Late last month, Emma Sulkowicz (aka Mattress Girl) was given the Woman of Courage award by the National Organization of Women. I discussed the case and the general effect of “rape culture” hysteria recently with Cathy Young, whose article “Columbia Student: I Didn’t Rape Her” was one of the first to cast doubt on the Mattress Girl’s narrative.
Here is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation:
You became a fairly big public figure over the last year for the article you wrote on the Columbia sexual assault case of Emma Sulkowicz, the “Mattress Girl.” Tell us about that case and your contribution.
My contribution did in many ways change public perceptions of that story. Initially the story was told completely from the perspective of Emma Sulkowicz. She came forward, gave an interview to the New York Times, which became the subject of a front-page story. She was on the cover of New York Magazine when she started doing this protest with carrying the mattress. And she told a very dramatic story of being brutally physically attacked and raped by this guy with whom she’d had a friend-with-benefits type of relationship. She said she was in shock and suffered in silence for several months. And then finally when she had heard about this same guy having assaulted two other women, she decided that she had to speak up and go to the campus authorities and tell them what happen. She claimed that she was asked all sorts of outrageous questions at the hearing, where she was disbelieved and her claims were dismissed. So she was protesting the way that this was handled by the University.
But nobody in all this coverage ever gave the side of the story of the accused guy, Paul Nungesser. I was able not only to interview Paul Nungesser, but I was able to look at Facebook messages that the two of them had exchanged both prior to and, most importantly, after the alleged rape.
What was most striking to you about these messages?
There was absolutely no sense in any of these messages, in the next few days after this alleged violent rape, of any sort of discomfort, any sort of awkwardness, on either her part or his part. If you take the rape story at face value, it’s very bizarre. They were being very friendly, they were being very chatty. It was really not the kind of conversation you would have with a rapist.
At one point he was inviting her to a party that he was having at his place. This was the day after the alleged violent rape, and he says “we have too many guys, bring some hot girls,” or something, and she replies “sure, tell them I’ll be over with the females.” If you buy that she was raped by this guy the day before, she is agreeing to bring girls to a party hosted that is being hosted by a rapist? That is bizarre. That is really not credible.
And after this story came out, I generated a hashtag, #TheresNoPerfectVictim. And I understand that if you are traumatized, you may not always be 100% consistent. But you had to show some real inner suspension of disbelief to say that these messages have no relevance to the credibility of Emma Sulkowicz. And I’m told that the attitude toward this case really shifted after this story came out, and the degree of support she had on campus really waned after that.
Now you also mentioned that Emma Sulkowicz was not the only person to accuse Paul Nungesser of sexual assault.
As far as the other accusations, there was a lot of evidence that they were connected to the one made by Emma Sulkowicz, as well as evidence that the head of the co-ed fraternity house where Nungesser lived at the time was very intent on getting him out of there after the sexual assault charge became public knowledge on campus.
And, you know, when I first read about this case, I actually did think he was guilty! Because here is a guy who is accused of molesting, on some form, three different women. And we’re not quite getting to Bill Cosby proportions yet, but you have several women accusing the same guy, and you start thinking, there’s no smoke without fire.
But I will say that everything that he told me that could be verified did eventually check out. And that was quite impressive, and it did make me feel that his credibility was quite solid. Do I know for a fact what happened in this case? No. But as I said, everything that could be verified that he told me actually did check out.
The tone of the article was certainly skeptical, but it didn’t take a side. The title of the article wasn’t “He Didn’t Rape Her.” It was “I Didn’t Rape Her,” from Paul Nungesser.
And I did, by the way, interview Emma Sulkowicz for this piece as well. I got some comments from her, which I quoted. She initially volunteered to annotate the Facebook messages, and provide her own explanations of the supposed contexts for these messages. But then she just kind of went quiet on that. I emailed her a couple of times and said, if you want the Daily Beast to publish these annotations, you really have to get them to me. And she didn’t do that, and she eventually gave them to Jezebel, which is a…uhh…
Far more sympathetic to her, you could say.
Yes, very sympathetic to her. A very hardcore feminist blog. And her explanation for why she decided not to give those annotations to me was that she basically didn’t trust me not to manipulate them somehow or present them out of context. Which is really pretty insulting, but I can live with that.
In the first day after this piece hit the web, Salon, Mic, and numerous other publications immediately released articles criticizing you for trying to “discredit” the victim and being an “apologist” for the assault. Emma Sulkowicz herself called you an “anti-feminist.”
I’ve been called that before, I’ve been called worse. I was called a rape-denier over the UVA case, which of course turned out to be a hoax. And obviously, “rape apologist” really is just name-calling. But if I took it seriously, it really would be pretty devastating to be called an actual apologist for rape.
Yeah that’s a terrible thing to put on somebody.
Rape is a horrible thing. I mean, I know women who were raped. A co-worker of mine years ago was very violently raped in an acquaintance situation; I’m certainly not saying that the concept of rape should only be limited to a guy jumping out of a dark alley. I know that acquaintance rape actually does happen.
And it’s interesting because this incident that I was personally close to happened when there was a kind of previous round of moral panic about rape and a similar attempt to redefine rape, for instance, to include being verbally pressured into unwanted sex. And I remember this woman reading an article about that and just saying that she felt incredibly insulted. Suddenly there were comparisons made between her experience of being hit, having her head slammed into furniture, literally fearing for her life; and then she’s reading an article in which somebody said “well you know he kind of kept coming onto me, and I really didn’t want to hurt his feelings by saying no, so I just went along with it.” And she was like “What the hell! This is really insulting.”
I think it is really dangerous ultimately to trivialize rape the way that those people are doing. And not only that, but one of the things about this rape culture ideology is this argument that constantly gets made: that by questioning the existence of a rape culture, you are perpetuating rape culture.
It’s a Catch-22.
It’s an extremely circular argument, and it reminds me a little bit of arguments that were being made during the Salem Witch Hunts. The idea was that if you denied the existence of witchcraft, that inherently made you a suspect. Because, you know, why would anyone deny the existence of witchcraft unless they were with the witches and wanted to help them get away with it? So it is really a very similar argument.
I know that we can all say that, well, rape really exists. And we know today that witches did not exist, but rape does. To which I would say yeah, absolutely, rape exists. But I don’t think “rape culture” in modern Western society is any more real than witchcraft was in Salem.