Both Sides Now: The Perfect Victim Narrative

Cathy Young did the journalistically unthinkable. She looked at the other side of the story, this involving Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz, who has been carrying around her mattress as performance art to protest the fact that university has twice found the guy she alleged raped her not responsible.  While all eyes were on Sulkowicz, Young asked the young man, Paul Nungesser, what happened.

Because Sulkowicz didn’t get the outcome she wanted, she has chosen to become the poster person for rape “survivors.”

Nungesser’s accuser, Emma Sulkowicz—famous for carrying her mattress on campus as a symbol of her burden as a victim and a protest against Columbia’s failure to expel the man she calls her rapist—has become the face of the college rape survivors’ movement. Sulkowicz’s protest has garnered her awards from the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women and the Feminist Majority Foundation; last month, she attended the State of the Union address as a guest of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

An impressive array of supporters. Nungesser, on the other hand, doesn’t get invited out much these days, and certainly not to the State of the Union address by a senator.  But he was “acquitted” of responsibility, which only proves Columbia is wrong, according to Sulkowicz’s supporters.  Except Nungesser has something Sulowicz doesn’t. Evidence.

Nungesser provided The Daily Beast with Facebook messages with Sulkowicz from August, September, and October 2012. (In an email to The Daily Beast, Sulkowicz confirmed that these records were authentic and not redacted in any way; while she initially offered to provide “annotations” explaining the context on the messages, she then emailed again to say that she would not be sending them.) On Aug. 29, two days after the alleged rape, Nungesser messaged Sulkowicz on Facebook to say, “Small shindig in our room tonight—bring cool freshmen.” Her response:

lol yusss

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

Not exactly the reaction one might expect of an alleged rape victim.  Cathy Young provides an extensive report, both of Sulkowicz claims and Nungesser’s response. It suddenly becomes a lot more clear why things didn’t turn out the way Sulkowicz now contends it should.

But that’s just factual stuff.  Evidence and the like.  For haters and doubters, as is reflected in a response to Young’s article by Julie Zeilinger:

“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, noting that she feels Young has “written other articles supporting the rapists and making survivors look unreliable.”

It’s a fact that survivors of trauma deal with their experiences in different ways, often plagued by guilt, anger, depression and embarrassment. This reality further complicates survivors’ decision to report or not, usually leaning toward the latter — rape and sexual assault are some of the most underreported crimes in the world and as many as 95% of campus rapes go unreported.

Vilify the reporter, spread “facts” that are anything but, and make an overt appeal to emotion that has no bearing on what Nungesser offered and Cathy Young reported: evidence.

But that’s only the beginning of the rehabilitation of Emma Sulkowicz. There is even a name for the scheme:

Sulkowicz is not the first survivor to contend with the perfect victim narrative.

The perfect victim narrative. Catchy, though unclear whether it has legs for criminal defense.  If we tried to use the “perfect defendant narrative,” chances are we would cut jury deliberation times down to minutes before returning a guilty verdict.

But nobody condemns Sulkowicz for not being the perfect victim. Rather, the problem is that there is a wealth of evidence that contradicts her claim.  She’s a terrible victim, because the evidence is overwhelmingly against her.

Meanwhile, some women do not even realize they have been abused. A recent study in the journal Gender & Society found, middle school and high school aged women frequently wrote off abuse because they “overwhelmingly described [it] as ‘normal stuff’ that ‘guys do.'” Sulkowicz, like 95% of other campus rape survivors, didn’t report immediately. It wasn’t until she met other women allegedly assaulted by the same man that she realized she had to act.

If we cut through the surplusage and avoid being overwhelmed by the authority of a study in the Journal of Gender & Society, what this amounts to is proof by excuse.  There is a cottage industry crafting explanations for why rape “survivors” do everything possible to make their accusations look incredible.  They have an excuse for everything, why they didn’t come forward immediately, why they continued to engage with their accused rapist in a normal and friendly manner, why they never said a word to anyone, why life went on as if nothing happened.

And, by the twisted logic of victimization, this is all excusable because rape “survivors” do weird stuff because . . . reasons.

The question isn’t whether rape victims may react in peculiar ways afterward, for the various emotional and psychological reasons proffered. Perhaps some do, and some don’t. For the sake of argument, we can assume that some will hide from the trauma despite the fact that it undermines their claim of rape.

