Sulkowicz is born in New York, to Sandra Leong and Kerry Sulkowicz, psychiatrists from Manhattan. She is of Chinese, Japanese and Jewish descent.
Sulkowicz attends Dalton school, an exclusive and prestigious private school on the upper east side of Manhattan, where she is an A student and competitive fencer. She enjoys physics greatly and considers completing a physics major in college.
At Columbia, Sulkowicz plans to study mechanical physics but ends up studying visual arts instead. She joins Alpha Delta Phi (ADP), Columbia’s co-ed “hipster frat”. As she puts it:
Only the most hipster of the hipster kids can get in.
Sulkowicz and Nungesser, a film fanatic and rower, meet at the fraternity.
He was a nice person; a cool person who was secretly really crazy.
Nungesser and Natalie (pseudonym) start a relationship. Natalie claims she felt emotionally and sexually exploited during the relationship, but was unable to identify it as abuse. She says she was suffering from serious depression before meeting Nungesser and had recently ended an emotionally abusive relationship. She would later wonder whether he used her vulnerability to manipulate her. She claims Nungesser often forcefully pinned her arms back against the mattress during sex; Natalie would cry during and after they slept together. Not until months after their break up did Natalie claim to recognize this as non-consensual intercourse. Later, after Sulkowicz’s alleged rape, Natalie and Sulkowicz meet at a party, and they both decide to make formal complaints.
I knew if no one punished him, he would keep on raping women… If I didn’t report it, he would keep harming people for the rest of his time on campus. He had to be stopped. That’s why I decided to report it.
During their freshman year, Sulkowicz and Nungesser’s friendship deepens. According to Nungesser’s later suit against Columbia, even before they have a sexual relationship, Sulkowicz brings up the topic of anal sex:
ES: Fuck me in the butt
PN: ehm, maybe not? jk I miss your face tho
ES: ahahah. you don t miss my lopsided ass?
PN: I do, just not that much
Later, Sulkowicz claims her comment is taken out of context.
Back in freshman year, I used to say the phrase ‘Fuck me in the butt’ to mean ‘OMG, that’s sooo annoying’. We all said stupid shit freshman year. Over time, I worked that kink out of my lexicon, but now and then I still say stupid things. We all say stupid things!
The relationship progresses to “friends with benefits”. In the spring of 2012 they have sex twice, the second time, according to Nungesser, includes anal sex, which Nungesser has not experienced before. Sulkowicz said she had tried before with other men and enjoyed it.
One of the main reasons their relationship does not become deeper was that Sulkowicz had previously been having sex with Nungesser’s close friend, known as John Doe. While Nungesser is back home in Germany for the summer, she messages him that she had tested positive for an STD (Chlamydia) after having having drunken sex at a party with John Doe, and his best friend Joe.
I’ve officially had sex with all of John Doe’ best friends. . . – did lotsa drugs -jk -just got very drunk – well anyways – now i have an std-i actually hate John Doe like if a girl is about to puke – don’ tput your unprotected dick into her. . . I realy don’t want to be known as the girl who contracted an std because she was drunk you know? it is more his fault for f-cking me unconscious – i mean i was conscious but clearly not in my right mind. . . i was literally blackout. . . like i puked all over the place.
From May 2012 through August of 2012 Sulkowicz sends many Facebook messages to Nungesser, expressing her love for him.
“Paul I wuv you so much. Please stay w me foevah” – “paul I miss you so much” – “like u know when you tell people you miss them and you don’t really mean it? – i actually mean it – i miss you so much – ahhh” – “pookie – i miss you” – “I LOVE YOU – SO MUCH” – “I MISS YOU MORE THAN ANYTHING – “I love youuuu” – “and l would LOVE to have you here – omg – we could snuggle” -“PAUL I MISS YOU PAUL I MISS YOU PAUL I MISS YOU” – PAULLL” – “DUDE I MISS YOU SO MUCH” “I love you Paul “
Josie (a pseudonym) is allegedly assaulted by Nungesser when she is bartending a party during her junior year at Columbia. She says she went upstairs to bring down more beer to restock the bar. Nungesser is drunk and follows her. She hadn’t asked him to join her, but his offer to help retrieve the PBR seemed friendly enough.
Paul followed me upstairs at a party, came into a room with me uninvited, closed the door behind us, and grabbed me. I politely said, “Hey, no, come on, let’s go back downstairs.” He didn’t listen. He held me close to him as I said no, and continued to pull me against him. I pushed him off and left the room quickly. I told a few friends and my boyfriend at the time how creepy and weird it was. I tried to find excuses for his behavior. I did a decent job of pushing it out of my mind.
