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.
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
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.
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.