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Students carry mattresses to promote campus sexual assault awareness

As part of a national day of awareness and activism, students carried their mattresses around campus on Wednesday and wore X’s on their clothing in support of sexual assault survivors.  (credit: Yeongwoo Hwang/) As part of a national day of awareness and activism, students carried their mattresses around campus on Wednesday and wore X’s on their clothing in support of sexual assault survivors. (credit: Yeongwoo Hwang/) Participating students lined up in front of the Fence Wednesday afternoon after carrying their mattresses. (credit: Yeongwoo Hwang/) Participating students lined up in front of the Fence Wednesday afternoon after carrying their mattresses. (credit: Yeongwoo Hwang/)

Students carried mattresses out of their rooms and onto campus on Wednesday as part of Carry That Weight, a national initiative to support survivors of sexual assault and “carry the weight together.” The campaign was created by Emma Sulkowicz, a student at Columbia University who was sexually assaulted by another student and pledged to carry her mattress as part of her senior thesis until the alleged perpetrator is expelled from Columbia.

At Carnegie Mellon, the movement took the form of several students carrying mattresses around campus for the day, as well as hundreds of students wearing red Xs taped to their clothing as a protest against sexual assault and sexual violence on campus and a sign that they were willing to help carry the weight. After the event’s organizers spent the day giving out red tape to make Xs outside of the Jared L. Cohon University Center’s Merson Courtyard, all of the students participating in the initiative gathered at the Fence in the afternoon and marched around the Cut.

Carry That Weight at Carnegie Mellon comes after the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced last fall that Carnegie Mellon is among now over 60 universities being investigated for violating Title IX, a part of the United States Education Amendments of 1972 that mandates that educational institutions treat men and women equally. The OCR’s investigation comes on the heels of a lawsuit raised against Carnegie Mellon by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which alleges that the university failed to protect a student from her abusive ex-girlfriend.

Graham Arthur, a first-year economics and statistics major and one of the event’s organizers, said that he first heard about the movement through a friend at another university. “I got contacted about it like a week ago, there’s like a national event happening today. It’s all over [the country],” Arthur said.

Arthur brought the campaign to Carnegie Mellon’s campus through a Facebook event, word of mouth, and the university’s Greek community. According to junior electrical and computer engineering major and event organizer Gabriel Ostolaza, “We just made a Facebook page, and a lot of people came out. We invited like 2.5K people, and like 300 came. And we marked more than 500 people [with red Xs], and there were 12 to 13 mattresses…. People came out, and I really appreciate that.”

Some students also carried pillows, which, the campaign’s website says, was a way for students who are physically or otherwise incapable of carrying a mattress to show their support. Sulkowicz also wrote in an opinion piece for Columbia’s Spectator, “A call to Carry That Weight together,” however, that “I hope that very few of you end up carrying pillows. Pillows are ‘light,’ ‘fluffy,’ and may detract from our message. The propagation of images of people carrying pillows could undercut our understanding of the gravity of sexual assault, and imbue what should be seen as a serious crime with ‘cute’ and ‘celebratory’ connotations.”

Sulkowicz chose a standard-issue dorm room mattress to carry because it represents the weight she feels as a survivor of sexual assault. The mattress, too, emphasizes the idea of collaboration. “Carrying a mattress with others brings us together to collectively help carry the weight, shows our continued support for survivors, and our collective commitment to working together toward cultural and community-level change to end sexual and domestic violence,” according to Carry That Weight’s website.

On the website, students can upload photos of themselves carrying a mattress and pledge that “I support survivors of sexual and domestic violence and am helping to #CarryThatWeight.”
Sulkowicz also emphasized that her actions are not, at their heart, actually part of a protest. “In the news, people have been calling my piece a protest, and just ignoring the fact it is not really a protest but a performance-art piece,” Sulkowicz said in a September interview with New York Magazine. “Yes, I would like for my rapist to get kicked out of school, but I realize that the university is so stubborn that it may never happen and I may be carrying this mattress for a while.”

The campaign resonated with many students. Sophomore business and economics double major Gujri Singh said that she participated in the initiative “because people are not aware of what sexual assault is and how many people are affected by it. So awareness is the number one way to prevent things from happening in the future. It’s the same as education, which is why this is so important.”

Senior directing major Rachel Pustejovsky participated as a way of fighting a flawed system for dealing with sexual assault and violence on campus. “The most dangerous time to be a woman is in college, and it’s because this country perpetuates rape culture, and colleges are afraid that if they take care of their victims, they’ll lose their rankings,” Pustejovsky said. “And we need to stop perpetuating rape culture, stop making slut jokes okay, and to defend and protect our students at the cost of a ranking. Because a school where you’re safe is a better place to be.”

Junior chemistry major Morgan Schaefer was, she said, simply engaged in the cause. “I didn’t do it for any reason other than that I’m passionate about awareness of sexual violence and sexual assault.”