She tells some close friends how unnerved she was, and writes it off as creepy, drunken aggression. Nungesser leaves her alone after that night.
I wasn’t emotionally scarred or anything. I’m used to people grabbing my ass in bars—that’s the shitty state of the world today. Honestly, I didn’t even think it was a reportable offense covered by the misconduct policy.
According to a later police report, Sulkowicz claims that when she and Nungesser start to have consensual sex he hits her across the face, chokes her, and pushes her knees onto her chest and leans on her knees to keep them up. He then grabs her wrists and penetrates her anally. Sulkowicz tells Nungesser to stop, but he does not. She struggles with him and tries to push his arms away, but he keeps going and suddenly stops without ejaculating. Nungesser claims in his later suit that he and Sulkowicz engaged in consensual sex, including vaginal and anal sex, followed by oral intercourse.
On Sulkowicz’s birthday, Nungesser sends Sulkowicz a message:
oh hai happy born day you better be celebrating muchos, no? donde estas tu i mi viva – see i’m so desperate with out you, i even try to speak spanish – anywho: merry happy days
She responds the next morning:
I love you Paul. Where are you?!?!?!?!
Nungesser claims they start to drift apart; they see each other at meetings and parties, but plans to get together alone never come to anything. Nungesser says he assumed it was simply a matter of hanging out with a new crowd and, due to Sulkowicz being in a new relationship. He claims the drift is:
Very amiable; nothing was changed or different or weird or anything in her behavior.
Nungesser is the cameraman for a short film, A Certain Tendency, a story about a Korean girl coming to terms with life at an American university.
Sulkowicz reports the alleged rape to Columbia’s Office of Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct. Nungesser:
My first reaction was, ‘It has to be a misunderstanding’. Maybe she meant a different guy, or something completely strange happened.
Nungesser is placed on restricted access to university buildings other than his own dorm, making it difficult to fulfill his duties as an audiovisual technician. He claims that within a few days, despite confidentiality rules, he starts to be shunned by fellow students.
Natalie reports Nungesser to Student Services for Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct under “intimate partner violence” and “non-consensual sexual intercourse. Within days specially trained investigators designated by the Assistant Director of Student Services for Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct, begin to gather “pertinent documentation materials” from both respondent and complainant. This information includes interviews and communications such as text messages and emails relating to the alleged assault. Interviews are also conducted with friends of the students. Natalie says of the interview process:
She [the investigator] would write things down that were abbreviations of what I said. Things that weren’t correct. It didn’t come out coherently. It didn’t sound like a strong case.
She claims Student Services never contacted a friend with whom she had discussed the alleged abuse during their relationship. Exhausted from final exams and moving out of her dorm for the summer vacation, Natalie tells Student Services she isn’t in the best mental or emotional space to represent herself and would rather push the hearing until after she had time to recuperate over vacation. When asked to review and comment on Nungesser’s statement, she says she cannot, and refuses the investigators request for her to mark X in the margins where she disagrees with his account. She then stops returning the investigators calls and emails, assuming that the case would continue in the following school year. Later she receives a mail from the investigator, saying the investigation has been closed.
Based on the information available from the investigation, there is not sufficient information to indicate that reasonable suspicion exists to believe that a policy violation occurred.
One day before the end of classes, Nungesser receives two new accusations. The first is from Natalie, a former girlfriend alleging he had emotionally and sexually abused her for the duration of that relationship. The second is from Josie, who claims that in April 2012, he had tried to kiss her at a party. Josie had written off the incident as drunken aggression, but after a mutual friend of hers and Nungesser’s tells her that he was participating in a hearing panel related to sexual assault, she contacts the Office of Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct. She says she remembered thinking:
What if I wasn’t as tall and strong as I am? What if I was really drunk? Those ideas made me very scared for other women.
The Office sends 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 few remaining days of the school year.
Columbia decides that Nungesser is “not responsible” for any assault on Sulkowicz. Sulkowicz claims the university investigator had taken inaccurate and incomplete notes, that the man she had accused had been granted months of postponements and that she had been warned, repeatedly, that she could not discuss the case with anyone.
I’ve never felt more shoved under the rug in my life.
She says she struggled to respond to a panelist who seemed to believe that anal sex without lubrication is impossible.
[They] kept asking me to explain the position I was in. At one point, I was like, ‘Should I just draw you a picture?’ So I drew a stick drawing.
