Tag Archives: mattress girl

I Am Woman, Watch Me Wilt at Columbia

This article was published originally in Commentary

In February 2015, Columbia University—currently ranked the fourth most distinguished academic institution in the United States by U.S. News and World Report—announced that all its students, undergraduate and graduate alike, would be obliged to take part in a “Sexual Respect and Community Citizenship Initiative.” This “new, required programming,” the Columbia bureaucracy explained, was designed to explore “the relationship between sexual respect and community membership.”

Columbia’s students were given a menu of “participation options.” They could watch a minimum of two preselected videos about “rape culture” and gender identity and write a “reflection” about what they had learned. They could attend film screenings about sexual assault and masculinity and engage in a monitored discussion afterwards. They could create a “work of art” about the “relationship between sexual respect and University community membership.” Or, if they identified “as survivors, co-survivors, allies, or individuals who have experienced forms of secondary trauma,” they could attend workshops on “Finding Keys to Resiliency.”

Options in the “Finding Keys to Resiliency” module included a “mindfulness workshop” on “cultivating nonjudgmental awareness and being more present for their experience.” If attending the book launch for SLUT: A Play and Guidebook for Combating Sexism got one too agitated about female oppression, one could unwind at a “Yoga class for women” or a “knitting circle.”

To help students organize their required “reflections” on the videos, Columbia provided a set of questions suggestive of a New Age encounter session: “Kalin [a speaker in a video] shares his ‘why’ for passion around prevention education. What is his why? If you have a passion for prevention, ‘what is your why’?”

Another prompt suggested, “Reflect on the idea of manhood as discussed in this talk. What is the interaction of the constructs of manhood and power dynamics?”

The Columbia administrators were careful to avoid any possible misunderstanding that they themselves had failed to “cultivate nonjudgmental awareness” when it comes to college sex. One of the films on offer, The Line: A Personal Exploration about Sexual Assault & Consent, is “told through a ‘sex-positive’ lens,” according to Columbia’s promotional materials.

But Columbia’s “nonjudgmentalism” extends only so far. There was no give-and-take about participation in the Sexual Respect and Community Citizenship Initiative. The materials announced that it was “essential to arrive on time and participate” in the film screenings and discussions; late arrivals would not be admitted. Attendance at all events would be taken and passed on to the authorities. (This is a far stricter standard than Columbia applies to mere academic classes, where attendance policies are up to each instructor and usually lax.) Students who failed to log the requisite sexual-respect hours and complete the requisite sexual-respect assignments could be blocked from registering for academic coursework—or from graduating.

The rollout, which hit just as students were taking midterms, was a shambles. The computer portals for registering often didn’t work; many students couldn’t find participation options that were still open and that fit into their class schedule or that weren’t restricted to specific groups such as the “LGBTQ community.”

Despite the administration’s admonitions, some Columbia students decided that studying or researching their dissertation took priority over proctored discussions on “how gender affects relationships.” And so they neglected to do their sexual-respect assignments before the deadline ran out.

Columbia has now lowered the boom. In July, it started notifying the recalcitrant students that they were no longer in “good administrative standing.” Such a declaration is no small matter. Columbia treats a loss of administrative standing as seriously as an academic default; failure to repair one’s administrative standing can lead to dismissal.

By July, however, the options remaining to laggard students for demonstrating “sexual respect” had shrunk. No longer could a student view a webinar on “Transgender Sexuality and Trauma” or attend Momma’s Hip Hop Kitchen to satisfy the requirement. By now, in order to restore his administrative standing, the non-sexually-respectful student could only watch a recorded TED talk and write a “reflection” on his experience.

One of those recalcitrant students is a Ph.D. candidate doing serious archival research on a central figure in Western civilization. He reports that a number of his liberal graduate-student colleagues are also in trouble for not taking part in the initiative: “Even they felt the requirement was quite infantilizing and they had better things to do with their time, like actual academic work and teaching undergraduates.” That Columbia would elevate this “burdensome distraction” to the level of actual academic responsibilities, he notes, is “yet more proof that universities have lost their bearings entirely.”

But the initiative signals something more worrisome than just Columbia’s distorted priorities, according to this refusenik. “People like me might be losing the right simply to be silent, to be left alone,” he writes. “For the first time I, along with anyone else remotely willing to dissent, am not even being allowed to stay quiet and keep my opinions to myself. The initiative implies that agreement with the ideology—indeed, with a university-mandated code of sexual ethics—is actually required for attendance at this institution.”

In fact, the sexual-respect initiative never challenges the regime of drunken hook-up sex. To do such a thing, of course, would not be “sex-positive.” Rather, the initiative simply assigns wildly asymmetrical responsibilities and liabilities within that regime, consistent with the current practice of college administrations everywhere.

One of the initiative’s videos portrays two females drinking frenetically at a series of dance clubs; a male disengages one of them and escorts her to her dorm room where he has sex with her, allegedly non-consensually because she is too woozy from the boatloads of booze she consumed to offer proper consent. The moral of the video is that bystanders should intervene if they think that someone is too drunk to agree to sex with a stranger. Several additional interpretations come to mind. First, that university administrations should perform an “intervention” on the entire booze-fueled hook-up scene. Second, that females almost always have control over whether they end up in a mentally compromised state and should therefore be careful to avoid such a condition.