The question, however, is whether this laundry list of excuses for behaviors that contradict the claim of rape can be turned into evidence to show a crime occurred.  This notion is just plain daffy, that the fact that an alleged victim and alleged rapist engaged in normal, friendly, ordinary discourse for months after an alleged rape occurred somehow proves it was rape.  It doesn’t.

What doesn’t seem to filter through to those who carry the water of excuses for why purported rape victims act like anything but is that legal systems attempt to rely on this stuff called evidence, proof.  Their view is the alleged victim’s claim, alone, trumps all evidence to the contrary because they can explain it all away.  And their problem is that the rest of us just don’t get it.

Except for the fact that we don’t condemn innocent people because of the absence of evidence. Not even when the accuser is female and the accusation is rape.

28 thoughts on “Both Sides Now: The Perfect Victim Narrative

  1. Not Jim Ardis

    “Vilify the reporter, spread “facts” that are anything but, and make an overt appeal to emotion that has no bearing on what Nunsgesser offered and Cathy Young reported: evidence.”

    So she’s learned the lessons of college in this day and age well. Goody.

  2. Ted H.

    This notion is just plain daffy, that the fact that an alleged victim and alleged rapist engaged in normal, friendly, ordinary discourse for months after an alleged rape occurred somehow proves it was rape.

    To be fair to that line of reasoning, I believe it means to argue that seemingly friendly discourse should not be strong exculpatory evidence for the accused. She might argue that social pressures from being in the same social club were the reason for her amicability.

    1. Not Jim Ardis

      You would have a HELL of a time convincing me that initiating such interactions means she was trying to “keep up appearances”.

  3. Bartleby the Scrivener

    I’d like to know what Columbia would do if he started wearing shirts that say things like ‘LIES’, ‘FALSE ACCUSATIONS’, and ‘DEFAMATION’ written all over it in various fonts and font sizes. I strongly suspect they’d say he was harassing her, even though she was carrying her mattress around with the express intent of getting him to leave by creating a hostile environment for him.

    At this point she’s only an accuser, and at some point, one must recognize that at least some accusations are wrong.

    1. Not Jim Ardis

      I’ve stopped being shocked at how the young write. I just silently weep for humanity and await the End Days.

  4. AH

    So we have created a subjective standard if a woman believes she was abused, but that standard doesn’t apply when a woman doesn’t believe she was abused. In that case, the objective standard applies and she clearly was abused.

    Why do we want to convince people they were abused? If a woman doesn’t think having her butt grabbed was a big deal, whether it’s because she thinks that’s what “guys do”, or she just really doesn’t care, aren’t we doing her a disservice by trying to convince her that she is actually a victim of abuse, who should feel victimized and traumatized by the abuse? I ask this as a woman, who has been grabbed and doesn’t care.

  5. bacchys

    “Except for the fact that we don’t condemn innocent people because of the absence of evidence. Not even when the accuser is female and the accusation is rape.”

    The point of “Yes Means Yes” is to change that.

    1. Rebecca

      While I’m in favor of that, moving to that standard won’t end these kinds of his-word-against-hers disputes. You could have a signed and notarized consent agreement and one person could claim that she was forced to agree or that he violated the terms later. The presumption of innocence means that some people who do wrong will go free.

  6. Collin Merenoff

    They should both be expelled. They clearly don’t know what it means for grown-ups to have sex.

    If this were about anything except sex, it would be obvious how ridiculous they’re both being.

    1. Bartleby the Scrivener

      What has he done that demands his expulsion? Is defending one’s self against an accusation of rape so beyond the pale that he should not be allowed to continue his educational endeavors? Should he simply have rolled over and accepted his imprisonment without objection, because…uh…reasons?

      You’ll pardon me if I require a much higher burden of proof than that before abrogating the rights of another.

      1. Patrick Maupin

        Certain far-right religious groups in this great country of ours are happy to have a temporary alliance with the far-left on a few issues. Teaching guys they can be severely punished for sex outside of marriage is one of those issues.

        1. Isaac

          That makes zero sense. Conservative Christian groups have no desire to criminalize sex outside of marriage. They will just tell you that it is a sin and you should stop. And they’re perfectly equal-opportunity about it.

  7. Rebecca

    I feel afraid to say this in front of my feminist friends, especially the younger ones who want to believe her – and I understand the impulse – but I don’t understand how somebody being acquitted twice is being used as proof positive that she was ignored. If they investigated it, she wasn’t ignored. Not every accusation will result in a conviction (or expulsion). The authorities need evidence for conviction, and sometimes someone’s word is enough evidence and sometimes it isn’t. In this case, it wasn’t.