She says Nungesser testified that she had imagined that he had coerced her. She says Nungesser told the panel that if Sulkowicz is a fencer she would have strong legs, so as a lightweight rower he could not have pinned her legs down. He claimed the sex was consensual and that he ejaculated on Sulkowicz, who grabbed a tissue, wiped the ejaculate off, and “ ‘threw the tissue away’.
None of which is true—he never came that night. He just stopped and ran away.
On the decision, Sulkowicz:
I didn’t even cry at first. I don’t know. Has anything ever happened to you that was just so bad that you felt like you became a shell of a human being?
Columbia decides, on appeal, that Nungesser is ‘not responsible” for sexual assault on Josie. Josie had claimed that Nungesser had followed her and tried to kiss her at a party. Initially the University finds Nungesser responsible, and he receives a “disciplinary probation” sanction, a warning that further violation of University policies will likely result in more serious disciplinary action. Josie:
It didn’t change that something shitty happened to me or that he’s walking around. But it did feel good that the system worked…And then the feeling when they were listening to his appeal and they gave it to him was the worst feeling in the world.
When Nungesser asks for an appeal, Josie declines to participate due to work conflicts. The University decides Nungesser is “not responsible”. The University sends her Paul’s letter by accident.
We were unable to determine that it was more likely than not that you engaged in behavior that meets the definition of sexual assault: non-consensual sexual contact. Therefore, the charge has been dismissed.
I was surprised that they listened to the appeal; I was not surprised that they overturned it. I wasn’t there. My testimony was not included. It was different panelists.
Sulkowicz is one of 23 students who are part of a federal Title IX complaint filed against Columbia in April for mishandling sexual-assault cases. The allegations in the 100-page complaint include that the University treats survivors and alleged perpetrators unequally, perpetrators are allowed to remain on campus, students are discouraged from reporting sexual assault, LGBTQ students face discrimination in counseling, advising, adjudication, and Greek life, students do not receive accommodations based on mental health disabilities, and sanctions for perpetrators are too lenient.
A list of “sexual assault violators” is written on the walls of various womens’ bathrooms on the Columbia campus. While the names are redacted in the reports, it is believed that Nungesser’s name is one of those mentioned. The messages are repeated over several days, titled “Rapists on Campus.” All names are written in the same style this time, suggesting a single author, and include the names of a big campus DJ, an athlete training for the Olympics, and a male student who worked at the Bwog, a campus news blog. Sulkowicz says she does not know who was behind the graffiti, but that the list includes the name of the man who had assaulted her.
I think that it’s important for people to know the names, because it’s a matter of safety
And also comments a few days later:
The fact that the University sends Public Safety to tape down the bathrooms—I think that’s a stifling of sorts. For other graffiti they wouldn’t tape the bathroom down. If it were a drawing of a smiley face, they wouldn’t do that.
Sulkowicz reports Nungesser to the police. This is the first public mention of Nungesser’s name. She says that she didn’t want to report her attack to the police because she was embarrassed and ashamed of what had happened to her.
When it first happened, I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t even tell my parents. … I didn’t even want to talk to my best friend….I realized that if I didn’t report him he’d continue to attack women on this campus. I had to do it for those other women. I understand if it’s too late, but I really hope he does [get charged].
Sulkowicz says she felt badly mistreated by the officers who came to her residence to take her statement. Because she and Nungesser had had consensual sex twice before he allegedly assaulted her, Sulkowicz said the police were dismissive of what she had to say.
There’s a reason survivors choose not to go to the police, and that’s because they’re treated as the criminals. The rapists are innocent until proven guilty but survivors are guilty until proven innocent, at least in the eyes of the police. [The officer] emphasized certain things, like the fact that I had consented earlier on in the night. And I said, ‘Yeah, but then he [Nungesser] started strangling me and I definitely didn’t consent to that’.
She says that the officer who had taken her statement dismissed her account to friends who had accompanied her to a follow-up interview at the station:
They told me he said stuff like, ‘Of all of these cases, 90 percent are bullshit, so I don’t believe your friend for a second.
In an article written for Time, Sulkowicz talks habout the alleged rape, the circumstances of the hearing, and her criticisms of Columbia’s processes:
Every day, I am afraid to leave my room. Even seeing people who look remotely like my rapist scares me. Last semester I was working in the dark room in the photography department. Though my rapist wasn’t in my class, he asked permission from his teacher to come and work in the dark room during my class time. I started crying and hyperventilating. As long as he’s on campus with me, he can continue to harass me.
I’ve lost friends because some people just don’t understand what it means to be raped. One friend asked me if I thought that my rapist would be expelled from school. I said, “I really hope so.” And he said, “Poor guy” because I think many men see rape as kinky sex that went wrong. They say girls are confusing and it’s hard to tell when you’re supposed to stop. When I was raped, I was screaming “no” and struggling against him. It was obviously not consensual, but he was turned on by my distress.
