politics

Did Emma Sulkowicz Get Redpilled?

At the very least, she’s found a new social set.

Emma Sulkowicz. Photo: Jamie-James Medina

“This story starts with me being on Tinder,” Emma Sulkowicz explains. “I don’t have TV, so all I can do is swipe left and right on men.” It’s mid-afternoon, and we’re in a deserted Vietnamese restaurant in downtown Manhattan, near the on-ramp to the Williamsburg Bridge. Sulkowicz is telling me about the “political journey” she’s lately been on, a listening tour of ideological positions that she’s always considered too right-wing to engage: centrists, conservatives, libertarians, and whatever Jordan Peterson is — various and sundry souls that Jezebel has canceled, whose names chill dinner conversation across progressive New York. Sulkowicz hasn’t been redpilled; she’s still a feminist and an advocate for survivors of sexual assault. What’s changed is her posture. “Even if I disagree with this person,” she says, “it doesn’t have to piss me off.”

Five years ago, while a student at Columbia, Sulkowicz lugged a dorm-issue, extra-long twin mattress around campus for as long as she had to attend school with her alleged rapist. This was Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight), a globally viral art piece that made visible the weight of campus sexual assault. It transformed Sulkowicz into an icon. Since then, her artworks have regularly roused the internet: a video of her reenacting her assault, a bondage performance at the Whitney that doubled as institutional critique. This past spring, she tweeted an image that was perhaps even more provocative: a photo of her grinning alongside two of her libertarian critics — not performance art, she insists, but a byproduct of her new curiosity about other views.

“All my clothes are in boxes,” she tells me, gesturing apologetically to her oversize charcoal hoodie. She’s in the midst of moving from a sublet owned by a tantra instructor (mirrors surrounding the bed to create an infinite regression — that kind of thing) to an apartment in lower Manhattan whose location she asks me not to reveal, since “there’s some really scary people who are obsessed with me.” Her hair is short-cropped and coffee black, its natural color after years of bright dyes, and her voice is buoyant, laughter always bubbling underneath. Since 2016, Sulkowicz has identified as gender fluid, and she sometimes uses they/them pronouns. When I ask what to use for this article, she texts me, “Lol I’m not clear about it either,” before settling on she/her.

During the summer of 2018, Sulkowicz tells me, she was single for the first time in years. Swiping through Tinder, a man she found “distasteful” super-liked her. “It smelled like Connecticut,” she says of his profile. “He was very blond, law school, cut jawline, trapezoidal body figure, tweed suit kind of vibe, but something inside of me made me swipe right, I don’t know.” They began messaging, and she found him witty. “He was actually way more fun to talk to than any other person I matched with.”

Eventually, Sulkowicz stalked him on Twitter and realized that he was conservative — “like, very conservative.” At first, she was repulsed and considered breaking it off. But then she thought, “Wait, actually, that’s kind of fucked up because he’s the most interesting person I’ve come across, shouldn’t I be open to talking to him?” After dispelling her initial fear, she texted him that it would be “interesting (progressive? Powerful?) for two people who might be the antithesis of each other to go on a Tinder date.”

Ahead of this date, they traded reading assignments: Sulkowicz gave him the password to protected areas of her website, and he sent pieces he’d written for conservative magazines, which she printed, annotated with her critiques, and brought to their date. This man expected Sulkowicz to be “the patron saint of wokeness,” but when he met her, he found that she wasn’t actually trying to litigate the issues — she was mostly just “curious about this different perspective that she had not been as familiar with.” The two “sort of dated” for a while and then realized that their chemistry was more conversational. They became “amazing friends.”

Not having known conservatives before, Sulkowicz had to play catch up. Early in their friendship, she asked him to recommend one book to help her understand him, and he picked Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. It’s a book that explains, in evolutionary terms, the human tendency toward political tribalism and the importance, in light of that, of learning from one another’s beliefs. She calls the book “mind-opening.” Its resonance with her new friendship did not escape her.