      1. Rebecca

        Well, I already defended someone not known outside our social circle when he was branded a rapist and a murderer based on rumors. I wasn’t comfortable with vilifying him without any factual basis for it or with having a kind of vigilante mob after him, so I told them that if they really knew something they should go to the police instead of bitching about it online. I got so much hate mail about that, calling me an abuse and rape apologist, a woman hater, a victim-blamer, a monster without a human soul, etc. You know, normal Internet hate stuff.

        (I was also dismissed as having been “victimized” and “brainwashed” by that particular guy, which was especially infuriating to me for some reason.)

        Basically, I don’t want to pour gasoline on a fire.

        I consider myself a feminist, but some common tropes that I hear in feminist circles drive me crazy, and one of them is the notion that you have to believe everyone who says that they are a rape victim. I cannot understand the rationale for that.

    1. Bartleby the Scrivener

      When it comes to prosecuting rape there is an incredibly hard line to walk. One must recognize that there are valid accusations that have unexpected behaviors on the part of the victim and that not all victims to a crime will react in the same way, but one must also recognize that one must present proof beyond reasonable doubt to convict.

      There is a common narrative in our society today that says questioning an accusation of rape is a violation of the victim’s and should not be allowed in law or society. I don’t care what happens in a social setting, so long as it does not change the laws, but the argument that such should apply in law must be fought at least as strongly as the crime of rape itself, and probably more.

      The reason for this is simple:

      Rape is a criminal act performed by an individual.

      Criminal convictions resulting from laws that prevent the rational investigation of and defense against an accusation are a criminal act performed by society.

      People often complain about acquittals resulting from ‘technicalities’; well, “I didn’t do it” is a technicality.


  8. Marc R

    Sub in another serious charge legally similar to rape but irrelevant gender wise i.e. aggravated battery with a deadly weapon causing severe bodily injury. Versus general media focusing on the plight of the victim, a journalist visits the guy “no filed” (after the State couldn’t find a theory of arguing BRD) and asks his side.

    He shows it’s unlikely he did it because he went with the police on his own free will with counsel and showed video of him elsewhere at the same alleged time frame or that the victim has blamed neighbors in the past and not only does this here match the MO but his investigator found Facebook private messages where the victim bragged about being excited to hang out with the alleged perp in near future and well after the “crime occurred.”

    Would anyone dare question the journist’s integrity? Or is the gender issue of rape so one-sided that showing the other side’s position is morally wrong?

    1. SHG Post author

      The claims that distinguish rape/sexual assault are the emotional impact/reaction of women, which it’s argued are unique to women and unique to these sort of crimes. Where evidence and individual conduct is damning in every other crime, here it’s entirely excusable.

      The argument isn’t that it’s morally wrong (though it is, but for separate reasons), but that expectations of human behavior shift so that whatever behavior happens, it still proves the same point that the women is the victim and the crime occurred.

      1. Bartleby the Scrivener

        How on earth would it be unique to women? Are they seriously claiming that males are never sexually assaulted?


        How many boys are molested every day?

        How many men are sexually assaulted in prison every day?

        How many men are touched by women in ways that these same people would call sexual assault if a man did it to a woman? If the sexes are equal, the person doing the touching and the person being touched should be irrelevant, right?

        In short, how can they claim to have any remote connection to anything like a position supporting the idea of equality if they are saying this is a situation unique to women when it is not a biological process that men do not share with women?

        Females do not have the only narrative pertaining to sexual assault. To say they do is intellectually dishonest…at best.


        1. SHG Post author

          You’ve hit on one of the abiding problems, that this narrative is about infantilizing women rather than equality. I can’t explain it, but more importantly, I can’t comprehend how otherwise smart women refuse to see how they have given away their autonomy.

  9. Isaac

    Many have explored the question of why Emma Sulkowicz has not gone to the police, considering that her rapist is attending school with her, and she clearly is not afraid of that information being public.

    Emma’s story on that score is so insane that there is virtually zero chance that this woman is telling the truth in the slightest.

    She says that she did go to the police, and that they committed to work with her to get all the information that they could about her rape. She got tired of them constantly calling her to get all the details so that they could make a report, and couldn’t stand dredging up the painful memories of her experience…so she basically told them “never mind.” Meanwhile, she carries around the mattress that she claims to have been raped on. Painful memories?

    So…the timeline here is…with the cops being fully supportive and on her side…she called it all off right at the part where a false accuser would have gotten serious cold feet about filing a false police report against an innocent classmate…

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