I think the school is pressured to find him not guilty because up until now Columbia could just push these things under the rug and no one would know. But that means the Columbia administration is harboring serial rapists on campus. They’re more concerned about their public image than keeping people safe.
After seeking guidance from visual arts professor Kessler over the summer, Sulkowicz starts carrying her mattress wherever she goes on Campus.
Rape can happen anywhere. I was raped in my own dorm bed, and since then that’s become fraught for me. And I feel like I carry the weight of what happened there with me everywhere…For my senior thesis I will be doing a piece called ‘Mattress Performance’ or “Carry that Weight’ where I will be carrying this dorm room mattress everywhere I go for as long as I attend the same school as my rapist.
Carrying around your university bed—which was also the site of your rape—is an amazingly significant and poignant and powerful symbol. I felt I had something to offer in terms of how artists have done endurance performance pieces in the past, and the connection between activism and performance…The best art comes from a very personal place and from personal commitment and belief—otherwise you’re just doing an assignment…As a physical metaphor, the piece has tremendous power.
Sulkowicz is interviewed in New York magazine’s The Cut section. She talks about the mattress project, her alleged rape, and the reaction so far:
Physically, I’m really sore. The reporter response has been really aggressive and not what I expected. It is a sensitive subject, and I can’t be accosted in the middle of campus to talk about it. One guy, while I was carrying the mattress, he just opened up my backpack and threw his business card in, which was a real violation of my space and made me really upset and triggered a lot of memories of being raped.
On the student response:
So far students I have never met before have helped me carry it. As I was walking across campus last night I heard someone shout, “Go, Emma!” and I’ve gotten such an overwhelming positive response on the internet. One girl seems to be organizing some sort of website that will allow students to organize and figure out how to help me carry it to all my classes.
On the perception of the protest:
In the news, people have been calling my piece a protest, and just ignoring the fact it is not really a protest but a performance-art piece. Yes, I would like for my rapist to get kicked out of school, but I realize that the university is so stubborn that it may never happen and I may be carrying this mattress for a while.
She also claims to have dropped the police action:
It got transferred to the district attorney’s office, and I decided I didn’t want to pursue it any further because they told it me it would take nine months to a year to actually go to court, which would be after I graduated and probably wanting to erase all of my memories of Columbia from my brain anyway, so I decided not to pursue it.
Sulkowicz’s parents make a statement, supporting their daughter and criticizing what they see as Columbia’s lack of action:
If Columbia remains passive in the face of Emma’s suffering, and does not attempt to rectify the injustice done to her, survivors at Columbia will feel discouraged from entrusting themselves to the system that Columbia has recently worked so hard at putting into place.
Emma’s performance piece, “Carry That Weight,” has galvanized forces around the world for gender equality, sexual assault policy reform, and empowerment of the disenfranchised, and has received praise from the art world. Needless to say, we are proud…However, as Emma’s parents, we do not want her recent celebrity to be a distraction from the fact that the University’s failure to place sanctions on the man she reported for rape, Jean-Paul Nungesser, CC ’15, is a cause of her continued suffering. The investigation, hearing, and appeals process that followed her complaint to the University were painfully mishandled. We feel that they violated standards of impartiality, fairness, and serious attention to the facts of the case.
If Columbia does not act to expel him before then, their graduation will not relieve Columbia of the burden of this episode. Instead, in this important moment in the history of sexual assault on college campuses, Columbia will remain indelibly in the public mind as the university where good men and women did nothing.
Abramovic declares her support for Sulkowicz, and expresses interest in working with her in the future.
Many people don’t have the willpower to stick to something no matter what, and that’s what she’s doing.
Hundreds of students carry 28 mattresses and leave them at the door of Bollinger’s home, in a protest organized by No Red Tape, an anti-rape campus group whose members wear red X’s and stickers urging passers by to “Imagine a world without rape”. The mattresses bear slogans like “NO MORE” and “CARRY THAT WEIGHT”. Students:
The administration isn’t really paying attention to what’s important. They’re dancing around the issue, saying it’s not really Columbia’s problem but society in general’s. Though they’re the people who are not expelling the rapists.
As a trans man, I feel sometimes that … I need to be involved in the male part of it. The entire reason that assault happens is because of the attacker, not the victim.
