In the Daily Beast, Cathy Young reports on the story of Paul Nungesser, the Columbia student at the center of that university’s sexual assault controversy; Nungesser was accused of varying levels of assault, from forced anal sex to “emotional abuse” to grabbing and trying to kiss a student, by three different women.
The most high-profile of them, of course, is Emma Sulkowicz, who says that Nungesser violently anally raped her and then got up and walked away without a word; to make a statement about the event, and fulfill her credits as a performance art major, Sulkowicz has been carrying her dorm room mattress around on campus. She has gotten a huge amount of supportive publicity, including a cover story in New York magazine and an appearance at President Obama’s recent state of the union, courtesy of New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
Nungesser first spoke out in a recent NYT article, which I found poorly reported and badly written. (More on this later, I hope.) Young’s piece has much more work behind it—and it raises serious questions about the accusations made by all three women, and particularly Emma Sulkowicz.
While Sulkowicz has always said that they started out having consensual sex, her account diverges drastically from Nungesser’s at this point. According to Sulkowicz, he suddenly and brutally assaulted her, then picked up his clothes and left without a word, leaving her stunned and shattered on the bed. According to Nungesser, they briefly engaged in anal intercourse by mutual agreement, then went on to engage in other sexual activity and fell asleep. He says that he woke up early in the morning and went back to his own room while Sulkowicz was still sleeping.
Sulkowicz has said in interviews that she was too embarrassed and ashamed to talk to anyone about the rape, let alone report it; an account of her mattress protest by New York Times art critic Roberta Smith says that she “suffered in silence” in the aftermath of the assault. Yet Nungesser says that for weeks after that night, he and Sulkowicz maintained a cordial relationship, and says she seemingly never indicated that anything was amiss.
(Hat tip to Young: that is an adroit use of the words “art critic.”)
Central to Nungesser’s account is the fact that he and Sulkowicz corresponded at length, on cordial and even flirty terms, for weeks after the alleged incident; he gives Young screenshots of long instant message “conversations” they had. Asked about these conversations, Sulkowicz acknowledged that they were accurate and offered to annotate them, then changed her mind. Her defenders have argued that people who are the victim of assault don’t always respond in predictable ways, which I’m sure is true.
Sulkowicz is now critizing the Daily Beast for posting these Facebook interactions and saying that the media has done her wrong; but as this writer points out in the New York Times, she doesn’t have a lot of ground to stand on—she sought out the media in the first place.
The stories of the other two women are also less than convincing; one sounds like the result of an intense but non-abusive relationship, and one sounds trumped up to try to have Nungesser expelled from a coed fraternity he was a member of. There’s some suggestion that the stories were coordinated.
A theme of the article is that Nungesser may be the real victim here, and it’s an argument that has to be taken at least as seriously as the argument that he is a serial sex offender. After all, he was outed by the Columbia student newspaper, among others. His life on campus was turned into one of suspicion and alienation and hostility from other students. He had to undergo a frustratingly opaque disciplinary process (which, despite the low “preponderance of evidence” standard, nonetheless did not act all the accusations—I was going to say “cleared him of…” but I don’t know if Columbia’s process actually does that).
Most provocatively, Nungesser argues that Sulkowicz’s decision to carry her mattress around campus is in fact a form of harassment, designed to shame him and force him to leave the university. Whether or not he did anything, I think he’s right about that.
As a free speech near-absolutist, I would say that Sulkowicz has the right to carry her mattress, and the best response is to speak out in your defense in public, which Nungesser has now done, twice.
But I would also point out that if a male student carried out such a highly visible campaign directed at shaming a female student, you can be sure that he would have long before been charged with harassment by her defenders. Imagine if Nungesser started taping transcripts of his conversations with Sulkowicz to campus bulletin boards; campus sexual assault activists would go ballistic. Yet if she has the right to attack him in public, doesn’t he have the right to defend himself in public?
In the end, it seems pretty clear to me that Columbia did the right thing in not taking any action against Nungesser; from what information is public, none of these accusations are very convincing, and how could you possibly establish what happened when they are not reported until weeks, months, after they allegedly happened?
But Nungesser and his parents rightly point out that the young man is still saddled with a reputation as a sexual offender—something they insist is untrue and unfair.
