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Barbara Kay: Rape culture’s biggest victim may be honesty and truth

Emma Sulkowicz carried a mattress everywhere she went after claiming her charges of abuse were mishandled. But maybe they weren't.

Does the Guinness Book of World Records have a category for persistence in carrying a mattress around a university campus? If they did, Emma Sulkowicz, who has just graduated from New York’s Columbia University, would doubtless be the record holder. Whether she deserves praise for it or not is another issue.

Sulkowicz carried the mattress – she called it an art project — to shame Columbia University for its alleged failure to properly address her claim that she was the victim of a sexual assault, and to raise awareness for the alleged scourge of sexual assault on campuses everywhere.

None of the major media asked Nungesser for his side of the story.

She is famous! Sulkowicz has been given awards by the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women and the Feminist Majority Foundation. She was even invited to the State of the Union address this year as the guest of New York Senator Kirsten Gilibrand,  who is backing legislation that would force all universities into more rigorous and standardized oversight of their sexual-assault policies.

Columbia University is clearly very happy to see the back of the mattress girl. President Lee C. Bollinger refused to shake her hand as she marched across the Alfred Lerner Hall stage with her mattress (spurning requests that she set it aside for the duration of the ceremony) at the university’s commencement ceremonies. One of the hands he did shake belonged to her accused rapist, Paul Nungesser, which is what many people will remember his name for, rather than the fact that he was cleared of the charge by the university.


What Sulkowicz will do now that her 15 minutes of fame as the poster girl for rape culture are over is not clear, but with her mattress no longer a theatrical distraction from reality, we can and should turn our attention to the actual facts of her case.

In April, 2013, Paul Nungesser, a full-scholarship student from Germany, was at Columbia’s digital architectural lab when he was summoned to the Office of Gender-based and Sexual Misconduct. He was not at first alarmed, thinking “that maybe they called me in as a witness” for someone else’s case. Instead he found himself cast as the villain of a scarifying tale of a brutal assault.

According to Sulkowicz’s account, Nungesser (whose name was not made public until Sulkowicz filed a police report in May 2014), turned violent during during a (third) consensual sexual encounter with Nungesser in August 2012. She said Nungesser, who she considered a good friend, choked and punched her while he forced himself on her anally in spite of her screams of pain.

Sulkowicz claims she was too embarrassed to file a complaint, so “suffered in silence” and only decided to come forward several months after the event when she was emboldened by hearing stories of two other alleged assaults by Nungesser. Sulkowicz resorted to the mattress after Nungesser was exonerated (in her case and the two others) in what Sulkowicz claims was a shoddy investigation and a hearing where she was treated with insensitivity. Nungesser kept a low profile throughout the long process, but finally in February of this year gave a long interview to The Daily Beast with his radically opposed version of the story.

According to Nungesser, he and Sulkowicz met in their freshman year in an outdoors-activity group. They developed a close, but platonic friendship that included sleepovers, one of which turned into a sexual encounter, about which both were ambivalent, not wanting to ruin their friendship. Weeks later, another encounter happened and another heart-to-heart, at which point they agreed to move on, and went their separate ways for the summer.

During the summer there was warm, affectionate Facebook chatter between them (screenshots provided to The Daily Beast). They met again at Columbia in late August at a party and ended up in Sulkowicz’s room (at her request, says Nungesser). He claims not to have been drunk, as Sulkowicz alleged, only “buzzed.”

This is where and when the disputed encounter took place. But in Nungesser’s account, there was no brutality or forced sex, rather consensual anal sex, other sexual activity and sleep. For weeks afterward, when Sulowicz was supposedly “suffer[ing] in silence,” Nungesser says their relations were entirely amiable with no sign of distress from Sulkowicz. Facebook messages from August, September and October 2012 provided to The Daily Beast (and confirmed as authentic by Sulkowicz) bear out this claim, yet he was not allowed to present them in his hearing. On Oct 3, Sulkowicz’s birthday, he sent a warm greeting and she responded, “I love you, Paul. Where are you?!?!?!?!”

In May, just before the end of classes, a former girlfriend alleged Nungesser had sexually and emotionally abused her during their relationship. Another young woman claimed he had tried to kiss her against her will at a house party. Nungesser’s alarmed parents at this point hired a criminal attorney for him and by the end of the year he had been cleared of all charges. Sulkowicz was enraged. She stated, “My rapist – a serial rapist [only Sulkowicz accused him of rape] – still remains on campus, even though three of the women he assaulted reported him.”

There are too many details to recount in this space concerning the charges brought by the two other women – details that any reasonable observer would find tainted by hints of collusion amongst those making charges – and Nungesser has consistently and adamantly insisted that “there was never any kind of abuse whatsoever, not of a physical nature, not of an emotional nature” in his former relationship.

Even with a very low threshold – “preponderance of the evidence” – there simply was no credible evidence to support any claims of sexual abuse, and plenty of evidence to suggest that the relationship was amicable at a time when, if we are to believe Sulkowicz, affection and trust would have been impossible on her part. But Sulkowicz would not let it go, even after her appeal was rejected. She sought and got media attention, lashing out at Nungesser, continuing to refer to him as a rapist, even though she declined to press criminal charges.

Sulkowicz’s mattress gambit brought explosive notoriety to the case. Nungesser considers the mattress harassment, and that certainly is the view from where I sit. The affair has brought Nungesser social media abuse and threats. A Tumblr post circulating last September reads, “The name of Emma Sulkowicz’s rapist is Jean-Paul Nungesser. Don’t let him have any feeling of anonymity or security. Rapists don’t get the luxury of feeling comfortable.”

Apparently non-rapists don’t have the luxury of feeling comfortable either, once they have been accused, even when the accusation comes from someone clearly obsessed with the spotlight and, it would appear, “issues” with intimacy and attachment. The media couldn’t get enough of her accusations, but none of the major media asked Nungesser for his side of the story. Shades of Rolling Stone magazine’s recent journalistic debacle! He might have told them, amongst other things, that as the son of enlightened parents – father a teacher, mother a journalist – he was brought up with the greatest of respect for women. As he eventually told the New York Times, “My mother raised me as a feminist.”

Feminist or not, it is of course conceivable that Nungesser is guilty of something. But of what? It’s worth reading the long, detailed and meticulously annotated Daily Beast article. If you do, I am pretty certain most reasonable observers will give the benefit of the doubt to Nungesser, and come to believe there is something very narcissistic, and very wrong in Emma Sulkowicz’s perception of reality. Perhaps her future adventures will provide more enlightenment in terms of a pattern of behaviour.

All we can know for sure is that Sulkowicz had her day in “court” and lost, but because she is a woman with a dramatic story of sexual victimhood and people can’t get enough of rape culture, however innocent the man in the story may be in fact, in the court of public opinion, he will never win. Unless, of course, the media start doing their job on rape-culture file, and our cultural elites give their heads a giant shake to get rid of the irrational moral panic that is taking up the space where reason belongs.

National Post