At least for now, Columbia’s mattress saga is over. Emma Sulkowicz, the student who spent her final year on campus toting a mattress to protest the school’s failure to punish her alleged rapist, graduated at the end of May; so did Paul Nungesser, the accused man who says he’s the real victim.
There was more drama at graduation: Sulkowicz toted her mattress onstage in defiance of school regulations and later accused Columbia president Lee Bollinger of snubbing her. In related news, posters branding Sulkowicz a liar cropped up near the campus; Nungesser was reported cleared on the last sexual assault complaint against him, this one from a male student; and, the next day, one of his two anonymous female accusers told her story on the feminist blog Jezebel.
An attempt at summing up this messy saga and its lessons comes from Emily Bazelon via Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. Bazelon admits that l’affaire Sulkowicz drama highlights major problems with the current system of Title IX-based campus “justice”—including “utter lack of transparency,” which is not a bug but a feature of the system: federal law stringently protects the privacy of students involved in disciplinary cases. As a result, in an alleged rape case that has attracted international attention and scrutiny, we are mostly left with he said/she said accounts not only of what happened between Nungesser and his accusers, but of how the complaints were handled by the university. The records exist, including transcripts and video recordings of the hearings; but they are off-limits and likely to remain so.
Dispensing with Due Process
Bazelon believes this fiasco is a result of the current system’s growing pains—of “a transitional period in the evolution of how universities handle sexual assault.” But it’s hard to see what reforms would fix the problem. Even if school staff are better trained to investigate sexual misconduct reports—assuming that “better training” actually means more effective fact-finding, not more faithful adherence to believe-the-survivor dogma—this would not address the underlying issue: that activists like Sulkowicz want to dispense with any semblance of due process and refuse to respect any result other than culpability and punishment.
(Incidentally, while Bazelon correctly notes that “rape is extremely difficult to prosecute both effectively and fairly,” the kind of violent attack that Sulkowicz alleges—an excruciatingly painful anal rape during which she was hit in the face, choked within an inch of her life, and pinned by the arms—would be quite easy to prove, at least if promptly reported to the police. The physical evidence would have been overwhelming.)
One lesson of this case Bazelon doesn’t mention is that if universities are going to have rules for the disposition of Title IX cases, they need, at least, to enforce those rules in a fair and meaningful way. As Nungesser’s lawsuit against Columbia points out, all the parties in sexual misconduct cases are urged to do what they can protect the confidentiality of the process and the privacy of all those involved. Sulkowicz has repeatedly violated that rule with impunity; the male accuser, known as “Adam,” talked to Jezebel about his complaint while it was still under investigation, apparently with no consequences.
On Fulsome Display
Columbia’s craven acquiescence to Sulkowicz’s activism was on fulsome display in the graduation dust-up. A university email sent the previous day had reminded students not to bring large objects into the ceremonial area. When Sulkowicz arrived toting her mattress, she was apparently asked to stow it away for the ceremony; she refused, and she and her helpers were finally allowed onstage anyway. The university’s official statement, emailed to me by director of communications Victoria Benitez, noted, “We were not going to physically block entry to graduates who are ultimately responsible for their own choices.” In other words, compliance with the rules is a personal choice.
Another lesson is that the media need to exercise due diligence and skepticism when it comes to “survivor” narratives: not to treat accusers as presumptive liars, of course, but to ask questions and do the fact-checking. (In other words, “trust but verify.”) That is something journalists egregiously failed to do for months, when Sulkowicz’s narrative went unchallenged amidst massive publicity. The mainstream coverage today is much more balanced; Bazelon clearly presents this as a story with two sides and mentions some of the exculpatory evidence, including Sulkowicz’s chatty Facebook messages to Nungesser after the alleged rape.
Yet even now, failure to verify remains a problem. No one, as far as I can tell, has followed up on Sulkowicz’s claim (made in the annotations to her Facebook messages for Jezebel last February but never mentioned before or since) that the day after she was allegedly raped by Nungesser, she talked about it to a female friend “who explain[ed] it was rape.” If such a corroborating witness exists, why did she not testify at the hearing or come forward to support Sulkowicz? Can Sulkowicz give this friend’s name to journalists, at least on the condition that she won’t be publicly identified?
To state the obvious, the truth in this story is ultimately unknowable. But here’s what we do know.
Kept up A Friendly Act
Sulkowicz’s account of her rape strains credulity to the extreme. Sulkowicz accuses Nungesser of an extremely brutal assault that should have left her visibly injured (with bruises not only on her face but on her neck and arms, unlikely to be covered by clothing in August and early September in New York) and in need of medical attention. Yet no one saw anything amiss after this attack, and both Nungesser and Sulkowicz went on to chat and banter on Facebook as if nothing happened. Sulkowicz’s claim that she kept up a friendly act hoping to confront him about the rape seems extremely dubious, given the near-psychotic violence she alleges and the lack of any sign of unease or tension in their online conversations. (When I reread these archives recently, I checked the timestamps to see if there were any awkward pauses; there weren’t, not even when Nungesser asks Sulkowicz to bring more girls to his party and she replies, “I’ll be dere w da females soon.”)
