When the media narrative doesn’t match corroborated evidence: Part Infinity
Remember Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia student who’s carrying her mattress around as long as her alleged rapist is allowed to remain on campus?
Her alleged rapist is speaking out.
Sulkowicz made national headlines with her harrowing tale of a consensual sexual encounter turned rape. After her alleged rapist was cleared by Columbia’s internal justice system, Sulkowicz filed a police report with the NYP, but chose not to pursue the matter through the actual justice system saying she’d heard they’d mishandled cases, she didn’t feel safe or comfortable chatting with them, and she was displeased by how long it would take for her case to get to court.
Her accused rapist, Paul Nungesser, shared his story exclusively with The Daily Beast in what they’re describing as, “dramatically at odds with the prevailing media narrative.”
This story, partly backed by materials made public here for the first time and corroborated by a former Columbia graduate student who played a secondary role in the disciplinary process, is dramatically at odds with the prevailing media narrative. On one point, however, Nungesser and his supporters agree with the pro-Sulkowicz camp: A grave injustice has been done.
Nungesser and Sulkowicz had a long-term, platonic, but sometime sexual relationship for quite some time before the alleged rape occurred.
That platonic friendship included several sleepovers in Sulkowicz’s room—one of which, he says, eventually turned into a make-out session and ended in sex.
“The next morning, we had a talk about it and we both felt that it was not really a good idea,” says Nungesser, explaining that they didn’t want to risk their friendship. Four or five weeks later, he says, there was another sleepover that led to another sexual encounter, another talk, and another decision to move on—soon after which the two parted ways for the summer break.
After a summer of affectionate and often intimate Facebook chats (screenshots of which Nungesser, who has since deactivated all of his social-media accounts, provided to The Daily Beast), Nungesser and Sulkowicz returned to Columbia in late August and saw each other at an end-of-summer party for COÖP leaders. As the party was wrapping up, they started talking in the courtyard, then began to hug and kiss and ended up going back to Sulkowicz’s dorm room—at her invitation, according to Nungesser. He says he had consumed two mixed drinks and was “buzzed, but not intoxicated or anything.” (Sulkowicz has previously described him as “drunk” during the incident.)
While Sulkowicz has always said that they started out having consensual sex, her account diverges drastically from Nungesser’s at this point. According to Sulkowicz, he suddenly and brutally assaulted her, then picked up his clothes and left without a word, leaving her stunned and shattered on the bed. According to Nungesser, they briefly engaged in anal intercourse by mutual agreement, then went on to engage in other sexual activity and fell asleep. He says that he woke up early in the morning and went back to his own room while Sulkowicz was still sleeping.
Sulkowicz has said in interviews that she was too embarrassed and ashamed to talk to anyone about the rape, let alone report it; an account of her mattress protest by New York Times art critic Roberta Smith says that she “suffered in silence” in the aftermath of the assault. Yet Nungesser says that for weeks after that night, he and Sulkowicz maintained a cordial relationship, and says she seemingly never indicated that anything was amiss.
Following the encounter in question, they remained in friendly correspondence:
Nungesser provided The Daily Beast with Facebook messages with Sulkowicz from August, September, and October 2012. (In an email to The Daily Beast, Sulkowicz confirmed that these records were authentic and not redacted in any way; while she initially offered to provide “annotations” explaining the context on the messages, she then emailed again to say that she would not be sending them.) On Aug. 29, two days after the alleged rape, Nungesser messaged Sulkowicz on Facebook to say, “Small shindig in our room tonight—bring cool freshmen.” Her response:
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
On Sept. 9, on a morning before an ADP meeting, it was Sulkowicz who initiated the Facebook contact, asking Nungesser if he wanted to “hang out a little bit” before or after the meeting and concluding with:
whatever I want to see yoyououoyou
respond—I’ll get the message on ma phone
On Oct. 3, Sulkowicz’s birthday, Nungesser sent her an effusive greeting; she responded the next morning with, “I love you Paul. Where are you?!?!?!?!” Nungesser claims that these exchanges represent only a small portion of their friendly communications, which also included numerous text messages. But he also says that during those weeks, they were starting to drift apart; they saw each other at meetings and parties, but plans for one-on-one get-togethers always seemed to end in “missed connections.” Nungesser says that he assumed it was simply a matter of hanging out with a new crowd and, in Sulkowicz’s case, being in a new relationship. He says that “it was very amiable; nothing was changed or different or weird or anything in her behavior.” (To be sure, many rape victims’ advocates would argue that women traumatized by sexual violence, especially by someone they trusted and cared about, may deal with trauma in ways that don’t make sense to an observer.)
