Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Making a point with a mattress...

A few days ago, I was sitting in my hotel room in Vienna when a Facebook friend posted this article.  She wrote something to the effect of, "Don't rape if you don't want to become a pariah."  My friend was very sympathetic to Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz, who claims she was sexually assaulted by her ex boyfriend, Paul Nungesser, back in 2012.  Sulkowicz was dissatisfied with the way Columbia University handled her allegations that she had been raped.  So, as her senior art thesis (she's a visual arts major), Sulkowicz took to hauling her fifty pound mattress around campus.  She's doing this for school credit, calling the project "Carry that Weight".

Though Paul Nungesser was cleared of all charges and Sulkowicz doesn't name him, many people on campus knew that he was the one Sulkowicz accused of rape.  They treated him like a pariah, avoiding talking to him and denouncing him on fliers and at rallies.  Mr. Nungesser also claims that he's missed out on jobs because of this campaign.  So he's decided to sue Columbia University, its board of trustees, its president, and a professor because he claims the university failed to protect him against harassment.

I posted the same article on Facebook with the comment that I wasn't surprised he's suing.  He's German and I have learned that reputation is a big deal in his culture.  Germans are much more sensitive about public defamation than Americans are.  I have run into at least one American here in Germany who was threatened with a lawsuit by a dentist who didn't like her review of his services.  Germans also don't seem to hesitate to bring civil matters to court.  I thought we were the same way in the United States, but I've gotten the impression that Germans are even more litigious.  So it makes sense to me that Nungesser would take this matter to court.

I will also go on record that I think he has a good case.  Obviously, he could have sued Emma Sulkowicz, too, but given that she's a college student, that would probably be a waste of time.  The university has deeper pockets and ultimately, they allowed this spectacle to take place.

What is more interesting to me than the story are the comments from the peanut gallery.  A whole lot of people believe Emma Sulkowicz, who apparently did not seek medical attention or go to the police after the alleged sexual assault incident took place.  In fact, she did not report the "assault" until many months after it happened.  By the time she reported the attack, there was no concrete evidence that the assault occurred, or so the university disciplinary council found, so Mr. Nungesser was not punished.  Other women also accused Nungesser of assaulting them; but again, their cases were also unfounded.  In this article, there is an account of what Sulkowicz claims Nungesser did to her.  It sounds like he really hurt her.  And yet, Sulkowicz apparently did not seek medical attention or go to the police.  Why not?

I am a believer in the idea that people are innocent until proven guilty.  Moreover, while I certainly empathize with sexual assault victims and I agree that rape is an underreported crime, I strongly believe that if a person has been found innocent, they should be left alone.  If they are truly criminals, that will come out in time.  Granted, my time with Bill has shaped this attitude.  He was abused by his ex wife and did not report it because he felt he would be disbelieved and laughed at.  So it's his word against hers-- but I have lived with Bill for even longer than she did and I know he's being very truthful about his account.  Many people would and did believe his ex wife simply because she's a woman.  They would listen to her account over Bill's because our society seems to have the collective opinion that all men are out of control brutes.

One of my Facebook friends supported Emma Sulkowicz and tried to tell me that in general, women are usually disbelieved over men.  I haven't found that to be true, certainly not when it comes to sexual abuse and rape cases.  I think that many people nowadays are sensitive about not being empathetic to victims, so they may fully believe and not question any potential victim's claims, even if they are ultimately untrue.  Moreover, I don't think it's wise to automatically side with alleged female victims just because historically women were disbelieved over men.  Some women will take advantage of the fact that many people are more sympathetic to them now.  While the sympathy is a good thing, empathy is an even better thing.  We should never let sympathy cloud empathy and obscure facts.

Did Paul Nungesser really sexually assault Emma Sulkowicz?  I have no idea.  At this point, it all comes down to her word against his.  But whether or not the incident actually happened is not really my point.  The fact is, by the time she made a complaint-- seven months after the alleged assault--, the evidence was no longer strong enough to support her accusations.  Paul Nungesser was declared not guilty of the crime.  So, no, Emma Sulkowicz did not have the right to sully his reputation with her art project.  Columbia University should not have endorsed or allowed it.  It's not okay to publicly smear someone, especially in a way that is so incredibly visible.  It does constitute harassment, in my opinion.

Sexual assault is a crime that could easily land a person in prison.  While many would like to think people who allege that they have been raped or assaulted aren't lying, the fact is, false reports can and do happen.  When the consequences for such a crime mean that a person can lose their liberty, I think we have to err on the side of caution.  A person who goes to prison has a lot to lose-- everything from their health to their finances to family and friends.  I shudder when I think about what it would be like to go to prison.  I know many have survived and even thrived in prison.  I don't think I'd be one of those people.  I wouldn't want to end up there due to a miscarriage of justice and I have empathy for those who do end up behind bars by mistake.  How does one apologize for something like that?

To those who have been sexually assaulted, I say please go to a hospital to get examined and contact the authorities as soon as possible after the attack.  Get the physical evidence of the attack documented.  I know it's traumatic and horrible to undergo such an ordeal, but it's the only way you can have a prayer of getting justice.  I fully support sexual assault victims who want to pursue justice.  I don't want rapists running around on the loose any more than anyone else does.  At the same time, I don't like the idea that a person can be imprisoned or have their reputation ruined simply because someone makes a claim about them that can't be substantiated.  


