If you haven’t heard of the “mattress girl,” it’s not for lack of trying among liberal opinion-shapers. Emma Sulkowicz, who dragged a blue mattress around Columbia University’s campus in 2014 to dramatize her plight as a rape victim, was profiled sympathetically in New York magazine, the New York Times, and other publications. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) invited her to attend one of President Obama’s State of the Union speeches. Artnet pronounced her mattress stunt (for which Columbia awarded her course credit as an art project) “one of the most important art works of the year,” and she was honored by the Feminist Majority Foundation and other groups.
Her story is this: A consensual sexual encounter with a male student named Paul Nungesser suddenly turned violent. Without warning, he choked her, struck her, and anally penetrated her while she cried out in pain.
Such things do happen. In the course of researching a book due out next year, I’ve spoken to dozens of college students. Every single one knows someone who has been raped. Some know more than one. And the list of colleges that have disciplined or expelled students for rape or sexual assault is long. Some college students have been criminally prosecuted, and rightly so.
We can debate why sexual misconduct and rape have become such pressing problems (spoiler alert: it has everything to do with the sexual revolution and hook-up culture), but facts are stubborn things, and it has become clear that in Sulkowicz’s case, Nungesser, not she, was almost certainly the victim.
Sulkowicz filed charges with the university and the New York police. (She later alleged that the New York police mistreated her.) Both investigated. Both declined to take action against him. It was then that Sulkowicz undertook her mattress performance as an attempt to brand Nungesser a rapist and drive him from Columbia. He was shunned and anathematized. As Cathy Young reported in Reason magazine, Sulkowicz launched a full-on harassment campaign.
In the summer of 2014, other students and a professor pressured Nungesser to drop out of a scholarship-paid class trip to Russia, Mongolia, and China. That October, on a “Day of Action’”against sexual assault, several mattress-toting activists showed up in one of his classes, where they stared at him and took his picture. Keyboard warriors in the social media urged making his life “a living hell” and sometimes called for violent retaliation.
Nungesser finished his degree, but he also supplied evidence to Young that undermines the case against him — evidence that was not even admitted to the tribunal that cleared him. Nungesser produced Facebook messages the two exchanged within 48 hours of the alleged rape. In one, Nungesser invited her to a “small shindig” in his room and asked her to “bring cool freshmen.” She replied “lol yussss. i’ll be over w da females soon. Also I feel like we need to have some real time where we can talk about life and thingz because we still haven’t really had a paul-emma chill sesh since summmmerrrr.” Ten days later, she texted him “whatever I want to see yoyououoyou. Respond — I’ll get the message on ma phone.” After he sent her an effusive message on her birthday, she responded, “I love you Paul. Where are you?!?!?!?!”
Sulkowicz has dined out on dubious victimhood for years.
On July 17, Columbia settled a lawsuit Nungesser had filed. While the details are confidential, the university issued a statement acknowledging that “after the conclusion of the [sexual misconduct] investigation, Paul’s remaining time at Columbia became very difficult for him and not what Columbia would want any of its students to experience. . . . Columbia will continue to review and update its policies toward ensuring that every student — accuser and accused, including those like Paul who are found not responsible — is treated respectfully and as a full member of the Columbia community.” Nungesser’s parents told Newsweek that they felt vindicated after what they described as a “four-year effort” to clear his name.
It has become a feminist catechism that women must be “believed” when they make accusations of rape. As the University of Montana tells incoming freshmen, “almost no one lies.” But of course they do. The woman who spun the lurid tale to Rolling Stone about being gang-raped at the University of Virginia invented every detail. The Duke lacrosse players were falsely accused. So were the Scottsboro boys.
Again, this doesn’t mean all accusations are false or malicious, nor is every case of alleged sexual misconduct merely a matter of “regretted sex.” But Sulkowicz has dined out on dubious victimhood for years, and it’s high time she was discredited.