Is Sulkowicz a “false accuser”? We don’t know that. It’s possible that something ambiguous happened between her and Nungesser that night—something that she later came to see as coercive and embellished with violent details. But I would say the odds of her account being factually true are very low.
Sulkowicz has demonstrable credibility problems.A few examples:
- As Nungesser’s lawsuit notes, at one point in spring 2014 Sulkowicz wrote that she lived in daily terror of encountering her rapist on campus—while another statement she made around the same time shows that she knew he was spending a semester in Europe.Prior to her claim that she spoke to a friend the morning after the alleged rape, Sulkowicz had sometimes asserted that she didn’t tell anyone for several months, sometimes that she told a few friends.Last fall, Sulkowicz told the Times’ Ariel Kaminer that after filing a police report, she had elected not to pursue criminal charges because the process would be “lengthy” and “too draining.” Now, she tells Bazelon that she stopped talking to investigators because “the police were visiting her apartment unexpectedly.”
- The multiple charges in this instance do not make for a stronger case because they are demonstrably linked to each other; what’s more, there is evidence backing Nungesser’s claim that he was targeted for a vendetta based on the belief that he had raped Sulkowicz.
- One of the other two female accusers, “Natalie”—Nungesser’s freshman-year girlfriend—filed a complaint after talking to Sulkowicz and (in Sulkowicz’s words) delving into their “shared trauma.” Her complaint was dismissed for lack of evidence after she stopped cooperating with investigators. Nungesser’s lawsuit says she claimed she felt obligated to have sex with him; Natalie herself told Bwog, the Columbia campus magazine, that he would often forcefully pin her arms back during sex and that she often cried when they were in bed. (She struggled with major depression during their relationship.)
Rape or Drunken Pass?
- “Josie,” the accuser who authored the piece for Jezebel, admits that she filed her complaint with the encouragement of a “friend” who told her that Nungesser had been accused of raping another woman. As I have previously reported, that friend—to whom I have referred by the pseudonym “Leila”—was an officer in the Alpha Delta Phi coed fraternity to which Nungesser, Sulkowicz, and Josie all belonged. At the time, Leila was trying to get Nungesser ejected from the ADP residence because of Sulkowicz’s charges. (Josie also lived at the house; Sulkowicz did not.)Josie’s charge is the only one on which Nungesser was initially found culpable; that finding was later reversed on appeal, and a second hearing exonerated Nungesser after Josie declined to participate.Josie has given somewhat contradictory accounts of her decision to withdraw from the process. Among other things, she has repeatedly stressed that she had graduated from Columbia by then, without mentioning that the first hearing also took place months after her graduation in May 2013. (According to the timeline compiled by Nungesser’s parents, the original hearing was held September 26; the appeal was granted on October 28, and the second hearing was on December 13.)Even if Josie’s story is true, her complaint hardly corroborates Sulkowicz’s accusation. Sulkowicz is alleging a brutal rape; Josie is alleging a boorish drunken pass at a booze-soaked frat party. She says that Nungesser followed her upstairs after offering to help restock the bar, then tried to kiss her and pulled her toward him despite her protestations, until she pushed him off and left. Such behavior may meet the definition of sexual assault on the modern campus, but it is hardly the mark of a violent sexual predator. Josie herself says she did not think of it as “sexual assault” until she heard about the alleged attack on Sulkowicz.
- The last and fourth charge from “Adam” has been all but definitively exposed as a fabrication, as I wrote on Reason.com last month after reviewing a leaked internal report by Columbia Title IX investigators. The report describes Adam as a highly “unreliable” complainant, partly because social media records contradicted his version of his interactions with Nungesser and backed Nungesser’s. Adam also made bizarrely paranoid claims that Nungesser “retaliated” for his complaint—before the complaint was filed—by sitting too close to him and his friends in class and complimenting a point he had made in a class discussion.The document also reveals that Adam first made his allegations to Leila while she was collecting accusations of sexual misconduct against Nungesser in the wake of Sulkowicz’s charge. Without explicitly confirming the existence of a vendetta, it notes that “at the time of the Complainant’s initial disclosure, at least several of his close friends … were [seeking] to evict the Respondent from the fraternity house.” Adam was a close friend of Natalie’s; Nungesser’s lawsuit also alleges he is a close friend of Sulkowicz’s.
While this is purely speculative, it is also interesting to note that the accusations against Nungesser first emerged in the immediate aftermath of the Steubenville, Ohio rape trial in February-March 2013, when the moral panic about “rape culture” reached fever pitch in the media and “sexual awareness” events proliferated on college campuses. Is it possible that this atmosphere of hypercharged rhetoric about the ubiquity of sexual violence and its tacit toleration by American society encouraged at least some of the complainants to reinterpret their own experiences as assaultive?
With Nungesser’s lawsuit still pending, the story is certain to be back in the news. Perhaps, by the time it reaches its next round in the news cycle, the journalists who cover this case will learn some of its lessons and ask the hard questions.
In the meantime, there is certainly enough evidence to grant Nungesser the benefit of reasonable doubt not only in legal disciplinary proceedings, but in the court of public opinion. That is something he has been denied by Sulkowicz’s campaign and its mostly uncritical media reception.