In an article written for Time, Sulkowicz talks about what she is thankful for, including her family, boyfriend, and supporters:
My education. I learned about performance art in high school, whereas so many people will never know what it is. And, although Columbia betrayed me, I am thankful for how I’ve learned to think clearly and critically about my situation, and for the opportunity to collaborate with inspiring student activists and a wonderful art faculty and community there. Everyone who has believed in me. Everyone who has helped carry the mattress. Everyone who has carried mattresses in support around the world. Everyone who has stood up for themselves and spoken out. Everyone who has worked to end the silence. These are the people who make real change.
Sulkowicz attends President Obama’s State of The Union speech as Gillibrand’s guest. Gillibrand:
[Sulkowicz is] a woman of great courage who got no justice
Sometimes it takes a federal hand to make the colleges listen. I feel so excited. It’s a dream come true. The piece I am doing is not just based on Columbia. It’s based on all survivors’ experiences at every college, so I hope that when people think of my art piece they don’t think of it as just a Columbia piece. I hope they think of it as something that is meaningful to every person that’s ever been assaulted.
I am shocked to learn that Sen. Gillibrand is actively supporting Ms. Sulkowicz’s defamation campaign against me by providing her with a public forum in which to broadcast her grave allegation. By doing so, Sen. Gillibrand is participating in a harassment campaign against someone, who, for good reason, has been found innocent by all investigating bodies.
Sulkowicz says she was disappointed the president did not mention sexual assault on college campuses in his State of the Union speech.
I can’t say I was entirely surprised because since when has violence against women ever been a man’s issue? “I am not going to lie, I was let down because I felt like there were points in his speech where he could have brought it up. I was really hoping he would mention it, since the issue has been raised to a new level.
Just seeing the president in person was such a wild experience. And shaking John Kerry’s hand was also extremely surreal. He didn’t really know who I was, and even when Senator Gillibrand introduced me no one seemed to know who I was. But that’s okay.
In a feature story on The Daily Beast, Nungesser says he did not rape Sulkowicz. According to Sulkowicz, after starting consensual sex (their third sexual encounter), Nungesser suddenly and brutally assaulted her, then picked up his clothes and left without a word, leaving her stunned and shattered on the bed. However, 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. 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. He then describes a series of friendly texts made by Sulkowicz after the alleged incident (these are documented here, and have been included in the newsline at the appropriate points).
The Jezebel article also mentions that there is a fourth Nungesser victim, Adam, who says that he was close friends with Paul during his freshman year in 2011. Adam claims that, in the midst of an emotional conversation in Nungesser’s dorm room, he was pushed onto his bed and sexually assaulted. He claims that after much self-doubt and internal struggle, he finally reported this incident, first to a student society to which both he and Nungesser belonged and then in a formal complaint to the university in the fall of 2014.
Jezebel posts Sulkowicz’s rebuttal to the Facebook messages provided by Nungesser. Sulkowicz:
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.
This is why I have chosen to release the full conversation, plus the context in which things were said. I want people to have all the information so that they can make informed decisions for themselves, rather than seeing a redacted version of the conversation with bits and pieces picked out to make me look a certain way.
If I had a choice, no one would see my private Facebook messages at all. However, Paul and Cathy have put me in a position where I either do nothing, and they publish the conversation, or I take the lead and publish it on my own. It’s the only thing I can do to maintain a modicum of control over my private life, which becomes more public by the second, thanks to reporters who don’t treat me with respect.
Nungesser files suit against Columbia, saying that by allowing Sulkowicz to receive course credit for her protest, the school violated Title IX, a 1972 law mandating that federally funded education programs cannot discriminate against people based on sex. The suit alleges the university is complicit in allowing the harassment to commence, and did nothing to stop it, which according to the suit:
significantly damaged, if not effectively destroyed Paul Nungesser’s college experience, his reputation, his emotional well-being and his future career prospects.
The 54-page complaint includes more Facebook messages than were included in the Daily Beast article, including declarations of Sulkowicz’s love for Nungesser before and after the alleged rape. The lawsuit says Sulkowicz tried to get other women to accuse Nungesser of sexual assault, and that just days after Sulkowicz’s appeal was denied, she began getting advice from a publicist and Nungesser began being followed by the media. The accusers shared Nungesser’s name to a Columbia student reporter, and to the New York Post, despite a confidentiality agreement with Columbia. Nungesser’s lawyer:
Here, Columbia University, as an institution, was not only silent, but actively and knowingly supported attacks on Paul Nungesser, after having determined his innocence, legitimizing a fiction. Emma Sulkowicz is merely a footnote to this story, we already know that she cleverly crafted a story and rode it to celebrity on the back on [sic] someone found not responsible.
