After three Columbia University women filed complaints of sexual assault and rape against him, and one sparked a national movement after she began to to carry a 50-pound mattress to symbolize the burden she carries as a rape victim, the accused has spoken out publicly. The New York Times reports that Columbia senior Paul Nungesser, who has not been charged, maintains his innocence:
He says that he is innocent, and that the same university that found him “not responsible” has now abdicated its own responsibility, letting mob justice overrule its official procedures. The mattress project is not an act of free expression, he adds; it is an act of bullying, a very public, very personal and very painful attack designed to hound him out of Columbia. And it is being conducted with the university’s active support. “There is a member of the faculty that is supervising this,” he said. “This is part of her graduation requirement.”
Senior Emma Sulkowicz, whose mattress project doubles as an art performance piece for her senior arts thesis, came forward publicly in 2014. She claims that Nungesser physically assaulted her and then raped her during her sophomore year. Another woman has also claimed that he groped her at a party and that she had to push him off. A third woman said that he was emotionally and physically abusive during their monthslong relationship. They filed charges at the same time:
Mr. Nungesser said the charges against him, all filed within days of one another, were the result of collusion. The three women said in interviews with The New York Times that they decided to take action when they heard about one another’s experiences.
Nungesser claims that he was raised “feminist,” explaining, “and I’m someone who would like to think of myself as being supportive of equal rights for women.”
However, at the same time, he also dismissed one of the accuser’s claims — who said she experienced “intimate partner violence” at his hands — with victim-blaming logic:
As for groping, he says he attended the party but never went upstairs. And intimate partner violence? “Outside of a forced marriage or kidnapping, it just seems very hard to believe that a person would over and over again put themselves in a situation where they could expect this kind of behavior to occur.”
The article illustrates how complex cases of sexual assault on college campuses are; while false rape accusations do happen, they are rare. But the three instances of assault brought forth by the women were hard to prove, and the university was poorly equipped to handle the claims:
The groping case was initially decided against him, with a largely symbolic punishment of “disciplinary probation,” but he appealed. By the time the case was heard again his accuser had graduated and was unable, she said, to participate in the process. The decision was overturned. The university dropped the intimate partner violence charge after that accuser, saying she was exhausted by the barrage of questions, stopped answering emails over summer vacation. And in Ms. Sulkowicz’s case, the hearing panel found that there was not enough evidence. Her request for an appeal was denied.
To Mr. Nungesser’s accusers, the refusal to punish him in any way — as well as the myriad procedural errors, delays, contradictions and humiliations, both small and large, to which the women said they were subjected — is proof that the system was biased against them. If three separate complaints against the same man could not persuade the hearing panels, how could anyone believe that justice was served?
When the Times contacted Columbia’s president Lee C. Bollinger about the article, he said only this:
The law and principles of academic freedom allow students to express themselves on issues of public debate; at the same time, our legal and ethical responsibility is to be fair and impartial in protecting the rights and accommodating the concerns of all students in these matters.
(Photo: HuffPo College)