Flawed Narratives, Perfect Victims, and the Columbia Rape Allegations

Can reviving the old myth that women never lie serve justice in any way?



In recent months, Emma Sulkowicz (pictured), the Columbia University senior who carries her mattress around campus as a protest against the university's non-expulsion of her alleged rapist (and an art project for her senior thesis) has been hailed as a heroine in the battle against campus sexual assault. Last week, The Daily Beast published my article about the case—based mainly on interviews with the alleged rapist, Paul Nungesser, and materials he provided—which raises serious questions about the pro-Sulkowicz narrative, partly because of her friendly behavior toward Nungesser for weeks after the alleged rape. The response from the rape-culture feminist camp has been to argue that there's no "right" way to deal with sexual assault, generating a #TheresNoPerfectVictim Twitter hashtag. But it's a straw (wo)man argument. Yes, of course victims deal with trauma in different, often startling ways. However, "no perfect victim" doesn't mean that anything an alleged rape victim says or does, no matter how it defies common sense, reason and human experience, must be rationalized as "that's what some victims do!"  in deference to the commandment, "Believe the survivor."

I should add that when I first read the New York Times account last May of Sulkowicz's claim that the university badly botched its investigation of her complaint, I thought she probably had a legitimate grievance. She was alleging a violent rape by a man who had been reported for sexual assault by two other women but had always managed to beat the rap. (At the time, my main reaction was that such cases need to be handled by real cops and courts, not campus "gender equity" bureaucrats and pseudo-judicial panels.) But as I read more details of the story, those details raised more and more questions.

At this point, I cannot, of course, definitively state that the allegations against Nungesser are false. But there is more than enough doubt of his guilt to warrant exoneration not only in a criminal case—it's safe to say that no grand jury in the land would indict him, unless it was made up of gender studies majors—but under the low "preponderance of the evidence" standard by which Columbia adjudicates sexual misconduct complaints.  

Remarkably, the panel which heard Sulkowicz's charges cleared Nungesser even though he was apparently not allowed to present strong evidence in his favor: his Facebook communications with Sulkowicz in the weeks following the alleged rape. Just two days after Nungesser supposedly brutalized her, Sulkowicz responded enthusiastically to his invitation to a party, writing that "we need to have some real time where we can talk about life and thingz (sic)." A few days later, she contacted him to suggest they "hang out" before or after the meeting of a literary society to which both belonged, adding, "whatever I want to see yoyououoyou." (There's much more in the Daily Beast story, including screenshots of the messages—confirmed as authentic by Sulkowicz herself.)

The other two complaints, filed shortly after Sulkowicz's charge and clearly influenced by it, turned out to be riddled with problems as well (many of them evident in the very first detailed report on the case, published in January 2013 in Columbia's online student magazine, Bwog, and highly sympathetic to the accusers). One woman, Nungesser's former girlfriend, accused him of emotional and sexual abuse which she did not regard as such until long after their breakup—and did not decide to report until Sulkowicz approached her to discuss Nungesser. (Her complaint was eventually dismissed, partly because she stopped cooperating with the investigation.) The other, Nungesser's housemate at a residence run by a campus literary society, claimed he had grabbed her and tried to kiss her at a party over a year earlier. She made the complaint after learning that he was facing another accusation of sexual assault, a few days before her graduation—and apparently with the encouragement of an officer of the society who had earlier tried to have Nungesser ejected from the house. Nungesser was initially "convicted" on this charge and placed on disciplinary probation; the finding was reversed on appeal and the second hearing cleared him.

In spite of all these murky circumstances, Nungesser, "outed" last May, has been not only ostracized on campus but treated as a presumptive criminal in the media—with the negative attention magnified by Sulkowicz's newfound fame as a mattress-toting activist—and branded a "serial rapist" in a press release by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. If he is innocent of any crime, and he may well be, he has a pretty strong argument that he is a victim of grievous harassment, condoned by the university (which has given Sulkowicz carte blanche for her project) and enabled by politicians.

When I was working on my story, I had no doubt that the true believers' response would be to argue that nothing in the record discredits or even casts doubt on the charges against Nungesser, that rape victims often behave in ways that don't fit stereotypical expectations—especially when attacked by someone they cared about—and may often remain in denial about the rape and act affectionately toward the rapist.

It didn't take long. The tone was set by a piece in the online publication Mic by feminist blogger Julie Zeilinger deploring "the narrative of the 'perfect victim,' in which female survivors' stories are evaluated in terms of  gender stereotypes such as those related to idealized virginal purity and simplified fallacies about uniquely felt and lived experiences, like the identity of a rapist and the nature of the relationship survivors have with them."

Actually, the only fallacies here are Zeilinger's, since her critique has nothing to do with the questions raised by the Daily Beast article. As far as I know, no one has ever suggested that Sulkowicz's lack of "purity," or the fact that she had previously slept with Nungesser twice without being in a romantic relationship, makes her a "bad victim." It's what happened after, not before, the alleged rape that matters.

Zeilinger also asserts that "some women do not even realize they have been abused," citing a  study in the journal Gender & Society which reports that teenage girls "frequently wrote off abuse" because they saw it as normal male behavior.  But, aside from the fact that the study is filled with radical feminist jargon and tendentious interpretations, what it found was that girls—primarily from troubled lower-class backgrounds—tend to shrug off minor sexual harassment like being touched on the butt, not violent rape. (They are also benighted enough to believe that being pressured into sex isn't rape if you have the option of saying no.)  It's hard to see what bearing this has on Sulkowicz's claim of a brutal, painful anal rape during which she was allegedly slapped in the face and choked so badly that, in her words to the New York Times, "he could have strangled me to death."

