EXCLUSIVE: See the obscene “revenge porn” of Nungesser by “mattress girl”, showing him naked and aroused, displayed in Columbia’s campus art gallery for two weeks
Columbia professor Jon Kessler—a defendant in new suit —’referred to the mattress as “the site of [her] rape,” implying fellow student Nungesser was guilty’
EXCLUSIVE: Nungesser’s feminist mother “women… can become perpetrators just like men”
EXCLUSIVE: Mrs. Nungesser: – women CAN lie about rape
•Nungesser ‘shunned by fellow students on foreign trip’
• Nungesser: ‘job offers rescinded, missed career fair over death threats, and was terrified for his life’
While Columbia University’s “mattress girl” Emma Sulkowicz—who carried a mattress on campus to protest the non-expulsion of her alleged rapist—is long past her fifteen minutes of fame, the story isn’t over. Now it’s the turn of the accused man, Paul Nungesser, who is pursuing a lawsuit against Columbia.
He claims that, despite being exonerated, his academic experience was ruined because the university enabled Sulkowicz’s protest, effectively denying him equal educational opportunity on the basis of sex. Last month, a federal court dismissed the suit for lack of sufficient evidence. But last Monday, the case was back with an amended complaint which seeks to demonstrate that Nungesser was indeed a victim of anti-male bias—and paints a stark picture of the harassment he says he endured due to Sulkowicz’s campaign.
The lawsuit makes some claims that are likely to invite feminist derision and raise eyebrows in the legal community—for instance, that calling a (presumptively) innocent man a rapist is a “gendered slur,” since the term is almost exclusively directed at males and evokes the stereotype of male sexual brutishness. It’s a radical argument. But if it works, it could be a trailblazing victory for male students suing colleges—most unsuccessfully, so far—over being expelled on what they say are wrongful charges of sexual misconduct.
One feminist who would cheer for such an outcome is German journalist Karin Nungesser—Paul’s mother—who insists that it’s a matter of principle and not just maternal devotion. “I think it is important that male students are suing their colleges if they believe that they are being discriminated against.It´s the same path that LGBT people, differently-abled people, people of color and women have gone very successfully in the past: to fight for their equality in front of a judge and achieve equal rights there,” Karin told me in an email. “As a feminist, I advocate for gender equality and not to establish privileges for women.”
Sulkowicz (who did not respond to a request for comment) became a feminist celebrity in 2014, landing on the cover of New York magazine as a leader in the “revolution against campus sexual assault.” Yet by the time she and Nungesser graduated last May, her revolutionary halo had been tarnished after the man she branded a serial rapist spoke to the media.
An article I wrote for The Daily Beast in February 2015, based on an interview with Nungesser and other materials, cast Sulkowicz’s claim of a terrifyingly brutal rape by a man who had been a close friend and occasional lover in a different light. Facebook screenshots turned over by Nungesser revealed that in the days after the alleged attack in August 2012, Sulkowicz engaged in breezy banter with him, promised to bring girls to his party, and talked about meeting for a “chill sesh”—and that several weeks later, she responded to his birthday greeting with, “I LOVE YOU PAUL!” (Sulkowicz verified the authenticity of the messages and explained them as an attempt to maintain a friendly demeanor in the hope of having a private talk with Nungesser and asking him why he “raped” her.) Evidence from the case records also raised doubts about the seemingly damning fact that Nungesser had been accused by two other female students—apparently, not quite independently of each other. One, Nungesser’s former girlfriend who claimed he was sexually coercive during their relationship, filed a complaint after talking to Sulkowicz; another, a fellow resident at Nungesser’s coed fraternity who accused him of a drunken pass at a party, was encouraged by a fraternity officer seeking to evict him as an alleged rapist.
While the truth remains elusive, Nungesser’s lawsuit marshals an impressive array of facts contradicting Sulkowicz’s account, including the lack of any evidence that she seemed traumatized or had visible injuries after being—according to her—anally raped, hit in the face and violently choked. It also contains the new allegation that Sulkowicz tried to persuade an unnamed female Columbia student to bring charges against Nungesser in order to “support her as a woman.”
Unlike other accused men who have sued colleges in recent years, Nungesser was not expelled but ultimately cleared of all charges including Sulkowicz’s. The ex-girlfriend’s complaint was dismissed; Nungesser was initially found “responsible” on the third charge but exonerated on appeal, an extraordinary outcome in the complainant-friendly system of campus “justice.” Yet another complaint, brought during Nungesser’s senior year by a male student who claimed Nungesser had sexually groped him during a conversation three years earlier, was also closed without a hearing as lacking in credibility. Columbia’s internal report on the investigation, a photocopy of which I was able to obtain from a confidential source, went so far as to hint that this accusation could be the product of a collective vendetta. (Nungesser’s lawsuit explicitly claims it was instigated by Sulkowicz.)