This second reading is unthinkable in today’s university, however, where the male is always responsible for regretted couplings, and the female a wilting victim. If this sounds like a resurrection of Victorian values, that’s because it is, but with one major difference: The modern college co-ed retains the prerogative of unbounded promiscuity (think: “sex-positive”), while also retaining the right to revert at will to a stance of offended innocence.

If Columbia felt compelled to take on the issue of “sexual respect,” it could have done so in a way that actually had intellectual value, had it remembered that its primary mission is to fill the empty noggins of the young with at least passing knowledge of mankind’s greatest works. Civilization has grappled for thousands of years with the challenge of ordering the relationship between the sexes and has come up with more sophisticated solutions than forcing males to watch videos on escaping the “man box.” Reading Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier and Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene would offer students an elegant take on sexual respect, albeit one grounded in the now taboo virtues of chivalry and chastity. If “relevance” is necessary, Mozart’s Don Giovanni might provide an example of “bystander intervention,” as when Don Giovanni’s aristocratic peers try to hustle the peasant girl Zerlina away from his clutches.

Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, however, were unblinkered about the male sex drive, something about which contemporary feminists can’t make up their minds. To recognize the specific hungers of the specifically male libido puts one dangerously close to acknowledging biological differences between the sexes. And it is precisely the force of the male sex drive that makes the norms of courtship and modesty so important for carving out a zone of freedom and civility for females.

Feminists, by contrast, are inclined to reduce the male libido to a political power play that has more to do with keeping females out of the boardroom than getting them into the bedroom. If gender “power dynamics” are really what lead men to aggressively seek sex, then a lecture from a TED “anti-sexism educator” might be relevant. But if, in fact, men pursue sex because they want to have sex, then a different set of strategies is called for. And one of those strategies might be to tell females in blunt terms: Don’t drink yourself blotto, take your clothes off, and get into bed with a guy you barely know. A sexual-assault counselor will never utter those empowering words, however, because preserving the principle of male fault is more important than protecting females from “rape.”

Naturally, the Columbia initiative embraces the conceit that college campuses are filled with shell-shocked female victims of rape culture who might collapse at any minute from the trauma of college experience. It is for them, explains Columbia, that the “Finding Keys to Resiliency” module was designed. The “Finding Keys to Resiliency” option allows “individuals who identify as survivors” and their “allies” to “incorporate wellness and healing into their day-to-day lives…from trauma-focused therapy to healing circles, from dance and movement to yoga and mind/body work.” If, however, you are a religiously conservative student who believes that premarital intercourse is  immoral (a few such closeted throwbacks still exist), you are out of luck. There is no module for you.

Predictably, the sexual-respect initiative created more trauma for Columbia’s wilting co-eds, but not always in the expected ways. One “survivor” was forced to wait 45 minutes outside her “survivors-only” workshop, only to be told that the workshop had been cancelled. “Sitting there waiting with no word caused me to panic,” she told the Columbia Spectator. The university had failed to provide her with a Victorian fainting couch.

The sexual-respect initiative undoubtedly triggered, to borrow a phrase, by Columbia’s most famous self-identified survivor: the recently graduated Emma Sulkowicz, otherwise known as the “mattress girl.” Sulkowicz belatedly claimed that she had been raped by a fellow student with whom she had been having intermittent casual sex. When Columbia, after a lengthy investigation, failed to find her alleged rapist guilty and expel him, she started carrying around a dormitory mattress in protest. This yearlong stunt, for which Columbia granted her academic credit, earned Sulkowicz rapturous accolades from the campus-rape industry and inspired scores of student imitators at other campuses.

If anyone needs the qualification of being a “self-identified” survivor, it’s Sulkowicz. After her alleged rape, Sulkowicz sent fawning emails to her alleged rapist, begging to get together again. Two days after the incident, Sulkowicz texted him: “Also I feel like we need to have some real time where we can talk about life and thingz because we still haven’t really had a paul-emma chill sesh since summmmerrrr.” A week later she suggested that they hang out together: “I want to see yoyououoyou.” Two months later, she texted: “I love you Paul. Where are you?!?!?!?!”

It took Sulkowicz six months to decide that she had been raped. Columbia was indubitably right not to find her sexual partner guilty, but it lost the public relations battle anyway over its alleged mistreatment of rape “survivors.” Thus, Columbia’s burgeoning campus-rape boondoggles, including the “Sexual Violence Response” unit and the new “Special Adviser to the President for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response.” This special adviser, a self-described decades long “social-justice advocate,” was soon elevated to executive vice president, heading a new Office of Community Life. From there, she designed the sexual-respect initiative.

I asked the Columbia administration how many students had lost their good standing as a result of not participating in the sexual-respect initiative. The chief of staff for the Office of University Life would only respond, “Because it was a University requirement, there was a high compliance rate with the program.” That may sadly be true. Columbia, after all, has power on its side. Even the most obstreperous comments about the mandate on the Columbia Spectator student-newspaper website were calling for civil disobedience within the confines of the initiative: “Make sure to record every word spoken. If just one feminist gets out of line: walk out, claim you were traumatized by a trigger and file a grievance….Demand to take your class with men, because women trigger your false rape accusation.”

The American university’s plunge into triviality may have become irreversible. To the narcissism of identity politics and victimology can now be added the quackery of “healing circles” and “mind/body work.” Columbia proudly claims that it has developed one of the first university-wide programs on sexual respect in the nation. Expect desperate one-upmanship to follow as our national descent into a new academic Dark Age accelerates.

Did ‘Mattress Girl’ Tell the Truth?  Not Very Likely

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.

Uncritical Reporters

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.