Shortly after, Sulkowicz attended a book talk of Haidt’s. This was for The Coddling of the American Mind, which diagnoses the campus left with the kinds of cognitive distortions that addle the chronically anxious and depressed: a tendency to blow everyday problems out of proportion, or to believe that one’s negative feelings reflect reality. This book kicked a hornet’s nest on the left, and when Haidt learned that Sulkowicz was at his talk, he didn’t assume she was a fan. “I expected her to be the sort of person who sometimes asks the angry question when I give lectures on campuses,” Haidt tells me. “And when I first saw her and she had blue hair, that fed my assumptions and expectations about what her views and values would be.” But Sulkowicz surprised him. “It changed the way I think about politics,” she said about The Righteous Mind, “and I wanted to thank you for it.” The two became friends.

Soon, she began attending house parties and happy hours with conservative and libertarian intellectuals, reading Jordan Peterson and articles from the National Review. In the past, Sulkowicz dismissed opposing views without understanding them, but now she sees intellectual curiosity as intertwined with respect: she wants to disagree with people on their own terms. This is an ethical position, but one with personal resonance. “I’ve always been upset,” she admits, “that there are people out there who assume that I’m a bad or mean person without ever having met me.” When she describes her political journey, she fixates on the experience of surprising people, of walking into a group who might otherwise dislike her and “disrupting their expectations.” At these parties, she reflects, “I can become fuller to certain people rather than staying the same caricature. I’m going from flat to round.”

A couple weeks after our lunch, Sulkowicz brings me to a book party at a dark bar on Bleecker Street. Here, she introduces me to her friend from Tinder, who asks that I not use his real name for this article. (It might be a distraction at his white-shoe law firm and, besides, “Emma is inured to online hate, but I am not.”) When he asks if he can choose his own pseudonym, I tell him sure. He picks Chad. It’s a reference to the incel term for men who, due to serendipitous genetics, are attractive enough to have oodles of sex. All of us laugh, but Sulkowicz laughs loudest, her voice tinkling, bell-like, and leaping between octaves.

Chad is a Chad, by the way, and he does “smell like Connecticut”: he has cornsilk hair, a shieldlike chest, and a jawline that an incel might show his surgeon for inspiration. But Chad is also a different kind of conservative than I imagined. Rather than a bowtie-sporting William F. Buckley type thumbing his nose at populism, he finds Reaganism laughably passé and aligns himself with Tucker Carlson’s anti-elite drive to regulate markets. He says that he would support some of Trump’s policy agenda, if only the president were competent enough to achieve it.

This party is for Robby Soave, a libertarian reporter on the snowflake beat whose new book, Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump, is — per Soave’s own description — “a book that is extremely critical of [Sulkowicz] and that I don’t wish her to read.” Soave met Sulkowicz a month or so before at another libertarian happy hour. Initially bewildered, he warmed to her, finding her to be inquisitive and even fun to talk to. “We exchanged contact information,” he tells me later, “and talked about maybe becoming, I guess, friends or something?” He laughs incredulously as he says this, sounding a bit on edge.

As Sulkowicz swirls around the party, her presence stirs an obvious question: whether this is performance art. Soave brings it up twice when we speak on the phone afterward, acknowledging the possibility that he’s being set up. While he’s inclined to believe that Sulkowicz is moved by earnest curiosity, he’s aware of her background in “elaborately planned performance art” and her reputation as a provocateur. Since graduating from Columbia in 2015, Sulkowicz has done around a dozen performances touching on issues like consent, anti-institutionalism, climate change, trauma, wellness, and female sexual desire. It’s natural to wonder if she’s currently breaking bread with this crowd to lampoon civility politics or to expose views she hates. Honestly, it might be harder to believe that she’s simply trying to learn.

But Sulkowicz is adamant that this isn’t performance. In fact, she insists that she’s quitting art altogether. After one of our lunches, she bikes off to return the keys to her studio, which she’s emptied and swept clean. “For many years,” she explains, “I wasn’t interested in listening to other points of view. I was very emotional and making performance-art pieces that were very reactionary and fiery.” Without disowning them, she describes these artworks as something she “got out of her system.”

Having found the art world humorless, narrow-minded, and grotesquely competitive, Sulkowicz says she stopped making art about a year ago. She quit a fellowship at a museum, ceased teaching art classes, and was essentially unemployed for a time, drawing income from occasional speaking gigs, mostly about campus sexual assault. (Her remarks on Me Too have been fewer; she supports it, but wants a clearer path to forgiveness.) She has been working on a memoir that draws on her diaries from Mattress Performance, and last month, she started a full-time, four-year master’s program in traditional Chinese medicine. There, she’ll learn skills from acupuncture to herbalism, which have been her “personal healing modality” for years. Sulkowicz has parried assumptions that this is performance art, too. It grates on her. “I’m a human and humans can change,” she says, insistently. “I’m telling you that I don’t want to make art anymore.”

