More on the Mattress Case

Cathy Young’s must-read piece on the Columbia case made famous by accuser Emma Sulkowicz triggered a furious backlash, including a twitter hashtag campaign and a Mic article that cast aspersions without challenging a single fact that Young presented.

Three elements of the reaction to the article deserve further comment. First, victims’ rights advocates have dismissed Young’s findings (that Sulkowicz made written, flirtatious remarks for months with the student she accused, Paul Nungesser; and that Sulkowicz was involved in persuading another student to file sexual misconduct charges against Nungesser, charges that subsequently were dropped) on the grounds that this behavior is common among actual victims.

This line of criticism misses the point. The Sulkowicz case is one entirely of credibility: there were no witnesses to the alleged assault, and there’s no physical evidence. No one could credibly assert that Sulkowicz writing flirtatious messages to Nungesser after the alleged assault (messages that until Young’s reporting Sulkowicz had never acknowledged sending) makes it more likely that we should believe Sulkowicz was assaulted. And the fact that she sought out another accuser (something she hadn’t previously admitted) raises the possibility that something other than a pursuit of justice motivated Sulkowicz. At the very least, the idea that her allegation should be uncritically accepted—as Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has done—seems improper.

Second, Young’s article triggered a fascinating reaction column from Daniel Garisto, formerly opinion editor of the Columbia Spectator. A few weeks ago, Stuart Taylor and I noted a critical difference between how student journalists responded to the lacrosse case and how they responded to the UVA Rolling Stone debacle. In the first instance, the student journalists responded as journalists—they sought to discover the truth, and performed brilliantly. In the UVA affair, student journalists functioned as advocates, and at least two appeared indifferent or even hostile to the truth on questions related to campus sexual assault. We observed that it seems as if the current generation of college journalists, who have come to campus amidst the moral panic of campuses as hotbeds of sexual assault at rates equivalent to the war-torn Congo, have abandoned any pretense of approaching the sexual assault issue dispassionately.

The Columbia affair does nothing to undermine our thesis. Garisto admits that in the Sulkowicz case, the “campus media’s goal to promote discussion about sexual assault and to support survivors became conflated with a fear of rigorous reporting.” And yet despite the evidence uncovered by Young (and despite Nungesser being found not culpable by a Columbia procedure that’s wildly tilted in favor of the accuser) Garisto still describes “Sulkowicz as a survivor” and labels Nungesser “probably guilty.” He doesn’t reveal what evidence led him to these conclusions; indeed, it’s not clear how Sulkowicz could be a rape “survivor” unless Nungesser is definitely, rather than probably, guilty.

Finally, Sulkowicz’s case is important as a public policy matter not because of her performance art with a mattress but rather because of her claim that Columbia’s procedures failed her, and failed her to such an extent as to constitute a Title IX violation. Sulkowicz, however, has been remarkably vague regarding precisely howthese procedures treated her unfairly. The only specific claim she’s made involved what she considered an improper question asked by the panelists. (Her parents issued a longer list of alleged violations, but without identifying their basis for any of their claims, since the parents do not appear to have been witnesses to the panel’s adjudication process.) To date, no transcript of the disciplinary hearing has been released.

Young managed to speak to a witness to the hearing—the graduate student who functioned as Nungesser’s supporter. (The fact that, at the time, a student accused of rape couldn’t use a lawyer, and had at his sole advocate a graduate student, gives a sense of just how minimal the school’s due process protections were.) The supporter said that he had an open mind at the start of the hearing, but concluded by its end that Sulkowicz’s charges were “completely false.” More important, here’s how he described the questioning: “The panel were asking sensible questions; they were equally asked of Paul, and had been asked of Paul through the entire process. I’d been sitting in on the initial meetings where his statements were noted down. The questions were extremely personal because they had to be. That was much more graphic than anything that happened in the hearing, and the questions were asked with the utmost sensitivity.”

Maybe the supporter (for unknown reasons) is lying about the tenor of the hearing, and Sulkowicz is telling the truth. But if, in fact, Sulkowicz was treated fairly according to Columbia procedures, then her case is of little public policy relevance. Will the campus media be shamed by Young’s article into investigating the question?


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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7 thoughts on “More on the Mattress Case

  1. MaryJean Cromartie,

    Ma’am, you have my most sincere and heartfelt sympathy and support for what your son is going through.

    I was falsely accused in college, in the 90’s – 20 years ago – and, yes, it STILL is a major part of my psyche and a long deep scar that has never fully healed.

    It was a good 5-10 YEARS before I was anywhere near “normal” – though at the time (and times and events thereafter) I did not realize how much the events at my school so deeply affected me.

    Plus, be on the watch out for how it causes him to “withdraw” – and what I mean by that is that I noticed, YEARS later, is how mentally & emotionally I regressed to almost a high school age – as it was the “last safe time” in my life. It was not until about 2 years later that my more developed self re-emerged and started to assert my older personality.

    It truly has a debilitating effect – especially to those who have a strong sense of justice and a hope for fairness.

  2. My son is the victim of a false accuser. Please read his story: “A Strange Sort of Justice at West Point” by James Taranto, July 2013. We have been fighting for justice and transparency for the past 3.5 years, but fighting the government is a daunting task. The female that accused my son was a serial accuser and her West Point commanders knew it. When she decided to file an unrestricted report against my son (she was failing, she just broke up with her senior boyfriend, etc) her commanders knew they had a problem. The solution was to destroy my son rather than admit that they never investigated her multiple claims of being assaulted by multiple male cadets. Please continue to advocate for the falsely accused. I feel like I should start a campaign: ‘It’s on me”, the mother tirelessly attempting to have politicians, the government publicly recognize and address false reports. Thank you for your time.

    1. Dear Ms.Cromartie:
      My heart goes out to your son. This is what he is up against:

      The accused would have a rough period. He might be suspended from his job; friends might defriend him on Facebook. In the case of Bill Cosby, we might have to stop watching his shows, consuming his books or buying tickets to his traveling stand-up routine. But false accusations are exceedingly rare, and errors can be undone by an investigation that clears the accused, especially if it is done quickly.

  3. From the Mic article:

    “This is why so many survivors stay with their abusers; the cycle of abuse is complex, personal and ultimately unknowable to anyone aside from the survivors themselves.”

    Taking this thought to its logical conclusion, no post-event behavior of the ‘survivor’ can be used to draw any conclusion about the nature of the event — as its meaning can only be known by the ‘survivor’. So a trier of facts either has to accept fully the ‘survivor’s’ interpretation of post-event behavior, or has to entirely leave them out of consideration when trying to determine what happened.

    1. “Taking this thought to its logical conclusion, no post-event behavior of the ‘survivor’ can be used to draw any conclusion about the nature of the event”

      This is precisely why the pseudo-explanation has evolved as it has: After the fact behavior is always either evidence of the accused’s guilt, or it shall not be considered.

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