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Emma's uni didn't believe she was raped. So she became 'Mattress Girl'.

“Sexual assault is almost impossible to prove. We have no idea what happened in that room that night.”

Vanessa Grigoriadis, author of Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus, is talking to Mia Freedman’s No Filter about former Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz, 25, and her story of sexual assault.

Though it unfolded several years ago, Sulkowicz’s experience is particularly relevant today as the #MeToo movement opens up conversations about consent.

Long before the hashtag, Sulkowicz lit a fire under the issue, paving the way for women like Ashley Judd, who was the first to publicly accuse film producer Harvey Weinstein, and ‘Emily Doe‘, who told the world how it felt to wake up and learn she’d been raped by college student Brock Turner.

Sulkowicz, too, started a conversation. This is her story.

Sulkowicz, who later became known as ‘The Mattress Girl’, was 19 years old and starting her second year at Columbia University in New York in August 2012.

She and a friend, Paul Nungesser, who lived in her co-ed college house, were at a party together.

Sulkowicz wasn’t really drinking – she’d had a sip of gin and soda – but Nungesser was making his way through a bottle of vodka. They kissed in the courtyard, the air warm around them. They’d slept together before, twice at the very beginning of their first year of college. And that night, they both wanted it to happen again.

So it did. They went to her room and had consensual sex and oral sex. But then, something happened. Nungesser, Sulkowicz alleges, pushed her legs against her chest. He allegedly slapped her and anally penetrated her, continuing to do so even when she was struggling and saying ‘no’.

Emma Sulkowicz on the cover of New York Magazine. Post continues below.

He left without ejaculating. Text messages show Sulkowicz messaging him in the days following her alleged rape, arranging to meet up. She said later she wanted to talk to him about what happened, but didn’t know how to start the conversation.

Almost a year later, Sulkowicz filed a complaint with Columbia University requesting Nungesser be expelled for the alleged rape. Two other students came forward with similar allegations about him.

Nungesser denied it was rape.

“To me, what Sulkowicz describes is unquestionably sexual assault,” Grigoriadis told No Filter. “You are permitted to not consent to any additional sex act, even you’ve consented before.”

“What I do find very interesting, and part of what my book is about, is the fact that not everyone would call it sexual assault because consensual sex had already happened.”

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It throws up a lot of questions.

“Can consent be withdrawn? When should it be withdrawn? Did he need to ask her a question? Maybe, are you cool with this? Did they need to have a check in before anal sex?”

Emma Sulkowicz
Emma Sulkowicz. Image via Getty.

Over several months, Columbia University conducted an inquiry and found Nungesser was "not responsible" for anally raping Sulkowicz.

Speaking to New York Media, Sulkowicz said the hearing failed her. That the adjudicators took incomplete notes; kept saying she was "tipsy"; and asked her to draw a picture of the sexual position the pair were in, in apparent disbelief that consensual sex could become something sinister.

Nungesser told the panel about Silkowicz' athleticism. He said she was a fencer and claimed he wasn't strong enough to hold her down. He lied to the panel, Silkowicz said, about ejaculating on her stomach. "He never came that night, he just stopped and ran away."

There were two other female students, and a male student, who also came forward accusing Nungesser of sexual misconduct. One woman said he often forced her into non-consensual sex during a relationship that lasted several months. Another said he tried to kiss her at a party. The male said he was sexually assaulted by Nungesser after an emotional conversation.

None of these complaints resulted in action against Nungesser with the university finding he was "not responsible".

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What did Sulkowicz do? She started the protest that gave her the name 'The Mattress Girl'.

LISTEN: No Filter with Vanessa Grigoriadis. Post continues below.

In a piece of performance art, Sulkowicz vowed to carry a mattress weighing 23kg around campus everywhere she went until Nungesser was expelled.

It became an international sensation and, all of a sudden, campus rape was in the news. Sulkowicz called it Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) and said it was a metaphor for the burden victims of rape carry with them every day.

She carried that mattress from September 2014 until her graduation in May the following year. The school refused to expel Nungesser and Sulkowicz made good on her promise to take the mattress with her to her graduation ceremony.

"There are a lot of conversations that need to happen to make people safer," Grigoriadis told Mamamia. "These crimes at college aren't always pathological; they can come from immaturity."

"Young men have this deep belief that women's bodies are for them. Women don't really get to control their bodies, and guys get to touch them whenever they want."

Emma Sulkowicz. Image via Getty.
Emma Sulkowicz. Image via Getty.

The story of Sulkowicz' protest, her art, and her activism is unique.

It led to protests from other students and catapulted the phrase 'rape culture' into the public vernacular. Hillary Clinton, who was a senator at the time, told a Democratic National Committee's Women's Leadership Forum that the image of Sulkowicz bent over beneath that mattress "should haunt all of us".

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But that is where the uniqueness of Sulkowicz' story ends.

Rape and sexual assault was, and still is, seemingly a staple of university culture. A 2017 study from the Australian Human Rights Commission found 51 per cent of university students were sexual harassed in 2016. And that women at college are four times more likely to be sexually assaulted than women who don't live in college.

The report said the "vast majority" of students did not report their assault to the university because they didn't believe it was "serious enough".

And this, more than anything, is the reason efforts like Sulkowicz' mattress performance, and the #MeToo movement of today, are so deeply, vitally important.

They push us to have the tough conversations and ask the questions that sometimes feel impossible to answer.

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