But in some ways, it’s easier to assume that Sulkowicz’s political posture is performance art: this provides a clear motive, one that’s politically straightforward. If Sulkowicz is not making art, then it’s much harder to grasp why she’s doing this and what it means. Part of the confusion, Sulkowicz assumes, springs from a pervasive misunderstanding about who she is, rooted in the dissonance between her public image and private consciousness. While many assume she’s at Soave’s book party for some admixture of art and progressive politics, Sulkowicz says she’s mostly there for fun.

Despite her activist image, Sulkowicz claims she has never been particularly political. She didn’t come to Mattress Performance as an activist, or with the expectation that her work would receive attention. When she started the project as a 21-year-old undergraduate art major, she claims that she “literally didn’t know what feminism was.” This was a personal project, she says, inspired not by the fiery tradition of feminist performance art, but by the quiet endurance pieces of Tehching Hsieh.

It sounds unlikely. Sulkowicz, after all, was a student on a progressive campus, an alumna of a progressive Manhattan high school, and her work seemed clearly in dialogue with feminist performance of generations past. Besides, she was already something of a public figure when she started the piece: in early 2014, after word got out that a few Columbia students had accused a fellow student of sexual assault, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand asked if any of the unnamed accusers would go public in support of her campus sexual-assault bill. Sulkowicz agreed, which landed her on the front page of the New York Times. And while this might suggest more political savvy than Sulkowicz will own, in rereading the initial coverage, she actually doesn’t speak in political terms; others do for her.

After she began carrying her mattress in the fall of 2014, Sulkowicz became “a figurehead for something I didn’t really understand.” That September, Vanessa Grigoriadis wrote in a New York cover story that Sulkowicz becoming the “poster girl for the anti-rape movement” was an “accident of a viral world — she doesn’t have a background in activism, and she is not really at the center of this crusade.” This matches Sulkowicz’s own recollection, on the #HealMeToo podcast, that her role was mostly symbolic. “I literally wasn’t even CC’ed on the emails,” she says of planning a major protest at Columbia, during which dozens of students carried mattresses. Organizers just told her to “show up at this time and give a speech.”

In her speeches back then, Sulkowicz’s rhetoric sounded quite leftist. But years later, during her conversations with Chad, he suggested that her views might align more with libertarianism. Sulkowicz was open to that — her progressive politics didn’t feel core to her identity, even as they defined her image. Then Chad brought her to a party where she approached Nick Gillespie, an editor at large of Reason, a libertarian magazine that Sulkowicz knew from her Mattress Performance days. 

Reason reported doggedly on Sulkowicz’s case (often under the byline of Robby Soave, whose work turned into the book that she brought me to celebrate). While they mostly criticized Columbia’s treatment of the accused, rather than attacking Sulkowicz herself, they did run headlines like “Discredited, the Legend of Mattress Girl Just Won’t Go Away.” Sulkowicz mostly takes issue with the Reason reporter who published (in the Daily Beast, not Reason) transcripts of friendly Facebook messages between Sulkowicz and the man she accused, meant to undermine her credibility. (Sulkowicz later provided annotated transcripts to Jezebel, arguing that the messages were misleading without context.) Some considered this a body-blow to Sulkowicz’s story: proof positive that she was lying, and therefore license to harass her.

When I ask Sulkowicz to compare the emotional fallout of the assault to the emotional fallout of becoming a public figure, she is blunt. “The simple version of your question, which we’ll just suffer through, is ‘is it worse to be raped or is it worse to be raped by the media?’ And it’s worse to be raped by the media.” Part of the trauma of rape, she says, is that “you’re raped and then the next day happens just as it normally would.” There’s a “dissonance” to feeling changed while everything else rolls on. But after becoming a public figure, her whole existence transformed. Perfect strangers debated her private life and integrity, journalists chased her around campus, and vitriol poured in from all corners of the internet. It scared her. “The more the internet seemed to hate me,” she says, “the more of a bad person I became. I was very angry and I always had a chip on my shoulder. I had trouble being happy.” Outsized expectations inflamed her misery: artists, activists, and critics alike celebrated Mattress Performance and, after she graduated, Sulkowicz felt constant pressure to create something just as electric. She fell into a pattern of “increasingly soulless activities,” taking on art show after art show, “because I thought I was supposed to become an artist — as if I wasn’t one already.”

