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:
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.