In Campus Sex Assault, Rights of Victims, Accused at Odds

The case of mattress-carrying Emma Sulkowicz suggests there are no easy answers. But the debate is crucial.

Though Columbia University president Lee Bollinger denies an intentional snub, he did not shake Emma Sulkowicz’s hand when she — carrying a dorm mattress — walked across the stage during that university’s College Class Day a few weeks ago. The mattress was the site where Sulkowicz says she was raped by a fellow classmate, Paul Nungesser, who also walked the stage that day.

Sulkowicz, by carrying her mattress as the symbol of the weight of the crime she says she endured, has quickly become the face of women speaking out against sexual assault on college campuses, forcing a conversation about privacy and process and who should bear the burden of a rape claim.

The answer to that question remains somewhat unclear — leaving us, in the meantime, with some ugly fights.

Take Sulkowicz’s case: Nungesser was cleared of any wrongdoing by the university’s disciplinary board and the NYPD did not charge him with any crime. He has been accused of sexual assault by two other women on campus, according to Jezebel; in one instance he was found “responsible,” though he later appealed and won after the young woman declined to continue in the campus’ proceedings, enabling Nungesser to remain on campus.

Now Nungesser has filed a suit against Columbia, alleging that the school violated his Title IX rights, saying that by awarding Sulkowicz academic credit for her mattress-carrying, Columbia effectively sponsored a “gender based harassment and defamation” of Nungesser himself.

“A university that bows to a public witch-hunt no longer deserves to be called a place of enlightenment, of intellectual and academic freedom,” Nungesser’s parents said in a statement. “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.”

These questions are playing out in Philadelphia, as well.

Temple University is one of dozens of schools nationwide being reviewed for compliance with federal rules on how colleges and universities must respond to rape — the federal government paying careful attention to schools it believes doesn’t do enough for victims.

But University of Pennsylvania Law professors have slammed their own institution’s sexual assault policies, which they say don’t do enough to protect the accused“We do not believe that providing justice for victims of sexual assault requires subordinating so many protections long deemed necessary to protect from injustice those accused of serious offenses,” said a letter signed by a third of Penn’s tenured and tenure-track law faculty. 

Complicating the matter is a long and sordid history of victim-blaming in sexual assaults, paired with the self-interest of colleges and universities that would rather not risk their magazine rankings or enrollments by confirming publicly that sexual assault is ever a problem on their own campuses.

Students are not getting what they pay for if they enroll at a school that underreports heinous crime statistics. Women like Sulkowicz have the right not to be sexually assaulted anywhere, and universities like Columbia have a responsibility to do thorough investigations of reported crimes.

But Nungesser is a paying customer, too, one who was given a clean slate by the university on more than one occasion.

There are competing democratic interests at play. Nungesser benefits from a society that has enshrined the concept of “innocent until proven guilty,” often without understanding that that places additional burdens on victims of sexual assault. But Sulkowicz has benefited from free speech, and has smartly practiced it as an extension of her intellectual and academic freedom — in the process igniting a new kind of enlightenment about sexual assault on college campuses.

The accused have rights. But these days it’s not business as usual. The result may mean, in the short term, some awkward debates and an uncomfortable re-weighing of priorities — but in the end, it’s a good thing. There’s a culture shift in terms of how universities are handling rape, and the survivors are owed that.

Follow Maya K. Francis on Twitter.