Politics & Policy

‘Mattress Girl’ Is a Perfect Icon for the Feminist Left

(Andrew Burton/Getty)

To anyone who’s followed the case of Emma Sulkowicz, Columbia University’s “Mattress Girl,” the fact that her symbolic protest doubled as a credit-earning work of performance art seems a fitting commentary on the whole situation.

Sulkowicz, who graduated Sunday, spent her senior year hauling a 50-pound mattress around campus to protest the Columbia administration’s failure to expel her alleged rapist. It would be difficult to overstate the adulation showered upon her: She won the National Organization for Women’s Susan B. Anthony Award and the Feminist Majority Foundation’s Ms. Wonder Award; she was the subject of a glowing New York Magazine profile (“she’s the type of hipster-nerd who rules the world these days“); she was invited to this year’s State of the Union as a guest of New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand; earlier this month, United Nations ambassador Samantha Power likened Sulkowicz to women fighting for their rights in Afghanistan; the “art” itself was reviewed in the New York Times. (Assessment: “Analogies to the Stations of the Cross may come to mind.”)

Such praise might have been deserved — if Emma Sulkowicz had actually been raped. But unlike New York Magazine, the New York Times, the New York Post, and a bevy of other national and international publications, Reason’s Cathy Young actually dug into Sulkowicz’s claims that she was anally raped in August 2012, and in early February published a long investigative report in The Daily Beast that threw serious doubt on her accusations.

The essay included not only an interview with Sulkowicz’s alleged rapist, German scholarship student Paul Nungesser, but transcripts of text-message conversations between the pair — you know, “evidence.” Young revealed that Nungesser had been cleared by the university of Sulkowicz’s accusations, and of similar accusations by two other women whose complaints were apparently encouraged by acquaintances sympathetic to Sulkowicz, and possibly by Sulkowicz herself. At Reason today, Young adds that accusations from a fourth accuser, a male who says Nungesser sexually assaulted him in 2011, also were found unreliable by the university. Keep in mind, the university adhered to a minimal preponderance-of-evidence standard, meaning not a single of Nungessser’s accusers could show that it was “more likely than not” that what they claim happened did, in fact, happen.

RELATED: Three Lawsuits Challenge the ‘Rape Crisis’ Storyline

Add to all of this Nungesser’s lawsuit against the university for failing to protect him from gender-based harassment, which includes transcripts of sexually explicit Facebook and text-message conversations between him and Sulkowicz, and the evidence in Nungesser’s favor is overwhelming.

The continued lionization of Sulkowicz has proven so instructive: It has made clear how utterly uninterested the feminist movement is in anything like an appeal to facts or common reason.

Which is why the continued lionization of Sulkowicz has proven so instructive: It has made clear how utterly uninterested the feminist movement is in anything like an appeal to facts or common reason. It is a happy coincidence that Sulkowicz herself may be the best example of exactly this phenomenon.

Following Young’s February article, feminist outlet Jezebel attempted to debunk her debunking. Young had noted that Sulkowicz originally agreed to annotate the transcript of the text messages she and Nungesser had exchanged, and then suddenly refused. Jezebel published the exchange between reporter and subject — and the result does not serve Sulkowicz well. Responding to an e-mail from Young she wrote:

I just want to understand one thing. You wrote, “unless of course they contain material that violates the privacy of a third party, which would have to be redacted.” Do you just mean that you would have to redact their names? You are unwilling to violate the privacy of a third party, yet you are willing to violate mine? If you are only publishing conversations that you have both parties’ consent to publish, I do not give you my consent to publish any of what he has sent you.

Lastly, about your deadline. If I don’t get this to you by tonight, you are just going to go ahead and publish what you have? I may need more than a day to complete this. This is not easy work for me. How dare you put a deadline on the moment at which you violate my privacy and carve out my private life in order to gain publicity for your website. I think that is despicable. (Emphasis added.)

Later, Sulkowicz wrote to Jezebel:

I have already been violated by both Paul and Columbia University once. It is extremely upsetting that Paul would violate me again — this time, with the help of a reporter, Cathy Young. I just wanted to fix the problem of sexual assault on campus — I never wanted this to be an excuse for people to dig through my private Facebook messages and frame them in a way as to cast doubt on my character. It’s unfair and disgusting that Paul and Cathy would treat personal life as a mine that they can dig through and harvest for publicity and Paul’s public image.

Has it never occurred to Sulkowicz or her defenders that, as rape is a serious matter, accusing someone of rape is also serious? And that to go public with life-altering accusations is by definition to submit one’s own private life to scrutiny? That seems unlikely. Far more likely is that they simply wish it were otherwise, and so pretend that it is. What Sulkowicz wants is to make claims about another person that cannot be challenged, checked, questioned, or doubted.

RELATED: Fighting Against ‘Rape Culture’ Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

Has it never occurred to Sulkowicz or her defenders that, as rape is a serious matter, accusing someone of rape is also serious?

That was the substance, if not the style, of her address in April to a group of Brown University students marking Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The speech, live-tweeted by students in attendance, included alarming, Jezebel-worthy taglines — “If we use proof in rape cases,” said Sulkowicz, “we fall into the patterns of rape deniers.” Yet it also trafficked in high-sounding maxims composed of that mélange of pseudo-academic, quasi-mystical jargon that passes today for profundity: “In saying I expose the truth, the viewer superimposes their truth upon mine, and once again silences me.” “Well-meaning people on the street will touch me reverently. . . . They do not believe they are violating me with their hands.” “When people engage in believing in me, they objectify me.”

With such aperçus Sulkowicz was not making an effort to say anything of substance, but rather to stifle speech — to put a “transcendent” gloss on her claims and, in so doing, to elevate accusations like her own out of the realm of reasoned consideration. When she can’t do that — for instance, in e-mails with dogged reporters — she resorts to outrage.

RELATED: Campus Rape and the ‘Emergency’: It’s Always an Excuse for Authoritarianism

It’s fortuitous, then, in a grim way, that the feminist Left found Emma Sulkowicz. As a response to the horrific selfishness of rape, feminists have increasingly embraced their own, intellectual selfishness, a uniquely destructive brand of have-it-all-ism that rejects responsibility for anything beyond one’s own feeling of victimization and Sulkowicz is their pitiable poet.

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

[Editors Note: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Cathy Young was the first reporter to interview Paul Nungesser. The New York Times profiled Nungesser in December 2014.]

Ian Tuttle — Ian Tuttle is the former Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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