down because I felt like there were points in his speech where he could have brought it up. I was really hoping he would mention it, since the issue has been raised to a new level.
Just seeing the president in person was such a wild experience. And shaking John Kerry’s hand was also extremely surreal. He didn’t really know who I was, and even when Senator Gillibrand introduced me no one seemed to know who I was. But that’s okay.
In a feature story on The Daily Beast, Nungesser says he did not rape Sulkowicz. According to Sulkowicz, after starting consensual sex (their third sexual encounter), Nungesser suddenly and brutally assaulted her, then picked up his clothes and left without a word, leaving her stunned and shattered on the bed. However, according to Nungesser, they briefly engaged in anal intercourse by mutual agreement, then went on to engage in other sexual activity and fell asleep. He says that he woke up early in the morning and went back to his own room while Sulkowicz was still sleeping. Nungesser says that for weeks after that night, he and Sulkowicz maintained a cordial relationship, and says she seemingly never indicated that anything was amiss. He then describes a series of friendly texts made by Sulkowicz after the alleged incident (these are documented here, and have been included in the newsline at the appropriate points).
Jezebel posts Sulkowicz’s rebuttal to the Facebook messages provided by Nungesser. Sulkowicz:
It is extremely upsetting that Paul would violate me again—this time, with the help of a reporter, Cathy Young. I just wanted to fix the problem of sexual assault on campus—I never wanted this to be an excuse for people to dig through my private Facebook messages and frame them in a way as to cast doubt on my character. It’s unfair and disgusting that Paul and Cathy would treat personal life as a mine that they can dig through and harvest for publicity and Paul’s public image.
This is why I have chosen to release the full conversation, plus the context in which things were said. I want people to have all the information so that they can make informed decisions for themselves, rather than seeing a redacted version of the conversation with bits and pieces picked out to make me look a certain way.
If I had a choice, no one would see my private Facebook messages at all. However, Paul and Cathy have put me in a position where I either do nothing, and they publish the conversation, or I take the lead and publish it on my own. It’s the only thing I can do to maintain a modicum of control over my private life, which becomes more public by the second, thanks to reporters who don’t treat me with respect.
The Jezebel article also mentions that there is a fourth Nungesser victim, Adam, who says that he was close friends with Paul during his freshman year in 2011. Adam claims that, in the midst of an emotional conversation in Nungesser’s dorm room, he was pushed onto his bed and sexually assaulted. He claims that after much self-doubt and internal struggle, he finally reported this incident, first to a student society to which both he and Nungesser belonged and then in a formal complaint to the university in the fall of 2014.
Ten minutes after Nungesser’s graduation, Sulkowicz walks across Columbia College Class Day stage with her mattress, despite a provision barring large items that was added to administrative guidelines sent by email to seniors the day before the event.
Graduates should not bring into the ceremonial area large objects which could interfere with the proceedings or create discomfort to others in close, crowded spaces shared by thousands of people.
Nungesser’s lawyer says that Columbia’s acceptance of Sulkowicz’s graduation stunt was “absurd” and would help her client’s case.
This goes beyond mere facilitation; they have now granted a special exception
Nungesser’s parents make a statement about their son’s graduation.
Our son’s graduation should have been a joyous moment for our whole family. We are extremely proud of Paul for graduating, even more so because of the harassment campaign he was subjected to. For over two years, he had to fight false accusations and a public witch-hunt, even though Columbia and the NYPD exonerated him. At graduation, Columbia University again broke its own rules and afforded Emma Sulkowicz a special exception. It was the second devastating experience in just a few days: Last week, Columbia exhibited Emma Sulkowicz’s highly disturbing and extremely graphic drawings of our son publicly on campus…A university that bows to a public witch-hunt no longer deserves to be called a place of enlightenment, of intellectual and academic freedom. By failing to intervene in this injustice, Columbia ceases to be a place where critical thinking, courage and democratic practice are taught, learned and lived.
In an anonymous posting to Jezebel, one of Nungesser’s alleged victims tells more about her case and defends herself:
When I filed the complaint against Paul, I didn’t know it would turn into a national event. It was over a year before Emma started carrying that weight, months before what happened at Columbia helped sparked a national dialogue about rape on college campus. I was just trying to do the right thing.
The incident happened my junior year at Columbia, when Paul followed me upstairs at a party, came into a room with me uninvited, closed the door behind us, and grabbed me. I politely said, “Hey, no, come on, let’s go back downstairs.” He didn’t listen. He held me close to him as I said no, and continued to pull me against him. I pushed him off and left the room quickly. I told a few friends and my boyfriend at the time how creepy and weird it was. I tried to find excuses for his behavior. I did a decent job of pushing it out of my mind.
The anonymous student says that when Nungesser was given an appeal, she—having already graduated—withdrew from the process because she felt frustrated with “Columbia’s incompetence’ as the appeals process began.