Even more bizarrely, Salon's Katie McDonough tried to portray Sulkowicz's behavior as consistent with rape by invoking the horrible recent rape case at Vanderbilt, in which the victim had consensual sex with her boyfriend in the morning unaware that he and three others had raped her the night before when she was blackout drunk and unconscious. The flaw in this analogy is rather glaringly obvious.

I can readily believe that when a rape happens in a previously consensual intimate situation and involves minimal force—for instance, when the man holds or pins the woman down and has sex with her despite her verbal protests—neither perpetrator nor victim may think of it as rape or assault, especially if they know each other well. (If that was Sulkowicz's story, the friendly messages would not have been nearly as damaging to her credibility.)

On the other hand, when activists talk of not realizing they had been raped and staying friendly with their rapists for some time, it's not always easy to tell if they mean what most of us would recognize as actual rape. It could be regretted drunk sex, or giving in to unwanted sex because you didn't have the nerve to say no or because you were nagged, coaxed, or guilt-tripped into it. It could be something like Lena Dunham's so-called rape, in which she admits that she verbally encouraged her "rapist" and was able to halt the encounter as soon as she chose to—but still eventually decided to call it rape, apparently because she didn't feel in control of things and was handled more roughly than she would have preferred (and because the man may have taken off his condom).

Of course, as Cosmopolitan political writer Jill Filipovic and others have pointed out, many domestic violence victims stay with their batterers even after brutal assaults. But this usually happens when victims feel trapped and isolated; often, the abuse escalates gradually and by the time it reaches severe levels, the victim is too psychologically and/or economically dependent, or too scared to get out. Moreover, even in ongoing abusive relationships, a violent outburst is typically followed by a show of repentance from the batterer and a promise not to do it again.

In Sulkowicz's case, the claim is that an Ivy League student with abundant social resources was suddenly and horrifically attacked by a male friend who had never been violent before—and that she went on to exchange chatty, flirty messages with him and offer to have a "chill sesh" two days later and continued to have similar interactions for another two months. I have yet to see a single expert say that this is common behavior in rape victims. (Amusingly, The New York Daily News' Victoria Taylor asserted that "experts backed up Sulkowicz" in her claim that she continued a friendly relationship with Nungesser because she was "confused," then cited the president of the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women.)

In an interview to Mic's Zeilinger, Sulkowicz elaborated on why she sought conversations with her alleged rapist: "I wanted to have a talk with him to try to understand why he would hit me, strangle me and anally penetrate me without my consent." But the tenor of her chats with Nungesser seems, to put it mildly, inconsistent with such a motive.

Do communications—even affectionate communications—with the accused after the alleged rape automatically discredit a rape report?  No, of course not; it depends on the communications and the circumstances. In these specific circumstances, you'd have to be a hardcore ideologue to deny that these specific communications are highly relevant and highly damaging to Sulkowicz's case.

It is also useful to recall that only a couple of months ago,  virtually identical arguments were made on behalf of the now-debunked Rolling Stone story of a brutal fraternity gang rape at the University of Virginia. The "discrepancies" and improbabilities in Jackie's story, advocates asserted, were typical of victims' reaction to  trauma, and only "rape apologists" and "denialists" would use them to brand the story a hoax. 

Obviously, Sulkowicz is not Jackie; the man she accuses of rape actually exists, unlike "Haven Monahan," and there is certainly not enough evidence to brand her a false accuser as some are doing on the Internet. But there are parallels. Both cases involve a story of a shocking rape much less ambiguous and more violent than the typical claim of campus sexual assault (obviously far more extreme in the Rolling Stone case). In both cases—again, much more so in the Rolling Stone story—there are too many details that don't seem to make sense in light of what we know of human behavior. In the UVA story, it was Jackie's friends supposedly dismissing her brutal gang rape as a minor unpleasantness and the chief rapist supposedly approaching her a couple of weeks later to say he had a "great time." In the Sulkowicz story, it's both Sulkowicz and Nungesser engaging in casual, amicable online chitchat after his alleged brutal assault on her.

The advocates' reaction to the new evidence in the Columbia University case makes it plain that for many feminists, disregarding any evidence or argument that may interfere with "believing the survivor" is now a matter of principle. The danger of such an ideology is self-evident. In his 1995 book, "With Justice for Some: Victims' Rights in Criminal Trials," veteran Columbia University law professor George Fletcher wrote, "It is important to defend the interests of women as victims, but not to go so far as to accord women complaining of rape a presumption of honesty and objectivity." Striking that balance is an essential task for the justice system; to abandon it is to endorse a lynch-mob mentality.

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After the original version of this article ran at, I appeared on MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry Show to discuss my article and the ethics of reporting on sexual assault. The "discussion" was a barrage of constant interruptions and derailments, but the most telling moment happened during the break before my segment when I had just joined the set. Harris-Perry was complaining that all this talk about the need to get the other side of the story when it comes to rape accusations was terribly unfair because, for instance, when we do a story about ISIS, we don't ask ISIS for comment. (Maybe that's because ISIS actually puts out videos in which they saw people's heads off or incinerate them. If there was a video of Nungesser choking, hitting and raping Sulkowicz, I can guarantee that no one would be going to him for his side of the story. Also, he'd be in prison.) Jelani Cobb, the panelist who did not get to say a word during my segment, gently tried to point out that checking the facts when it comes to accusations is important; as an example, he cited Joe McCarthy accusing people of being communists with no evidence and ruining their lives.

Harris-Perry's response: "Yes, but he was just throwing out accusations! Women don't do that!"

And so, after the Duke lacrosse team fiasco, after Brian Banks losing ten years of his life to a false rape charge, after the University of Virginia rape hoax, we're back to the rape myth of our time: Women never lie.

An early version of this article appeared at RealClearPolitics.