Just two months after details in a Rolling Stone article about an alleged on-campus gang rape became disputed in the national press and ignited a conversation about how to accurately cover sexual assault claims, an article published in the Daily Beast is raising questions about another sexual assault case that has been widely reported in high-profile publications.
Last fall, Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz made headlines for her senior thesis project, which involves carrying her dorm mattress — where she she says she was raped — everywhere as long as her alleged rapist remains enrolled at the school. Her assailant was also accused of assaulting two other women at the school, but Columbia’s internal adjudication process concluded he wasn’t guilty in all three cases. Sulkowicz then filed formal criminal charges, but dropped them because she didn’t feel like she could handle a prolonged investigation.
The man who Sulkowicz accused of rape, Paul Nungesser, tells his side of the story in the Daily Beast this week. Nungesser provided Cathy Young, a contributing editor for the libertarian magazine Reason as well as a weekly columnist for Newsday, with screenshots of the Facebook messages he exchanged with Sulkowicz before and after the alleged assault.
Two days after Nungesser allegedly assaulted Sulkowicz, he messaged her to invite her to a small party in his room, the screenshots provided to Young show. She agreed and added, “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.” About a week after that, Sulkowicz initiated contact and asked if they could get together. They didn’t end up meeting, but Nungesser said they continued to text and message in a friendly way. At one point, Sulkowicz messaged Nungesser to say, “I love you Paul.”
Young also raises questions about the fact that the other two women who brought complaints against Nungesser were in contact with Sulkowicz — a detail that was originally reported a year ago in Columbia University’s student magazine — and the fact that one of the women who accused Nungesser was “suffering from serious depression” and did not see their relationship as abusive until months later.
“His former girlfriend’s reported psychological problems prior to their relationship do not mean that he did not abuse her. The reported interaction between Nungesser’s alleged victims does not necessarily prove that they unduly influenced each other’s stories,” Young concludes. “Yet this case is far from as clear-cut as much of the media coverage has made it out to be.”
The Daily Beast article has sparked some backlash from feminist writers and victims’ rights advocates who point out that it’s not uncommon for survivors of assault to behave in a friendly or loving way toward their assailants. For instance, victims of domestic violence often remain married to partners who have raped them.
Writing in Salon, Katie McDonough criticizes Young — who has a history of writing articles that cast doubt on individual victims’ stories and downplay misogyny as a widespread problem — for going in search of the “perfect victim.” McDonough points out that, in a society built on institutions that allow sexual assault to flourish, “we routinely tear apart individual rape victims’ stories as a justification for our inertia on changing a failed system.”
Under the hashtag #TheresNoPerfectVictim, activists took to Twitter on Wednesday to make a similar point, lamenting the fact that the Daily Beast article has given more fodder to critics who want to smear rape victims. They say that the expectation that rape victims conform to narrow societal expectations — displaying just enough emotion to appear credibly upset, but not too much emotion to appear like an unstable or unreliable source — essentially sets up survivors for failure.
Sulkowicz herself has publicly responded to the recent article in an interview with Mic, saying that Paul was one of her “closest friends” and she initially thought she wanted to talk over the alleged incident with him.
“If you didn’t immediately dial 911, it doesn’t mean you weren’t raped. Everyone deals with trauma differently, depending on how we were raised, the way we see ourselves and the different ways we each handle crises,” Sulkowciz said. “I want other survivors to know that if you reached out to your attacker after you were assaulted, it shouldn’t discredit your story.”
The question of how to balance college adjudication processes between the rights of the accusers and the rights of the accused doesn’t have easy answers. It’s something that campus activists have been grappling with over the past several years.
Some commentators — including Cathy Young — argue that campuses should not be in the business of handling rape cases, suggesting that such a serious crime should be the purview of the courts. But students typically point out that the criminal justice system hasn’t done a great job of navigating cases of sexual assault, so college rape victims like Sulkowciz often don’t want to bring their cases there.