Naturally, when she saw Nick Gillespie at the party, Sulkowicz recalled his role in the firestorm. But her curiosity eclipsed her concern: she wanted to ask a real-life libertarian what he believed. Gillespie was impressed. “I thought it was really kind of gutsy for her to start a conversation with someone who edited a magazine that had been critical of her case.” They met up later, and he immediately offered to correct the record at Reason if they’d gotten anything wrong. “All it took was smiling with my teeth,” Sulkowicz quips, but she told him that wasn’t why she was there. She wanted to know what being a libertarian meant to him, and the parts that stuck with her were his insistence that libertarianism is “all about consent” and that he’s a libertarian not because he doesn’t have enough empathy, but because he has too much. I ask Sulkowicz if she finds what Gillespie said outrageous, and she says, emphatically, no. “So there was no part of you that had an emotional attachment to — ” I begin, but Sulkowicz finishes my sentence: “being angry with him? No. I’ve done a lot of self-work to get to the place where I don’t need to have vengeance.”

In explaining the arc of her life since Mattress Performance, Sulkowicz invokes something surprising. “As I became more and more feminist,” she recalls, “I think I got to a point where I was literally just straight up hating men. I just hated men, I wished all men would die.” But embarking on her political journey made her want to understand them, so she jumped into the belly of the beast, reading the book that “had always been framed to me as the book that all dudes read and then they became yucky”: Neil Strauss’s The Game, considered the bible of pickup artists.

Sulkowicz liked the book and considers Strauss’s story to be an echo of her own. For Strauss, she explains, pickup artistry started out “as an interest, which became a fascination, which became an obsession, which became a lifestyle, which became him becoming the No. 1 pickup artist in the world.” Afterward, he realized the book’s corrosive effects and he wrote The Truth, an attempt to course correct without entirely disavowing his past. “That kind of journey really resonated with me,” she says. “When I became this figurehead, I went along with it because I was 21, and 21-year-olds don’t really have fully developed brains, so my brain was developing as our country was developing. I’m 27 now and I had to be like, wait I need to make some decisions for myself and decide what kind of adult I want to be.”

On the phone last month, Sulkowicz floated a theory that politically open-minded people like herself tend to come from families with intense conflict — that perhaps political division, even over high-stakes issues, is easier to stomach when you’re used to loving the people with whom you fight most bitterly. She often frames her journey this way: a byproduct of her temperament or experiences, rather than a deliberate political action.

When I ask Sulkowicz to explicitly clarify her political beliefs, she struggles. She rebuffs me when I raise policy questions and refuses to identify unproductive political positions, saying she’s not here to “police the behavior” of others. “My politics is one of consent,” she explains, vaguely. I think she means that nobody should be forced into conflict, no matter how vehemently you might object to their views. “I’m trying to live a life that I’m happy with,” she adds, “and hopefully it’ll just catch on.”

Her new friends agree. Gillespie laments that, despite the “embarrassment of riches with how much we can communicate and explore ideas, we’re having kind of shitty conversations.” He hopes Sulkowicz’s journey sparks “a movement, among younger people in particular, to broaden the types of conversations that happen.” Asked about the value of these conversations, Sulkowicz’s friends mostly resort to abstraction: the benefit of dialogue is to “bridge divides” or “build empathy,” responses that are neither trivial nor satisfying. To be fair, not everything that is valuable can be easily explained. Several people tell me that, after knowing Sulkowicz, they have “more respect for people’s personal narratives” and are less likely to see others in bad faith.

Leaving Robby Soave’s book party, I walk Sulkowicz home through the June heat and she wants to know how I’ll describe her. “You’re a trickster,” I say, and she asks how I came to that word. I tell her that she seems to relate to the world on the level of mischief and play, rather than through any kind of ideology or strict moral code. I use the word “chaotic,” and she doesn’t object. A friend of hers wrote a book about tricksters, and she says she relates to it. Tricksters, he argued, can move unrestricted between any circumstances, because they’re always playing.