02/12/2015 Malcolm James

Have we reached a watershed in campus rape hysteria?

One of the many things which bemuse non-Americans about the US is the campus rape hysteria.  Here in the UK, rape regrettably occurs occasionally on campus, as it does everywhere else, but the investigation is always passed over to the police.  It may therefore be appropriate if it is a non-American who starts a long overdue shift back to sanity.

Ever since the start of the current academic year students at Columbia University have been treated to the spectacle of Emma Sulkowicz lugging a mattress around the campus as a protest against, as she sees it, the injustice of a university disciplinary board finding a fellow student not responsible of sexual assault against her in August 2012.  This protest is called entitled ‘Carry that Weight’ and convenient doubles as a piece of performance art for her final year project.

However, the fact that the board did not find him responsible, despite the appallingly low ‘preponderance of the evidence’ threshold and the lack of due process, did not prevent the media, including Columbia University’s own newspaper, the Columbia Spectator, from elevating Emma Sulkowicz to the status of a martyr to the cause of campus rape convicting her alleged assailant in the court of public opinion, who was eventually identified as Paul Nungesser.  This culminated in Emma Sulkowicz being invited by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to attend the State of the Union address last month.


Emma Sulkowicz (left) & Co.

In contrast to the widespread fawning publicity accorded to Emma Sulkowicz, Paul Nungesser remained a shadowy figure who refrained from commenting on the matter.  That was until this month, when The Daily Beast ran a piece by Cathy Young giving his side of the story, which revealed, amongst many other things, that he is from Germany.  That it was Cathy Young who was entrusted with publicising his side of the story need not be surprising, since she has consistently been of the staunchest supporters of the need for due process and one of the fiercest critics of the rush to judgement by universities in sexual assault cases.

I will not go into detail on his side of the story, since I cannot possibly improve on Cathy Young’s account, but, suffice it to say, it presents a very different picture from that portrayed in the countless puff pieces on Emma Sulkowicz, and the whole episode looked very much like a standard murky ‘he said, she said’ sexual encounter which, for whatever reason, ended badly.

What happened next was altogether more surprising.  Cathy Young was assailed by the usual suspects for having the temerity to question Emma Sulkowicz’s version of events, but Daniel Garisto, who had been the editorial page editor of the Columbia Spectator, admitted in their publication that, in their desire to appear sympathetic to an alleged rape victim, they had allowed themselves to forget the journalistic requirements for objectivity and fact checking.

As an apology it was hardly unreserved, but shortly thereafter the newspaper published a much more forthright apology in an editorial by Caroline Williamson. What might explain this sudden volte face by a paper which had hitherto been one of Emma Sulkowicz’s strongest supporters?  The answer, in two words, is Rolling Stone.

It is almost certainly significant that it is less than three months since Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s account of a lurid, alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia frat house spectacularly blew up in her

Sabrina Rubin Erdely

Sabrina Rubin Erdely

face when it was shown to be, at best, wildly exaggerated and, at worst, a complete hoax.  I imagine that at least some of the editorial staff on the Spectator have aspirations to become professional journalists and seeing the reputation of a previously respected and prize-winning journalist being comprehensively trashed was doubtless a wake-up call for them.

That said, the behaviour of the Spectator was hardly in the same league as that of Ms Erdely.  They might have been guilty of naïveté, but at least Emma Sulkowicz and Paul Nungesser actually exist and it is common ground that they did have a sexual relationship.  Furthermore, the editors are students and, as students, you are allowed to make mistakes, as long as you learn from them.  Ms Erdely was, allegedly, a professional journalist and should therefore not be cut any slack in her reporting.

Standing up for the truth is not always easy.  This can be particularly true on a university campus, where hysteria over sexual assault (or anything else) can be particularly intense and editors are more likely to be known to their peers than in the world at large.  The fear of retribution from sexual assault activists may therefore be particularly great.  However, tempting though it might be to give in to the hysteria du jour, the risks of not standing up for the truth are greater.

As Ms Erdely has found out to her cost, you only have to come badly unstuck once and the damage can be permanent.  If they carry this principle into their professional journalistic careers, things will start to improve.

Meanwhile, back in the ‘real world’, even the New York Times, which has hitherto been one of the main cheerleaders of the erosion of due process, seems to have woken up and smelt the coffee, if the article by Judith Shulevitz is anything to go by.  In it the NYT appears to be recanting its previous position, arguing that allegations of sexual assault are so serious that they must be investigated by the police.

How revolutionary!