“What really struck us as outrageously unfair,” says Nungesser’s father, Andreas Probosch, a schoolteacher who speaks near-perfect English, “was the university’s non-reaction to Emma Sulkowicz’s public campaign. After investigating the allegations against Paul for seven months they found them not credible, but when Ms. Sulkowicz went to the press and claimed Columbia had swept everything under the rug, why didn’t they stand by his side and say, ‘We do have a process and we followed that process and we stand by the acquittal’? Instead they declined to comment and just threw him under the bus.”
Kudos to Young for a disturbing story that provides a reality check to the other reporting on this case.
P.S. Here’s an example of the other reporting on this case. It’s from—you guessed it—Jezebel. The added emphasis is my doing.
Jezebel has spoken with three students who accuse Nungesser of sexual assault—one of whom, a male classmate, is currently in the process of pursuing disciplinary action through Columbia and has never previously spoken publicly about his allegations. There is not, by these students’ accounts, much ambiguity in their experiences with Nungesser.
The male classmate part is interesting: Jezebel gives his name as “Adam,” but in true Sabrina Rubin Erdely style, we don’t know if that’s his real name or not. Adam “identifies” as “queer and black”—I’m just using quotes because that seems safer—and says that “Paul pushed him onto his bed and sexually assaulted him.”
What does that even mean?
But Adam “didn’t tell anybody about the incident until months later” out of “denial, fear that nobody would believe him, fear that even defining himself as a survivor would somehow damage others.”
Fear that even defining himself as as survivor would somehow damage others? What does that even mean?
Adam’s response to Cathy Young’s article: Adam scoffs that apart from the disservice it does to Paul’s alleged victims, it “invalidates and completely erases my entire experience.”
It completely erases his entire experience?
I think at this point journalists need to really consider very carefully the decision to grant anonymity to people accusing others of sexual assault.
Also, Emma Sulkowicz responds to the Daily Beast article via an email, excerpted below, to Jezebel:
I went public with my story because I wanted to show the world how flawed the college process for handling cases of sexual assault is. I have already been violated by both Paul and Columbia University once. It is extremely upsetting that Paul would violate me again—this time, with the help of a reporter, Cathy Young. I just wanted to fix the problem of sexual assault on campus—I never wanted this to be an excuse for people to dig through my private Facebook messages and frame them in a way as to cast doubt on my character. It’s unfair and disgusting that Paul and Cathy would treat personal life as a mine that they can dig through and harvest for publicity and Paul’s public image.
This is why I have chosen to release the full conversation, plus the context in which things were said. I want people to have all the information so that they can make informed decisions for themselves, rather than seeing a redacted version of the conversation with bits and pieces picked out to make me look a certain way.
If I had a choice, no one would see my private Facebook messages at all.
Let’s be honest here: The more this woman talks, the more she discredits herself. Whether she was assaulted by Paul Nungesser, we will likely never know—that’s what happens when you wait for months to make an accusation. Did Columbia “violate” her? The university took her claims seriously, heard everything she and others had to say, and made a decision that she doesn’t agree with. If that’s a violation, this woman is going to have a hard time in the real world.
And don’t even get me started on the fact that a woman who is toting her mattress around campus, appearing on the cover of magazines and attending the state of the union is complaining about her privacy being violated. People who are accused in public have a right to defend themselves in public.
Jezebel’s main argument is, ultimately, this:
While Young’s piece might read like a dud of an aspirant bombshell to anybody who isn’t the American Enterprise Institute’s Christina Hoff Sommers (another ” rape isn’t real” cheerleader), the process by which she obtained the “exclusive” information for the piece showcases a new normal for women who publicly accuse men of rape: an open-ended ideology-driven crusade to discredit them, a reality bent to suit a narrative.
We’re back in Sabrina Rubin Erdely-land again: Any attempt to investigate whether a claim of rape is true—and this one is being investigated because it is very public and highly controversial, not out of some default skepticism—is “an open-ended ideology crusade to discredit them.”
I would just ask Jezebel: If this situation doesn’t apply, then under what circumstances would it be appropriate to not assume that an accusation of rape is inherently true? I mean, who is really practicing open-ended ideology here?
P.P.S. The original version of this post misspelled Kirsten Gillibrand’s name.