A few years ago, conversations about a campus rape would have been carried out in hushed voices, behind the locked doors of dorm rooms and university student conduct offices. It was rare for a victim to talk openly about the experience, and almost unheard of for the alleged rapist to respond in kind.
No longer. Now that campus sexual assault is in the headlines and on the agendas of everyone from the White House to fraternities, a number of allegations have been made public in dramatic fashion. Nowhere is that shift more striking than in the case of Columbia University senior Emma Sulkowicz, who accused fellow student Paul Nungesser of raping her in August 2012.
Sulkowicz has become something of a symbol for anti-rape activists since she went public with her story last spring. Images of Sulkowicz toting her mattress around Columbia’s campus — a performance art project aimed at protesting the way Columbia adjudicated her case — went viral last fall, and last month she attended the State of the Union as a guest of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). She’s been profiled by the New York Times and New York Magazine, written an opinion piece for her campus newspaper and won an award from the National Organization for Women.
Her activism has pushed the conversation about her rape beyond Columbia’s gates and into the national media. Now, strikingly, the man she’s accused has chosen to follow her there.
In a lengthy article published in the Daily Beast on Tuesday, Nungesser — also a Columbia senior — rebuts Sulkowicz’s allegations, offering his own account of the night Sulkowicz says he raped her and the months that followed. Nungesser told the site that their sex was consensual and that he and Sulkowicz continued to talk for months after the incident without any indication that something was wrong. He also provided screenshots of Facebook messages he exchanged with Sulkowicz after the rape allegedly occurred. (The Daily Beast says Sulkowicz confirmed the messages’ authenticity but chose not to comment on them.)
“It was very amiable; nothing was changed or different or weird or anything in her behavior,” Nungesser told the site.
Sulkowicz reported Nungesser to Columbia’s Office of Gender-Based Misconduct later that school year — within a few days of the filing of two other complaints against him. The three complainants told the New York Times that they decided to take actions after hearing one another’s experiences. Nungesser was found “responsible” in one case, but won an appeal after the complaint was withdrawn. He was cleared in both Sulkowicz’s and the third case.
That was in November 2013. The following spring, Sulkowicz spoke about her experience at a news conference hosted by Gillibrand. Her story was swiftly picked up by campus and national media, and after Sulkowicz filed a police report of her assault, making Nungesser’s name a matter of public record, he was unwillingly swept into the debate. The attention only increased when Sulkowicz began carrying her mattress around campus in the fall.
Now Nungesser says he feels harassed on campus and online.
“It’s explicitly designed to bully me into leaving the school,” he said of Sulkowicz’s mattress project. He added that he has received threats on social media, including a Facebook post that read, “I’m only pissed that I’m not in NY to CUT HIS THROAT MYSELF!”
The Daily Beast’s article is not the first in which Nungesser has commented on Sulkowicz’s case, or her high-profile mattress-carrying campaign. But it is the most extensive and offers one of the most sympathetic portrayals of him. Reporter Cathy Young wrote: “This case is far from as clear-cut as much of the media coverage has made it out to be. And if Nungesser is not a sexual predator, he could be seen as a true victim.”
As is perhaps fitting for this new incarnation of the campus rape discussion, Sulkowicz responded to the Daily Beast piece in an interview of her own — this one with the online publication Mic.
“It’s an awful feeling where this reporter is digging through my personal life. At this point I didn’t realize that she’s extremely anti-feminist and would do this in order to shame me,” Sulkowicz said, of Young’s request that she confirm the accuracy of the Facebook messages cited in the story. She also told Mic she felt Young has “written other articles supporting the rapists and making survivors look unreliable.”
It’s true that Young has written a number of stories critical of campus anti-rape activism, including a profile of another accused rapist from Brown. In the wake of Rolling Stone’s inaccuracy-riddled feature on an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia, she’s not the only journalist doing so. Slate reporter Emily Yoffe was a finalist for a National Magazine Award for her piece on “The College Rape Overcorrection.”
But Young’s supposed bias toward the accused isn’t the only problem Mic has with her piece. The Mic piece goes on to challenge the idea that Sulkowicz’s exchanges with Nungesser should discredit her claim against him — a notion the piece says is implied in the Daily Beast’s article. Young’s story, it says, perpetuates the narrative of “perfect victim” — the idea that there is an appropriate way for victims to respond to rape (immediately cutting off contact with their rapist, filing a report with the police) and that women who act differently are less credible.
That narrative, Sulkowicz says, doesn’t apply to her or other victims.
“Everyone deals with trauma differently,” she told Mic. “If you reached out to your attacker after you were assaulted, it shouldn’t discredit your story.”