The Columbia University senior vividly remembers the day, in April 2013, when he received a phone call while working in the school’s digital architecture lab. It was the campus Office of Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct, asking him to come in to talk. At the time, he says, he was not particularly alarmed: “I thought initially that maybe they called me in as a witness.”
Instead, Paul Nungesser, a full-scholarship student from Germany, found himself at the center of a sexual-assault case that would eventually receive national media coverage and attract the attention of politicians and feminist leaders. Nungesser’s accuser, Emma Sulkowicz—famous for carrying her mattress on campus as a symbol of her burden as a victim and a protest against Columbia’s failure to expel the man she calls her rapist—has become the face of the college rape survivors’ movement. Sulkowicz’s protest has garnered her awards from the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women and the Feminist Majority Foundation; last month, she attended the State of the Union address as a guest of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand…
Nungesser says that for weeks after that night [of the alleged rape], he and Sulkowicz maintained a cordial relationship, and says she seemingly never indicated that anything was amiss.
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
Nungesser ws shunned and kicked out of his dorm.
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.
As Nungesser headed back to Germany for the summer break, matters looked grim for his future at Columbia, with three different women now accusing him of sexual assault. 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.
Last April, a press release from the office of Sen. Gillibrand on the problem of campus sexual assault quoted Sulkowicz as saying, “My rapist—a serial rapist—still remains on campus, even though three of the women he assaulted reported him.”
Actually, only one of the charges against Nungesser was a clear allegation of rape. What’s more, there are indications that the accusations may not have been completely independent of each other.
Note: Emma Young writes:
In all the coverage of her protest, her claims have been treated virtually as fact, despite pro forma references to the “alleged rapist.” But recently, I had a chance to look at a previously untold side of this story — reported in my article posted last week by the online publication The Daily Beast — which raises serious questions about a rush to judgment embraced not only by the media but by a U.S. senator…
Rape is a vile crime; to support the victim and condemn the perpetrator are natural and noble instincts. But the presumption of innocence is a key principle of justice and a fundamental societal value. This story should be a reminder of its importance to both journalists and politicians.
The story is also a reminder that rape cases should be handled by police and courts, not universities — and not only because law enforcement and the justice system are better suited to the task. Police and court records are publicly accessible; university records are sealed by law, which means key aspects of this nationally publicized story are nearly impossible to verify. In the name of justice for both accusers and accused, it’s time to fix this broken system.