Following the appearance of posters on Columbia campus calling both Dunham and and Sulkowicz liars, Dunham tweets her support:
Dear Emma, anyone who wants can call us anything they want, but you helped me to stand in my skin & I am so grateful: http://t.co/2H6dBzN6BX
— Lena Dunham (@lenadunham) May 21, 2015
Sulkowicz releases a website and video entitled, Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol (link). The eight-minute video, which is dated August 27, 2012 (the same day as her alleged rape) features Sulkowicz’s and an unidentified man, whose face is blurred, engaging in what appears to be consensual sex that turns violent. The man open-palm slaps Sulkowicz, chokes her, removes the condom, then continues to have rough sex with Sulkowicz, who whimpers and protests from pain.
Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol is not about one night in August, 2012. It’s about your decisions, starting now. It’s only a reenactment if you disregard my words. It’s about you, not him. Do not watch this video if your motives would upset me, my desires are unclear to you, or my nuances are indecipherable. You might be wondering why I’ve made myself this vulnerable. Look—I want to change the world, and that begins with you, seeing yourself. If you watch this video without my consent, then I hope you reflect on your reasons for objectifying me and participating in my rape, for, in that case, you were the one who couldn’t resist the urge to make Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol about what you wanted to make it about: rape. Please, don’t participate in my rape. Watch kindly.
Both sides submit a letter (text) to the court summarizing the arguments they plan to raise in advance of a July 1 pre-trial hearing. Nungessers lawyer’s expand on their original claims, saying that despite Nuingesser being cleared by the University, Columbia did not curtail Sulkowicz’s activities, and actually honored her:
Emma’s time and indeed her academic work at Columbia has largely been defined by her part in the gender based anti-male discriminatory harassment campaign against Plaintiff Nungesser[;] these honors constitute yet another instant of Defendant Columbia directly rewarding, encouraging and celebrating Emma Sulkowicz’s role in the gender based discriminatory harassment.
They also say Columbia allowed Sulkowicz to display pornographic material that had Nungesser’s name attached to it in an art exhibition, and allowed Sulkowicz to carry the mattress to her (and Nungesser’s) graduation:
At the graduation ceremony, Emma Sulkowicz was given a special university privilege contrary to the rules by Defendant Columbia to carry the mattress to her and Plaintiff Nungesser’s graduation in another instance of Defendant Columbia perpetrated gender based discriminatory harassment of Plaintiff Nungesser
They also claim that Columbia allowed Sulkowicz to:
build a public persona surrounding her false allegations, which has led to the posting of videos and other proposed performances depicting Plaintiff Nungesser as a rapist.
Columbia’s attorneys do not rebut any of Nungesser’s claims, and while the school acknowledges that Sulkowicz’s campus activism made her a major figure in the sexual assault debate, it claims she was an independent third-party actor, and the school cannot be held responsible or liable for her conduct. The letter concludes by saying both sides are open to a pre-trial settlement.
In her Salon interview, Paglia criticizes Sulkowicz:
I’d give her a D! I call it “mattress feminism.” Perpetually lugging around your bad memories–never evolving or moving on! It’s like a parody of the worst aspects of that kind of grievance-oriented feminism. I called my feminism “Amazon feminism” or “street-smart feminism,” where you remain vigilant, learn how to defend yourself, and take responsibility for the choices you make. If something bad happens, you learn from it. You become stronger and move on. But hauling a mattress around on campus? Columbia, one of the great Ivy League schools with a tremendous history of scholarship, utterly disgraced itself in how it handled that case. It enabled this protracted masochistic exercise where a young woman trapped herself in her own bad memories and publicly labeled herself as a victim, which will now be her identity forever. This isn’t feminism–which should empower women, not cripple them.
Sulkowicz praises LeBeouf’s #ALLMYMOVIES performance work.
[It’s] a participatory art piece, a relational aesthetics art piece. It’s not just a stunt. I think there are things to think about in the piece…It’s the most egotistical thing on Earth. Yet, at the same time, because of the endurance quality of it where he has to sit there and suffer through himself, suffer through watching himself, it’s humble and inclusive. Like, ‘I will suffer through this with you guys, if you want.’
Sulkowicz will participate in a TEDx talk at the TriBeCa Performing Arts Center in New York on 20 Oct, with several others on the topic of “borders and belonging.” According to the program:
[The speakers] will explore the physical and socially-constructed borders between peoples, places and communities, as well as challenge how borders divide and unite us.
Sulkowicz threatens to sue Newsweek over its story about campus rape.
Paul Nungesser’s complaint is filled with lies…. I want to warn you to be conscientious about what you publish as ‘fact’ for I may work with a lawyer to rectify any inaccuracies and misrepresentations.