But while Nungesser was able to graduate, the lawsuit persuasively argues that Sulkowicz’s activism and the surrounding publicity caused him serious harm—abetted by Columbia officials who refused to recognize him as an innocent man and treated his exoneration as an embarrassing inconvenience.
Thus, the amended complaint states that in summer 2014, when Nungesser joined a class trip to Russia, Mongolia and China for which he had won a scholarship, several students sought to have him kicked out of the group—while the supervising professor responded to his concerns by suggesting he should drop out “since it would make everything easier for everyone else.” According to the lawsuit, when Nungesser’s parents wrote to Columbia to complain, they were told that everything was handled appropriately. (While Nungesser stuck it out, the complaint says that he was understandably skittish about participating in discussions and was late submitting his paper.)
In the fall, Nungesser’s situation on campus got worse. Sulkowicz’s “mattress performance” received massive attention; there were social media posts that urged “making [his] life a living hell,” gloated that he was living in fear, and even made explicit violent threats. (The amended complaint includes screenshots.) The lawsuit alleges that Sulkowicz supporters in one class took Nungesser’s photo and blogged about him, making him reluctant to speak or even attend, and that he eventually took a Pass/Fail to avoid getting a bad grade. It also claims that fear of harassment kept him from attending the pre-graduation career fair and that several job offers, both in the United States and in Europe, were rescinded due to his notoriety.
The lawsuit persuasively argues that the Sulkowicz’s protest was not simply anti-rape activism but targeted harassment, since she openly and repeatedly said she wanted to shame Nungesser into leaving Columbia and would stop the mattress-carrying if he did. And this was not just activism but a university-approved senior thesis in visual arts for which she received credit. Her thesis supervisor, Columbia professor Jon Kessler—also a defendant in the lawsuit—publicly referred to the mattress as “the site of [her] rape,” clearly implying that the rape was a fact and Nungesser was guilty. What’s more, a lesser-known part of this thesis can only be described as revenge porn: a drawing of Nungesser raping and choking Sulkowicz, and another of a grinning Nungesser exposing his erect genitals, both superimposed on New York Times pages with an article on the case that included his name. The two prints—photographs of which are part of the court filing—were publicly displayed at a weeklong exhibition at a campus gallery.
It’s hard to imagine circumstances under which such a display could be permitted with the genders reversed. And that’s where sex discrimination comes in. Nungesser’s Title IX lawsuit charges that the university failed to recognize Sulkowicz’s vendetta as “intimate partner violence”—i.e. gender-based harassment—because of a general blindness to abuse against men, which can include false accusations. (Interestingly, the document notes that about 10 percent of sexual assault complaints filed at Columbia in 2013-2015 were admitted to be false by the complainants themselves—yet campus literature on sexual assault completely ignores the issue.) A spokeswoman for Columbia’s office of communications and public affairs said that university had no comment on the filing.
Nungesser’s attorney, Andrew Miltenberg, has represented a number of accused male students in lawsuits against colleges. To him, this is a fight against the dangerous campus climate created by the Obama administration’s overzealous crusade against campus sexual misconduct—starting with the 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter to college and university presidents from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Today, Miltenberg said in an email, students facing disciplinary charges of sexual assault “have a severely compromised ability to defend themselves and face an artificially low standard of evidence, virtually ensuring a finding of responsibility”—and when those hurdles are met, “schools are reacting to the ‘Dear Colleague’ letter by allowing mob justice so that one way or another, the accused is punished.”
Nungesser is now back in his native Germany and is not speaking to the media. But his mother, a writer and editor who has worked for a number of German publications including the feminist website Weibblick, was willing to explain why she sees this as a feminist issue in the true sense of the word.
Some feminist mothers of accused sons have said the experience changed their perspective. Was that true for Karin Nungesser? Yes and no.
“What happened to Paul didn’t fundamentally change my political convictions: I never shared the view that women are better, more likable or more peaceful than men,” she says, citing research on women’s role in Nazi atrocities. “That women, given the power and the opportunity, can become perpetrators just like men is nothing new for me.”
What has changed, she says, is her perspective on how willing feminists should be to criticize other women and other feminists. She wants to see more debate and dissent with regard to some beliefs—such as “women never lie about rape.”
“Like many other feminists I never believed this and never advocated for it,” says Karin. “I never, however, argued openly against it, when others did. Today, I think I would, and this obviously has to do with what Paul has gone through.”