It’s ridiculous that Paul would sue not only the school but one of my past professors for allowing me to make an art piece. [It is] ridiculous that he would read it as a ‘bullying strategy,’ especially given his continued public attempts to smear my reputation, when really it’s just an artistic expression of the personal trauma I’ve experienced at Columbia.
Ten minutes after Nungesser’s graduation, Sulkowicz walks across Columbia College Class Day stage with her mattress, despite a provision barring large items that was added to administrative guidelines sent by email to seniors the day before the event.
Graduates should not bring into the ceremonial area large objects which could interfere with the proceedings or create discomfort to others in close, crowded spaces shared by thousands of people.
Nungesser’s lawyer says that Columbia’s acceptance of Sulkowicz’s graduation stunt was “absurd” and would help her client’s case.
This goes beyond mere facilitation; they have now granted a special exception
Bollinger does not shake Sulkowicz’s hand at the graduation ceremony. As Sulkowicz and her friends ascended the stage, Bollinger, who had been shaking the students’ hands, turned his back and picks up a water bottle. Ms. Sulkowicz leans over the mattress and tries to catch his eye, then straightens up and keeps walking, shrugging with her free hand. Sulkowicz:
I even tried to smile at him or look him in the eye, and he completely turned away. So that was surprising, because I thought he was supposed to shake all of our hands.
A spokesperson for Columbia denies the move was on purpose:
The mattress had been between Ms. Sulkowicz and Mr. Bollinger and that no snub was intended.
Nungesser’s parents make a statement about their son’s graduation.
Our son’s graduation should have been a joyous moment for our whole family. We are extremely proud of Paul for graduating, even more so because of the harassment campaign he was subjected to. For over two years, he had to fight false accusations and a public witch-hunt, even though Columbia and the NYPD exonerated him. At graduation, Columbia University again broke its own rules and afforded Emma Sulkowicz a special exception. It was the second devastating experience in just a few days: Last week, Columbia exhibited Emma Sulkowicz’s highly disturbing and extremely graphic drawings of our son publicly on campus…A university that bows to a public witch-hunt no longer deserves to be called a place of enlightenment, of intellectual and academic freedom. By failing to intervene in this injustice, Columbia ceases to be a place where critical thinking, courage and democratic practice are taught, learned and lived.
Nungesser is found “not responsible” for any sexual assault on Adam, his alleged male victim, due to contradictions within Adam’s account and to Facebook exchanges between the two men. Adam had alleged that during a private conversation between the two men, in response to “relationship troubles” between him and his then-girlfriend (the “Natalie” who would later accuse Nungesser of assault) Nungesser massaged Adam’s back and shoulder and then gently pushed him down and massaged his crotch for approximately two to three minutes, while he was frozen in shock. Nungesser said that there was no sexual contact between the two during this conversation.
Additionally, the Alpha Delta Phi officer known as “Leila” who testified on behalf of Adam is the same person who wrote an email to the ADP listserv calling for Nungesser’s resignation and allegedly encouraged other members to come forward against Nungesser. Investigators:
At the time of the Complainant’s initial disclosure, at least several of his close friends and co-fraternity members were engaged in a process intended to evict the Respondent from the fraternity house.
In an anonymous posting to Jezebel, one of Nungesser’s alleged victims tells more about her case and defends herself:
When I filed the complaint against Paul, I didn’t know it would turn into a national event. It was over a year before Emma started carrying that weight, months before what happened at Columbia helped sparked a national dialogue about rape on college campus. I was just trying to do the right thing.
The incident happened my junior year at Columbia, when Paul followed me upstairs at a party, came into a room with me uninvited, closed the door behind us, and grabbed me. I politely said, “Hey, no, come on, let’s go back downstairs.” He didn’t listen. He held me close to him as I said no, and continued to pull me against him. I pushed him off and left the room quickly. I told a few friends and my boyfriend at the time how creepy and weird it was. I tried to find excuses for his behavior. I did a decent job of pushing it out of my mind.
The anonymous student says that when Nungesser was given an appeal, she—having already graduated—withdrew from the process because she felt frustrated with “Columbia’s incompetence’ as the appeals process began.
Following the appearance of posters on Columbia campus calling both Dunham and and Sulkowicz liars, Dunham tweets her support:
Dear Emma, anyone who wants can call us anything they want, but you helped me to stand in my skin & I am so grateful: http://t.co/2H6dBzN6BX
— Lena Dunham (@lenadunham) May 21, 2015
After nine months Sulkowicz completes her performance art project, laying the mattress to rest in her parents living room, with the intent to later sell the art piece to a museum. With Nungesser and herself having both graduated, she says that she has no further use for the mattress.
