THE MATTRESS STORY UNDER MORE FIRE by Cathy Young
My recent article in The Daily Beast exploring previously unknown details of Columbia’s high-profile “mattress girl” rape case—including the fact that alleged victim Emma Sulkowicz continued to have chatty and playful Facebook exchanges with alleged rapist Paul Nungesser for weeks after she says he brutally violated her and choked her within an inch of her life—caused a predictable stir in the feminist media. The principal argument seems to be that to regard such behavior as at all relevant to the veracity of Sulkowicz’s claims is to hold rape victims to an impossible standard of perfection. (I responded to some of these arguments in a column for RealClearPolitics.) On Friday, the backlash took a new turn with a “rebuttal” on Jezebel.com, a website that combines in-your-face far-left feminism with trashy celebrity gossip. While most of the Jezebel piece is an exercise in vitriol and juvenile snark, it also has some actual new content that purports to challenge my story but, in my view, actually generates more questions about the pro-Sulkowicz narrative.
This new content consists of Sulkowicz’s explanatory annotations to the Facebook messages (which she claims she decided not to give me because she was worried I would alter them) and the disclosure of a new, still-pending charge against Nungesser—this one from a male Columbia student who filed a Title IX complaint in October alleging that Nungesser sexually assaulted him in 2011. (Nungesser had been previously accused of sexual assault by two women besides Sulkowicz and cleared of those charges as well; as my article documents, there is substantial evidence that the multiple accusers in this case influenced each other.)
Sulkowicz’s annotations will undoubtedly convince those already disposed to believe her explanation that she was simply maintaining friendly appearances and trying to arrange to talk to Nungesser one on one to confront him about the rape. I find this explanation highly doubtful (though not impossible, of course) in view of the tone and content of these messages. Maybe “we need to have some real time where we can talk about life and thingz” could be an attempt to set up a conversation, maintaining a casual tone so as not to scare off Nungesser; but when he agrees and she adds, “because we still haven’t really had a paul-emma chill sesh since summmmerrrr,” that interpretation is hard to sustain.
Sulkowicz’s marginalia also drew my attention to another mind-boggling detail: when Nungesser invites her to a party already in progress in his room two days after the alleged rape, he mentions that there are currently too many guys and asks her to “bring some peepz.” Sulkowicz replies, “Okay let them know I’ll be dere w da females soon.” In her annotations for Jezebel, she clarifies, “Paul wants me to bring other girls. I agree.”
A young woman who was brutally raped two days ago agrees to bring girls to the rapist’s party and jokes about it? I fully understand that a traumatized victim of a violent attack can behave irrationally, but too many things here strain credulity—including the fact that Sulkowicz seeks to discuss what she has described as, essentially, a psychopathic motiveless attack by meeting with the assailant in person.
Sulkowicz’s annotations add another bizarre wrinkle to the story. Her account of the day after the alleged attack includes the line, “I talk to one of my girlfriends, who explains that it was rape.” Maybe it makes sense that an Ivy League sophomore who is a leader in a freshman pre-orientation program would need it explained to her that it’s rape if you are pinned down and anally penetrated while you scream “no,” after being violently choked and hit in the face. But it’s noteworthy that in at least two interviews, in May and in September, Sulkowicz seems to clearly say that she told no one about the attack in its immediate aftermath and didn’t want to talk to anyone (which also seems at odds with her present claim that she wanted to talk it out with Nungesser). If Sulkowicz did in fact tell a friend that Nungesser raped her the day after the incident, that would be a crucial piece of corroboration (especially if the friend saw her in person and saw bruises on her arms and/or neck). According to both Nungesser and his student advocate, no friend of Sulkowicz’s testified at the hearing to offersuch evidence (which, if available, would have almost certainly ensured a finding in Sulkowicz’s favor). What’s more, how credible is it that after being told of such a frighteningly violent assault, Sulkowicz’s friend would not urge her to report it?
Finally, while I was researching my article, Sulkowicz told me by email that when she texted Nungesser in March 2013—three to four weeks before he was notified of her complaint—it was because she had already visited the Office of Gender-Based Misconduct and they asked if she had “‘tried talking it out’ with Paul,” so, “because they suggested it” she sent him a text message saying she wanted to meet but then backed down realizing thatshe was unable to face him. (When I emailed to ask if the office had actually suggested she contact Nungesser or simply asked if she had talked to him about the attack, she did not respond.) As I said in the article, when I contacted that office to ask if a student reporting a violent sexual assault could be advised to “talk it out” with the rapist, I was directed to Columbia’s “gender-based misconduct” policy which states that informal resolution is never recommended in sexual assault cases. In her annotations for Jezebel, Sulkowicz now has a different story: that after deciding to report Nungesser to the university, she “text[ed] him one last time in March to maybe talk things out with him before I report,” but then “realize[d] that this is a silly thing to do” and backed out of the meeting.
