Emma Sulkowicz, the infamous "mattress girl," surfaced this week on National Public Radio talking about her efforts to get a serial predator, "a sadist in the truest meaning of that word," off the Columbia University campus.
Sulkowicz, referred to in the story as an "activist and survivor," mentioned that the subject of her efforts won a settlement from Columbia this month in a lawsuit charging that Sulkowicz's activism amounted to gender-based harassment.
When a disciplinary hearing in late 2013 cleared Paul Nungesser of charges that he raped Sulkowicz, she refused to accept the outcome. Her protest—which included carrying a mattress on campus for most of her senior year to represent the "weight" of her victimization—made her the heroine of a new feminist revolution. It also made him the campus pariah after she outed him as her alleged rapist.
While the terms of the settlement are unknown, Columbia issued a statement effectively reaffirming Nungesser's exoneration. This was an important victory not just for Nungesser and his family, but for those who have argued the war on campus rape, however worthy its goals, has often trampled on the innocent.
It is a timely victory, given the current controversy over possible shifts in federal policy to ensure more protections for the accused.
As the first journalist to fully report Nungesser's side of the story with important exculpatory evidence, I consider it something of a vindication as well—after such reactions as a piece on the feminist site Jezebel titled "How to Make an Accused Rapist Look Good."
When I first read the front-page story on Sulkowicz in the New York Times in May 2014, I actually believed—despite having criticized the excesses of the college rape crackdown—that she was probably a victim wronged by campus bureaucrats.
There were no "blurred lines" of consent here. Sulkowicz described a brutal assault by a (then-anonymous) friend and occasional sexual partner who, she said, suddenly turned violent during a consensual encounter, hitting her, choking her, and anally raping her while she screamed in pain.
According to Sulkowicz, the man was found "not responsible" after a botched investigation and remained enrolled at the university, even though he had been accused of sexual assault by two other female students as well.
The facts grew considerably murkier when I read an earlier report on the case in Bwog, Columbia's online student magazine.
The multiple complaints, it turned out, were not independent of each other, and the other two women were not alleging rape. One was an ex-girlfriend who had "felt emotionally and sexually exploited" by the accused, though she did not recognize it as abuse at the time; she and Sulkowicz both decided to file complaints after sharing their experiences. The other one said he grabbed her and tried to kiss her at a party when they went upstairs to get more beer—an incident that she admitted she didn't regard as assault until she learned about the other charges.
In late December 2014, long after "mattress girl" had become a national icon, The New York Times published a story that included an interview with Nungesser (who had been named by The Columbia Daily Spectator in May). What piqued my interest was his contention that "he was not allowed to bring up communications between himself and Ms. Sulkowicz after the night in question" in his defense. Oddly, nothing was said in the story about the content of those communications.
About a month later, I met with Nungesser for an interview on the Columbia campus in upper Manhattan. His parents, Karin Nungesser and Andreas Probosch, who live in Germany, had contacted me after reading my articles on campus rape controversies and after I mentioned my interest in the case on Twitter.
Among the materials he gave me were several pages of Facebook messages, which later figured extensively in the lawsuit. They show that for weeks after he supposedly raped her on August 27, 2012, Sulkowicz had affectionate chats with Nungesser, sending him such comments as "i feel like we need to have some real time where we can talk about life and thingz" (sic) and responding to his birthday greeting with "I love you Paul!"
After I wrote about this in the Daily Beast, Sulkowicz supporters argued that "survivors of trauma deal with their experiences in different ways" and that she was being faulted for not being a "perfect victim." "To anyone who has been close to a person who has been the victim of acquaintance rape, Emma's messages to Paul don't seem out of the ordinary," wrote Erin Gloria Ryan at Jezebel, which also published Sulkowicz's annotated copy of the messages.
Victims of violence can indeed respond to trauma in ways that seem irrational. But it's the specifics that strain credulity. Sulkowicz was not alleging a "gray area" situation that she could have excused as a misunderstanding; she claimed she was hit in the face and choked so hard that "he could have strangled me to death." Yet we are asked to believe that two days after this attack, both victim and rapist would banter as if nothing was wrong; that she would come to his party and respond to his request to bring more girls with "i'll be over w da females soon"; and that "I want to see yoyououoyou" means (as Sulkowicz claimed in her Jezebel annotations) she was "desperate" to talk about the rape.
The annotations also contained a surprising claim from Sulkowicz: that a few hours after the assault, she talked to a female friend "who explain[ed] it was rape." Would that really need explaining? And why was there no record of this friend being called as a corroborating witness?
Eventually, I got an answer which adds a minor but fascinating detail to the story, reported here for the first time. A source familiar with the case confirmed that in her original complaint, Sulkowicz mentioned talking to a friend, "Toni" (not her real name), the day after the incident.
Photo Credit: YouTube screen capture