Paul Nungesser is now only a few months from graduating and, whereas he must at times have had significant doubts whether he would be allowed to finish his course, he will now, barring accidents, illness or failing exams, do so.  His experience at Columbia University was certainly not the one he anticipated when he applied, but, in years to come, he may be able to look back with satisfaction that he has been unwittingly instrumental in re-introducing at least a degree of sanity back into American campus life.

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Comments (18)

  1. Malcolm James

    Just a thought. Does anyone have any idea on how how Emma Sulkowicz’s project will be graded? What are the hidden subtleties of mattress-covering which might allow marks to be awarded or deducted? Would any supervisor or second-marker dare give her a bad mark? This is just ripe for parody!

    • No idea. How would you objectively grade such a “piece”? If she casts herself as a “Christ-like figure” who is “carrying her cross” to “save” and “redeem” people like her (perhaps the closest historical / literary reference she could assume based on the symbolism of her performance), she runs into very problematic moral territory.

      That being said, imagine if someone actually failed her. She has been more caught up in grandstanding than her studies. But then, unfortunately, her particular field of study may not be particularly known for its objectivity – modern “art” tends to be often like this, saying instead “if it feels good for you, then it is good.”

      • Malcolm James

        My first post on this issue back in the Autumn was that other students should greet her with a rousing chorus of ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’.

      • Paul

        The Christ analogy is not far off. After all he didn’t carry the cross all time. He had a helper, just like Ms Sulkowicz. The cross was the scene of the crime, although he did it before not after because of course after he was dead.

        • There are notable differences, however. Christ is cast as a figure who never sinned, ever, and who gave his life for others despite the entire world being against him and only a tiny handful of people supporting him.

          Emma Sulkowicz’s situation is almost entirely the opposite. She has demanded the bureaucratic lynching of a man on a flimsy accusation based on a charge she herself dropped. She is not “giving her life for others,” but is milking the milieu of rape hysteria for all its worth. And rather than being opposed by the majority and supported by only a tiny handful, she is instead supported by media who have done nearly a total shutout in support of her, with only a few people (who have been rabidly demonized) questioning her story.

          I remember, when I taught composition & argumentation, that a colleague of mine said that casting someone as a Jesus-like figure is essentially the inverse as casting someone you don’t like as a Hitler-like figure, and should invoke the same discredit to one’s argument; just like almost no one we meet will ever be as bad as Hitler, almost no one we will ever meet will be as good as someone who reputably has never done anything wrong.

          • Malcolm James

            Which makes the analogy with Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ very apt.

          • Paul

            I know, just wanted to make the point that she hasn’t been the only one carrying her mattress.

        • Malcolm James

          If this interview is anything to go by, she does seem to have messianic delusions.

          ‘Swaths of the conversation were Smith putting words in Ms. Sulkowicz’s mouth while she sat there like a smirking bobble-head with an incessant affirmative nod. Some of those words came back when asked about her motivation at 1:03:58. After rambling a bit she pointed at Ms. Smith and said, “Again, like you were talking about earlier, that feeling that there’s a force greater than myself that’s making it that I need to be doing this.”

          Imagine that. She’s guided by a (messianic?) “force” even greater than herself. Hard to believe. With this cosmic inspiration the “force” appears to be Roberta Smith.’

          Full article her


          Don’t miss the comment by Von Romberg who provides a partial English translation of an interview Paul Nungesser gave in German.

      • Paul

        Sounds like a niche market for an online university.

    • Graham Strouse

      I think she should have points deducted from her grade every time she drops the mattress. Make it like figure skating!

  2. audubon crosby

    I was wondering will she show up at the graduation ceremony with her mattress,, her ex beau Paul may or may not be there, what will happen when they call her name? This is the drama the school wants to avoid. I am wondering which student they will disinvite. Drama non the less at the ceremony carried by MSNBC and CNN with their own slant.

    • Malcolm James

      I don’t see how they can disinvite either of them. I’m sure Paul Nungesser will want to attend and if Emma Sulkowicz decides not to do so because he’s there, that’s up to her.

    • CLB11267

      You just know she’s going to lug that f*cking mattress across the stage. And it’s nearly certain she’ll get significant and sympathetic press coverage for doing it!

  3. Reality Sets In

    Jonathan, have you heard the story of Morgan Triplett? A woman who orchestrated her own fake rape, (for political purposes?), by placing an ad on Craigslist to find a person willing to beat her and have sex with her. Then after having sex with her she used her phone to view herself and asked him to hit her more. She promised that the person who answered the ad would suffer no repercussions. Then she went to the cops at UCSB to say that she was violently raped on campus. She was attending a feminist event for LBGT at the time. http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/2998803


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