I realize, of course, that people’s memories are imperfect, especially when dealing with traumatic events. Nonetheless,when someone’s story keeps changing in fairly significant ways, it’s a potential red flag, and dismissing all such inconsistencies with the stock response “this is typical of rape survivors” is an invitation for people to suspend healthy skepticism.
Lastly, there is the matter of the new complainant, one “Adam,” who, in Jezebel’s words, “identifies as black and queer” and who says one night in the fall of 2011, “in the midst of an emotional conversation in Paul’s dorm room … Paul pushed him onto his bed and sexually assaulted him.” (The charge here is vague enough to cover everything from rape to an unwanted kiss.) While “Adam” only filed a Title IX complaint last fall, after the massive publicity surrounding Sulkowicz’s mattress protest, Jezebel says that at some earlier point, he “filed a complaint against Paul with a student organization to which both men belonged.” That would be Alpha Delta Phi, the literary-oriented coed fraternity discussed at some length in my Daily Beast story because it played a role in one of the accusations against Nungesser (the complaint that he grabbed and tried to kiss “Josie,” a fellow ADP member, at a house party. As I showed, Josie was encouraged to make this complaint (over a year after the fact) by an ADP officer who, upon learning of Sulkowicz’s sexual assault charge againstNungesser in April 2013, sent out a group email announcing that there was a rapist in the house and seeking his expulsion.
Significantly, this email (dated April 29, 2013) made no mention of a prior complaint against Nungesser by another ADP member.The officer noted that several other house residents had said he made them “uncomfortable.” When Nungesser provided me with a copy of this email during my research, I asked if any specific examples of other ADP members objecting to his behavior had ever been cited. He replied that this question had actually been raised during the investigation, and that no specific examples had ever been offered.
Does this disprove “Adam’s” complaint? No, but it does cast some doubt on his claim that he reported this alleged sexual assault before. The fact that he complains to Jezebel that my article “completely erases [his] entire experience”—but makes no such complaint against Sulkowicz, who has spoken only of Nungesser’s alleged attacks on women—suggests that there just might be a political agenda at work here. It is also worth noting that, as far as I know, pending sexual assault investigations at Columbia are supposed to be kept confidential; I’m fairly certain that disclosing the name of the accused is an actual violation of procedural rules. (UPDATE: In an email, David Stone, Columbia University’s executive vice president for communications, reiterated that the university does not comment on individual cases but referred me to the school’s official procedures for handling complaints of gender-based misconduct, which state that the school “will inform all individuals participating in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing that they are expected to maintain the privacy of the process.” Stone also noted that under the law, a university may not sanction or silence those who do choose to speak publicly about allegations of sexual assault.)
The full facts of this messy, convoluted case may never become known. But a few things are worth noting.
(1) The reaction to my Daily Beast story shows just how fanatical and irrational the “Believe the survivor” mindset of the campus crusade against rape has become. The insistence that Sulkowicz’s Facebook messages should not be regarded as exculpatory evidence, or even as relevant to the case, shows a profound and scary hostility to basic due process.
(2) This entire fiasco points to another very good reason (besides due process and professionalism) that rape cases should be handled by law enforcement and courts, not campus bureaucrats and star chambers. If Sulkowicz and Nungesser’s other alleged victims had reported him to the police and Sulkowicz was claiming that their rights as complainants were trampled, there would be a vast amount of documents that could be examined to assess the validity of this charge. There would be transcripts of court proceedings, copies of police reports, records of police interviews—all available to the media. Judges and prosecutors could talk to the media. Here, all the records are sealed as a matter of federal law, and all university employees involved in the case are forbidden to speak about it. As a result, all we have are dueling claims from the parties about what happened during the process.
(3) This story also points to a genuinely chilling climate of conformity and intimidation on college campuses. K.C. Johnson has already written about the article by former Columbia Spectator opinion editor Daniel Garisto admitting that the paper’s coverage of the Sulkowicz story has been hobbled by fear of being perceived as insensitive to sexual assault survivors. During my interviews with Nungesser and his parents, they madetwo other startling claims that did not make it into the Daily Beastarticle.
Nungesser’s father, Andreas Probosch, told me that Nungesser had a hard time finding a student who would agree to act as his official “supporter” (advisor/advocate) during the process.
Meanwhile, when I asked Nungesser about his relationship with Columbia faculty, he told me that he is close to two professors who privately fully support him and believe in his innocence—but will not speak to the media on his behalf even if granted anonymity, fearing that they may be identified and that taking his side will make them campus pariahs.
If true, this is appalling—but, unfortunately, not surprising.