Sulkowicz helped bring attention to a federal complaint that students levied against the school last year for failing to properly adjudicate cases of campus sexual assault. Columbia, along with over 90 other schools, is under federal investigation for violations of Title IX, a law that prohibits gender-based discrimination, including sexual assault, on campuses. Schools found guilty of defying the law could lose federal funding.
In an interview with TIME last year, Sulkowicz said that she was raped during her sophomore year. She and two other woman all reported the same attacker to the university. All three cases were dismissed. “During my hearing, one panelist kept asking me how it was physically possible for anal rape to happen,” she said. “I was put in the horrible position of trying to explain how this terrible thing happened to me.”
The man who allegedly assaulted Sulkowicz, also a senior, is still on campus. He is currently suing the school and Sulkowicz’s thesis advisor for making his name public.
Following an email from the university forbidding “large objects” in the graduation procession, it looked like Columbia might block Sulkowicz for carrying the mattress, according to the Columbia Spectator. But students tweeted pictures of the young artist carrying her mattress in her cap and gown to confirm she was allowed to finish her undergraduate thesis.
At the start of the school year, some colleges now hand out a sober warning along with new lanyards and room keys. New students are told about the "Red Zone"—the ominously named period between the start of classes and Thanksgiving break when researchers say new female students are especially likely to be sexually assaulted.
A new study suggests the risk of sexual violence extends beyond those first perilous weeks.
Between the start of school and the summer after their freshman year, 18.6 percent of women surveyed at an unnamed college reported being raped or having endured an attempted rape, according to a study published Wednesday in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
The National Institute of Justice's Campus Sexual Assault Study estimated in 2007 that one in five women are sexually assaulted in college, a number critics have called inflated. The new research finds the incidence of rape could be that high for women in the first year alone.
That number rose to 37 percent when the time span stretched back to the age of 14, researchers from Brown University, the Syracuse Veterans Affairs Center for Integrated Healthcare, and the Miriam Hospital found.
"We're starting to appreciate that the whole of freshman year is probably a risky time for students," says Kate Carey, lead author of the study and a professor of behavioral and social sciences at Brown. "If we [were] to see these types of rates for a broken leg, or some other kind of injury, we'd certainly expect that the environment and the individuals involved would be addressed."
Understanding how common it is for college women to be raped is a tricky problem in part because rape is notoriously underreported; researchers who have attempted to quantify the problem have been criticized for inflating it.
But the Brown-led research team avoided many of the practices that critics have used to assail other college rape studies. For the Brown study, which surveyed a representative sample of 483 freshman women at a university in upstate New York, researchers used a narrower definition of rape than some others, counting only cases of vaginal, oral, or anal penetration.
They excluded unwanted touching and verbal abuse—interactions that prior studies, including the famous "one-in-five" report from the NIJ, have defined as sexual assault.
The researchers say their work proves that the incidence of college rape has risen to "epidemic levels."