  1. There is almost never a way to prove rape if it starts out as consensual sex. It comes down to her word vs. hers. For that reason the school was correct to dismiss her allegation against him. But it doesn’t mean they found him innocent or decided she was a liar and should therefore block her from carrying a mattress to symbolize what she claims is her internal injury.

    Unlike many cases, where both parties could be telling the truth as they know it, the versions of the story Paul and Emily present are incompatible. One or both of them is outright lying.

    They agree that he had been drinking vodka and she had not had anything to drink, that the sex started out consensual and it ended being of a particular type. She says he abruptly went “there,” persisted while she protested, then just as abruptly withdrew without coming to a “conclusion” and left the room without a word. It doesn’t sound like it lasted long at all. His version is that it was fully consensual and that they then cuddled and slept together till the morning.

    He furthermore offers as evidence a statement she made on Facebook in the past asking for that kind of sex. That alone says something about his thinking, if you ask me. She could have given permission right there in the room and it would still be rape if she withdrew it and he continued anyhow.

    He also shows private messages from her after the incident, in which nothing appears to be wrong and then suggests she stalked him out of love and then invented the rape allegation (and convinced the other women to invent their assault allegations) because he didn’t reciprocate. Yet as best I know, she was never voluntarily in his presence again after that night and didn’t interact with him at social engagements where they ended up in the same place by accident. Between social media posts and real life behavior, I tend to favor real life as an indicator of her state of mind.

    The second woman claims he followed upstairs at a party where she was bartending. She says he was drunk, that he turned off the light and forced her against the wall until she fought her way out of the room. He claims that she is a liar and he never even went upstairs during that party. The school found him guilty in that case, but he appealed and the woman – who had long graduated -- eventually stopped responding, claiming she could not afford to take time off from her new job to rehash the process.

    In the case of the woman who dated him for several months, he doesn’t deny the sex was violent, but in response to her noting that she cried uncontrollably afterwards each time, dismisses her with a line to the effect that how can it be believed that someone who is not married or a slave would keep coming back for such experiences if she didn’t consent.

    I would definitely have voted for “not guilty.” But that doesn’t mean I would block her from continuing to tell her side of the story, much less do so by carrying a mattress as performance art.

    If you don’t want strangers commenting here, btw, feel free to delete this. You came up near the top of my Google search!

    1. No, I appreciate the thoughtful and civil comment! Yesterday, I got one on a different post that wasn't nearly as informative or level headed. You're very welcome to post!

      I don't have an issue as much with Emma's expression as I do with the way it seemed to turn into harassment that was endorsed by the school. Paul may very well be a creep, but so far concrete proof seems to be lacking. I agree that someone's lying, though. Too bad it's impossible to prove who.

    2. Yes, the lack of closure is annoying, but we will likely never know more than we do at this time.

    3. It will be interesting to see where Paul's lawsuit goes. Seems to me I read that Emma had also sued Columbia University. Maybe both of them have some *issues*, for lack of a better word.

  2. This is a nitpicky point, but no one is ever truly found "innocent" of any charge. even if it goes to court, a "not guilty" verdict may be rendered because a jury or judge failed to find sufficient evidence to convict. In some cases, those charged with deciding may truly consider that the accused is, in fact,, innocent, but the verdict does not read as such. failure to press charges for lack of evidence is equally ambiguous. the accused, as someone else stated, never really achieves any true closure or clearance.

    Obviously rape does happen, and it's obviously tough to prove in the absence of witnesses where no clear injury exists, and sometimes even when it does.

    The state of limitations for rape should probably be considerably shorter than it is. How does a person defend himself against charges when he doesn't hear about them until months after the fact, particularly if he is innocent? i don't remember exactly whee I was and with whom four months and six days ago. And this may sound really unsympathetic to women on my part, but while I suppose a woman should be able to withdraw consent in the middle of a sexual act, it's awfully messy to drag the courts into a case where consent was initially given and later withdrawn.

    Both women and men need to be more careful in choosing bed partners so that the courts do not need to mediate so many really messy situations..

    1. You're right on all counts, Alexis.

    2. My issue with how rape is prosecuted is that it is too black & white.

      We are naming as one thing and treating as a very serious crime these disparate situations:

      1. Guy stalks woman in alley and rapes her. Or laces her drink with a mickey at a party and rapes her. Or rapes a barely conscious woman who is drunk at a party. Or goes on a date with a woman and forces her to have sex with him.

      2. A couple of kids are exploring sex and the guy gets too excited and fails to stop when he clearly should. Or two people have sex while drunk and the woman later decides that since she was drunk she could not give consent. (Assume for this example that the guy did not pressure the woman to get too drunk to resist his advances.)

      Describing #2 as rape and treating it in the same way as #1 divides us. It leads many men to refuse even to consider that women are being raped every day, writing off each new allegation as a lie or exaggeration.

    3. That is an excellent observation.


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