Yes, there are victims of America’s alleged college “rape crisis.” There are the women who are actually raped — who experience among the worst of crimes and live with the psychological and sometimes physical consequences for the rest of their lives. But there are also other victims, people whose lives are ruined by false accusations, with reputations destroyed in the quest to prove a larger narrative — that America’s college campuses are uniquely dangerous places for American women.
Three recently filed lawsuits show the other side of the “rape crisis,” how the media glosses over ambiguity to advance an agenda, creating heroes out of potential liars and villains out of the possibly innocent. I say “potential” and “possible” because in the real world, ambiguity is common and clarity is rare. But its difficult to create a crisis out of confusion, so agenda-driven “journalists” manufacture clarity, no matter the cost.
The three most prominent campus rape stories of the past year — Columbia University’s “mattress” protest, the Rolling Stone hoax, and former Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston’s alleged assault — are now the subject of three unusual lawsuits. Each lawsuit directly challenges rape narratives that the plaintiffs claim were deeply harmful to their reputations, finances, and emotional well-being.
The first, brought by Columbia University student Paul Nungesser, accuses Columbia University of essentially collaborating in a campaign of retaliation and harassment against him when Emma Sulkowicz launched her now-famous “mattress” campaign to draw attention the university’s alleged failure to convict Nungesser of sexual assault. The lawsuit makes for shocking and sobering reading — shocking because the mainstream media’s account of Sulkowicz’s alleged ordeal glossed over an ocean of ambiguity and doubt about her own account of the alleged assault. Nungesser may or may not have assaulted Sulkowicz (a campus court cleared him of any wrongdoing and police declined to pursue charges), but to describe her as a “victim” or “survivor” was to presume Nungesser’s guilt, a presumption that flies in the face of substantial evidence. Nungesser’s suit alleges that Columbia violated its own policies to collaborate in his public shaming — essentially disregarding its own adjudication to destroy Nungesser and preserve the “rape crisis” narrative.
To describe her as a “victim” or “survivor” was to presume Nungesser’s guilt, a presumption that flies in the face of substantial evidence.
The suit is sobering as well, laying bare — through copious social-media messages — the personal lives of students unmoored to any coherent code of sexual morality, where alcohol plays an outsized role and sexual connections are casually created but have meaningful and long-lasting consequences. Such an environment offers the perfect formula for hurt, confusion, and rage.
Jameis Winston’s highly unusual counterclaim — filed after former Florida State student Erica Kinsman sued Winston — also introduces complexity to a media storyline dominated by critiques of police and university processes. But the dominant media narrative — star athlete gets away with rape after a flawed investigation — is far too simplistic. Winston outlines shifting stories, notes the multiple, independent investigators who found in his favor, and provides a financial motive for Kinsman’s accusations — a demand for $7 million in compensation.
The final lawsuit, recently filed by University of Virginia dean Nicole Eramo against Rolling Stone after the magazine cast her as a principal villain in Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s now-discredited blockbuster tale of rape and cover-up at UVA, is in some ways the most poignant. Dean Eramos isn’t an accused rapist, she’s a person who has dedicated her professional life to working within a highly imperfect university system to help victims. Yet Rolling Stone and Erdely accused her of discouraging police reports, discouraging “Jackie” (the alleged victim) from sharing her story, and withholding statistics because she didn’t want UVA to be seen as a “rape school.” These claims, if true, would mean that Eramo didn’t just abuse her office, she turned its very purpose on its head — using it to harm victims and protect the university at all costs.
Eramo’s lawsuit clearly and methodically lays out the case against Rolling Stone, exposing how Erdely had a reputation for fabrication even before writing the story of “Jackie,” how she hunted for just the “right” victim and then refused to check the facts when the facts were just too good to check. The suit exposes how Rolling Stone went so far as to doctor photographs to make Eramo look like a callous villain willing to give the “thumbs up” sign even to weeping victims of sexual assault. The suit also lays out how Rolling Stone doubled down on its flawed reporting by continuing to promote the story even in the face of known, substantial doubts.
The “crisis” is the same crisis faced by prosecutors since time immemorial: Rape cases are among the most difficult to prove.
These cases have barely begun, but their claims bolster an alternative, competing narrative about sexual assault on campus — that it’s simply not true that universities or the police turn a blind eye to alleged rape. When the facts and evidence are clear, rapists are prosecuted. The “crisis” is the same crisis faced by prosecutors since time immemorial: Rape cases are among the most difficult to prove, and no amount of ideology-fueled wishful thinking can clear memories fogged by alcohol or reconcile the different perceptions of people navigating all the complexities of the most intimate of human interactions.
Nowhere has the sexual revolution triumphed more completely than on America’s college campuses. Yet instead of creating a sexual utopia, colleges are awash in hurt, anger, and confusion. No amount of ideological crusading can change the facts of human nature or change the facts of actual cases involving real human beings. (Indeed, college-age women are safer on campus than off.) But ideological crusades do create collateral damage — and now the targets of the crusade are fighting back. Can the crusade survive the court system? Only time will tell.
— David French is an attorney and a staff writer at National Review.