The Smearing of ‘Carry That Weight’ Activist Emma Sulkowicz Begins

The Daily Beast’s Cathy Young has published an in-depth interview with Paul Nungesser, the alleged assaulter of Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz. Sulkowicz’s Carry That Weight art project — in which she toted a mattress around campus to protest the school’s treatment of her case —  has brought her a measure of fame, as well as accolades from anti-rape activists. New York Senator Kristen Gillibrand even brought Sulkowicz as her guest to last month’s State of the Union.

The Daily Beast story uses screen-capped Facebook messages to demonstrate that Sulkowicz may have remained friendly, even affectionate, with Nungesser after the dates of the alleged assault. As a result, it wasn’t difficult for me to guess what the story’s kicker would be:

Yet this case is far from as clear-cut as much of the media coverage has made it out to be. And if Nungesser is not a sexual predator, he could be seen as a true victim: a man who has been treated as guilty even after he has proved his innocence.

Something tells me that the phrase “true victim” has been waiting in the wings the whole time. Sulkowicz’s growing fame, combined with the strengthening power of the movement against campus assault, and the usual dictates of this type of conversation, ensured that her story would be up for the kind of scrutiny that no victim can withstand. Today the worst misogynists on social media are in a frenzy, having hijacked he #CarryThatWeight hashtag. They’re declaring that Sulkowicz is a liar, Gillibrand is a rogue, and worse, in (at best) unpleasant language.

Not one of these reactions in any way takes into account the wide range of behavior that is typical after assaults. Sulkowicz gave an interview to Julie Zeilinger at Mic that puts the Daily Beast “revelations” in simple context:

“Paul was one of my closest friends, and we had had consensual sex twice,” she says. “We used to tell each other we loved each other.” Furthermore, the messages in question are presented in a way meant to highlight the fact that Sulkowicz continued to contact Nungesser after the assault. This too should not be surprising.

After her assault, Sulkowicz’s reaction was to seek a conversation with her rapist. “I was upset and confused. … I wanted to have a talk with him to try to understand why he would hit me, strangle me and anally penetrate me without my consent,” she says. Sulkowicz’s response may not align with the perfect victim narrative, but it’s reflective of the fact that there is no one way to react to trauma.

The statistics inform us that this last assertion is true. Survivors often don’t report their rapes immediately. They stay in touch with their assailants, sometimes having sexual contact. They don’t always retain a clear memory of what happened, and they confuse details. They alter their stories to make themselves seem less complicit, less drunk, less pliable, because they know that uncomplicated innocence is what our society demands from its rape victims.

Individual experiences of victimhood in a rape culture are inherently subjective. Yet journalism and the law seek objective truths. Naturally, it’s hard to argue that this isn’t fair when the rights and reputations of the accused are also on the line.

But it remains near impossible, in this system we’ve set up, to do journalistic or legal due diligence without hanging victims out to dry. For instance, because of the legal hazards of reporting a rape, many of our most prominent journalists basically ignored Bill Cosby’s accusers for decades. That means that it’s likely Cosby was free to continue his predatory behavior, drugging and hurting women, for many years longer than he might have been had he been exposed.

Journalism — with its desire for a clear narrative, need for hard evidence, and search for objective truth carried out by flawed and biased individuals — mimics the criminal justice system. Right now, advocates are debating (fascinatingly) how campuses can modify their adjudication of rape complaints to make their approach less like that of the legal system, more fair to both sides, and more valuing of equality. I wonder if that’s a conversation journalists should be having about reporting rape stories, too.

Maya Dusenbery wrote eloquently about this subject in December:

It’s possible that so long as journalism insists on some fiction of objectivity and refuses to really own up to its bias, the full and awful truth of sexual violence will continue to slip through its attempts to capture it. It’s possible the truth of sexual violence is too big — that it is too pervasive, too normalized within the culture, too deeply embedded in our most intimate relationships — to be counted by journalism’s statistics and illustrative anecdotes. It’s possible that the truth of sexual violence is too messy to fit within journalism’s narrative preference for perfect victims and villains.

We cannot throw ethics, and the need for rigor and fact-finding, out the window when talking about stories like Sulkowicz’s. Yet lengthy sit-downs with accused rapists will almost always serve the opposite cause: to muddy the truth, to give fodder to those who seek to smear victims, and to make more victims afraid to speak out.

It’s a no-win situation. I keep thinking that Sulkowicz’s powerful art project probably reaches far closer to the truth of what a rape victim experiences than any of the profiles, negative or positive, that have been written about her since then.