I’m not going to just throw it away. It tells of all the times when things didn’t really go according to plan and all the f-cked-up things that happened. People think I was supposed to have this warlike relationship with it and it was supposed to be this object that I was angry with, but for me, that related to how people chose to read my piece rather than the way I lived with it … I have a scenario planned for the exhibition of my piece…If some sort of museum wants to buy it, then I’m open to that. But I’m not going to just throw it away.
Sulkowicz’s ideal scenario for exhibiting the piece includes the mattress, the collection of plastic bed-wetting sheets that protected it in the rain, instructions to re-create the “Rules of Engagement” she had painted on her studio wall, and a 59,000 word diary that tracked her experiences.
It [the diary] tells of all the times when things didn’t really go according to plan and all the f-cked-up things that happened. It’s the real record of the piece…To me, the piece has very much represented [the fact that] a guy did a horrible thing to me and I tried to make something beautiful out of it…I’ve had the most crazy two years of my life, so I’m ready to go incognito and try to make a life where not everyone is recognizing me. Maybe I’ll change my hair color.
Sulkowicz releases a website and video entitled, Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol (link). The eight-minute video, which is dated August 27, 2012 (the same day as her alleged rape) features Sulkowicz’s and an unidentified man, whose face is blurred, engaging in what appears to be consensual sex that turns violent. The man open-palm slaps Sulkowicz, chokes her, removes the condom, then continues to have rough sex with Sulkowicz, who whimpers and protests from pain.
Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol is not about one night in August, 2012. It’s about your decisions, starting now. It’s only a reenactment if you disregard my words. It’s about you, not him. Do not watch this video if your motives would upset me, my desires are unclear to you, or my nuances are indecipherable. You might be wondering why I’ve made myself this vulnerable. Look—I want to change the world, and that begins with you, seeing yourself. If you watch this video without my consent, then I hope you reflect on your reasons for objectifying me and participating in my rape, for, in that case, you were the one who couldn’t resist the urge to make Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol about what you wanted to make it about: rape. Please, don’t participate in my rape. Watch kindly.
Sulkowicz’s video is taken down by a DDos (Distributed Denial of service) attack, an attack that overloads the host server with connection requests. Digital Ocean:
We can confirm that there was a denial of service attack on Thursday. On Friday there was also a spike in outbound bandwidth coming from the website, likely due to a sudden increase in traffic and unrelated to the attack, so we worked with their web team to resolve the issue and their site is back up and running.
Sulkowicz also comments on her friends’ reaction to the video:
The trolls don’t upset me as much as when my friends don’t support it. I expect the trolls but to see my friends not support it [vocally] is upsetting.
Sulkowicz talks about her sex tape project to the art site.
Question: One of the things that really struck me about the text accompanying the video is when you write “You might be wondering why I’ve made myself this vulnerable…I want to change the world.” Is it that thinking that made you want to become an artist?
I don’t know that it’s why I want to be an artist, but it’s why I’m forced to be an artist. It’s more that being an artist is the only way I know how.
Question: Do you think that making yourself vulnerable is what it takes to change the world these days?
Question: Are you concerned at all about being stigmatized or pigeon-holed byMattress Performance?
Yeah, I mean, when people call me “Mattress Girl” I find that really infuriating. It’s like, okay great, so you think that I’ll never progress beyond that point. That I’ll be a “Mattress Girl” rather than a living, breathing person who has the ability to change.
After a claimed denial of service attack, that had kept the video offline for a few days, Sulcowicz reposts her sex tape video. This time, however, the date Aug 27, 2012 (the date of her alleged rape) is blurred out.
Both sides submit a letter (text) to the court summarizing the arguments they plan to raise in advance of a July 1 pre-trial hearing. Nungessers lawyer’s expand on their original claims, saying that despite Nuingesser being cleared by the University, Columbia did not curtail Sulkowicz’s activities, and actually honored her:
Emma’s time and indeed her academic work at Columbia has largely been defined by her part in the gender based anti-male discriminatory harassment campaign against Plaintiff Nungesser[;] these honors constitute yet another instant of Defendant Columbia directly rewarding, encouraging and celebrating Emma Sulkowicz’s role in the gender based discriminatory harassment.
They also say Columbia allowed Sulkowicz to display pornographic material that had Nungesser’s name attached to it in an art exhibition, and allowed Sulkowicz to carry the mattress to her (and Nungesser’s) graduation:
At the graduation ceremony, Emma Sulkowicz was given a special university privilege contrary to the rules by Defendant Columbia to carry the mattress to her and Plaintiff Nungesser’s graduation in another instance of Defendant Columbia perpetrated gender based discriminatory harassment of Plaintiff Nungesser
They also claim that Columbia allowed Sulkowicz to:
build a public persona surrounding her false allegations, which has led to the posting of videos and other proposed performances depicting Plaintiff Nungesser as a rapist.