So we have two different sides of a story, nothing too terribly unusual there (other than the Facebook messages and text messages to corroborate Nungegsser’s story), but this is where things start to deviate further:
After the winter break, in early 2013, Nungesser sent Sulkowicz two brief Facebook messages (one of them saying, ‘tu me manques’—French for ‘I miss you’) to which she did not respond. Then, he says, she texted him in March and suggested getting together, and they made tentative plans on which she did not follow up. Nungesser says he was not unduly alarmed, since such things had happened before.
In an email to The Daily Beast, Sulkowicz said that by the time of that exchange, she had already visited the Office of Gender-Based Misconduct to report Nungesser. “They asked me if I’d ever ‘tried talking it out’ with Paul,” Sulkowicz wrote. “So, because they suggested it, I sent him a text message listing a few times during which I would be free and said that I was ready to talk. However, when he texted me back, it hit me that there was no way I could meet him one-on-one somewhere. It triggered so much pain and fear that I couldn’t bring myself to text him back.”
Columbia’s Title IX coordinator, Melissa Rooker, did not comment directly on Sulkowicz’s case but pointed The Daily Beast to the school’s Gender-Based Misconduct Policy for Students, which states that the office never recommends informal resolution for sexual-assault complaints.
And that’s when the ball dropped and Nungesser was blind sided with formal allegations of rape.
Even before the investigation began, the charge had immediate consequences. Nungesser was placed on restricted access to university buildings other than his own dorm; these “interim measures” made it extremely difficult to continue in his campus job as an audiovisual technician (especially since he was not allowed to explain why he was under these restrictions) and to attend the counseling sessions he had started. Meanwhile, it became obvious that despite confidentiality rules, news of the accusation was spreading: Within a few days, Nungesser says he was being conspicuously shunned by many fellow students.
On April 29, Nungesser was startled to find in his inbox an email to the ADP listserv from a senior officer of the society announcing that a male ADP member and house resident had been accused of rape by a female member who was pressing charges within the university system. Saying that other members had said they “feel uncomfortable” around the accused, the ADP officer wrote, “separate from the case itself, the E[xecutive] Board believes that the male member has flagrantly violated his vows, disregarded his obligations as a Member, and has transgressed the rules of life—violations that calls (sic) for the immediate expulsion of the male undergraduate member.”
The ADP officer went on to say that the alleged offender would be offered a chance to resign voluntarily and that if he refused, a hearing would be held on his termination. In a follow-up email the next day, the officer reported that the accused had said the university was allowing him to stay at ADP, and concluded by acknowledging that “all members deserve due process, as well as an opportunity to tell their side of the story.” (The ADP officer did not respond to requests for comment on this article.)
On May 3, one day before the end of classes, Nungesser was given notice of two new complaints. One was from a former girlfriend who was alleging that he had emotionally and sexually abused her for the duration of that relationship. The other one was from a fellow resident at ADP, a senior who claimed that over a year earlier, in April 2012, he had followed her upstairs during a house party after offering to help her get more beer to restock the bar, then grabbed her and tried to kiss her. Due to the second complaint, the Office of Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct sent Nungesser an email instructing him to vacate his room at ADP the next day “to ensure the safety of all the parties involved in this matter” and move to another dorm for the brief remainder of the school year.
With three women accusing him of sexual assault, he returned to Germany for the summer, uncertain of his future at Columbia.
Yet by the end of the year, he had been cleared by all charges. To Nungesser and his parents, who helped hire a criminal attorney for him and stood by his side throughout the process, this outcome is a victory for justice.
Three separate accusations were dismissed, yet that never made its way into headlines. Rather, the media focus was Sulkowicz’s mattress parade.
Even more concerning about the multiple allegations is that they were proven to be false accusations. Nungesser was judged in the court of public opinion because of what appear to be patently false accusations. He was hounded by the press and his peers. Meanwhile, Sulkowicz was praised for her bravery and artistic expression. And the compulsion to vilify the accused, in spite of evidence to the contrary, has yet another notch on its belt.
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