Columbia’s attorneys do not rebut any of Nungesser’s claims, and while the school acknowledges that Sulkowicz’s campus activism made her a major figure in the sexual assault debate, it claims she was an independent third-party actor, and the school cannot be held responsible or liable for her conduct. The letter concludes by saying both sides are open to a pre-trial settlement.
Nungesser amends his complaint against Columbia (document) with extra details, including that he repeatedly contacted the university to find out if Sulkowicz would be allowed to carry the mattress to his graduation:
In the weeks and months before graduation, Paul reached out repeatedly to Columbia administrators, requesting detailed information regarding whether Defendant Columbia would allow Emma to carry the mattress at the graduation ceremony. Despite repeated requests, Defendant Columbia refused to provide him with any information…
The complaint says that Sulkowicz asked twice to take the mattress to the graduation, and was denied, but that she took it anyway and the university did not stop her. The complaint also mentions threats against Nungesser by Sulkowicz (“it’s not safe for him to be on this campus”) and her friends, and says that the male student that Nungesser was cleared of touching is going to produce an interpretative dance about his claim.
In her Salon interview, Paglia criticizes Sulkowicz:
I’d give her a D! I call it “mattress feminism.” Perpetually lugging around your bad memories–never evolving or moving on! It’s like a parody of the worst aspects of that kind of grievance-oriented feminism. I called my feminism “Amazon feminism” or “street-smart feminism,” where you remain vigilant, learn how to defend yourself, and take responsibility for the choices you make. If something bad happens, you learn from it. You become stronger and move on. But hauling a mattress around on campus? Columbia, one of the great Ivy League schools with a tremendous history of scholarship, utterly disgraced itself in how it handled that case. It enabled this protracted masochistic exercise where a young woman trapped herself in her own bad memories and publicly labeled herself as a victim, which will now be her identity forever. This isn’t feminism–which should empower women, not cripple them.
Sulkowicz participates in 7 Women, 7 Sins, a group art show at Brooklyn’s Kunstraum LLC, where Sulkowicz’s work represents “wrath”. Her work consists of New York Times pages overlaid with drawings that question the content. A self-portrait in which her face is covered by her hands, covers a Times story about her, with text that reads, “you can take my story, but my body won’t be overwritten.” In another piece a drawing of a man holding his erect penis obscures an ad for Tiffany’s diamonds featuring a couple ice skating in Central Park. Sulkowicz’s text reads: “Fuck her. Believe this.” Curator Marcin:
Emma’s contributions confront us with a clear message: ‘You lost humans. Don’t judge. Listen to your inner self. Stop walking like a blind bird towards the cat. Now, consumption is at its highest peak; we are submissive. Emma makes her ‘rape’ purposely consumable and, therefore, attacks consumption at its most evil vein—the formation of inhumanity and our ill, irresponsible participation. She ‘rapes’ us and our judgment with a healthy dose of consciousness.
Columbia University asks for Nungesser’s case to be dismissed on First Amendment grounds.
Crediting an undergraduate student’s thesis on the issue of sexual assault on college campuses is a decision at the heart of academic freedom. [Courts should not] second guess the kinds of decisions made by professors and administrators at Columbia in applying disciplinary and academic policies.
The school says it asked Sulkowicz not to take her mattress to the graduation, but there wasn’t much it could do when she showed up with one anyway.
Taking action against Ms. Sulkowicz by literally grabbing the mattress out of her hands would have disrupted the ceremony for all the graduating students and their families and could have been dangerous given the space limitations and the size of the crowd.
In this instance, the disciplinary system worked correctly at Columbia. That still was not enough to save an innocent person from the wave of public sentiment regarding assaults on campus. Paul Nungesser quickly became a convenient scapegoat, a whipping boy, and Columbia not only stood idly by, but often participated in the attacks on Paul Nungesser. There is no amount of legal theory that can save Columbia from that reality.
Sulkowicz praises LeBeouf’s #ALLMYMOVIES performance work.
[It’s] a participatory art piece, a relational aesthetics art piece. It’s not just a stunt. I think there are things to think about in the piece…It’s the most egotistical thing on Earth. Yet, at the same time, because of the endurance quality of it where he has to sit there and suffer through himself, suffer through watching himself, it’s humble and inclusive. Like, ‘I will suffer through this with you guys, if you want.’