Last year, Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz’s senior thesis became a national sensation. Sulkowicz, an art student, decided to do a performance art piece called “Carry that Weight,” in which she dragged her mattress around campus every day. The piece was meant to symbolize the emotional burden Sulkowicz experienced after she was allegedly raped by a fellow student and Columbia failed to expel him, even though two other female students also accused him of abusive behavior.
Sulkowicz didn’t name her alleged assailant publicly, though, inevitably, his name ended up the rumor mill. But the man, named Paul Nungesser, chose to escalate the situation by giving an interview to prominent anti-feminist Cathy Young. Young painted Nungesser as a hapless victim of a coven-like conspiracy of wicked women who make false accusations because—well, they didn’t say why, but clearly expected misogynist stereotypes about the inherent wickedness of women to do the work.
Erin Gloria Ryan at Jezebel carefully debunked Young’s reporting by reaching out to the three women who have accused Nungesser. As Ryan demonstrated, Young—who has made a career out of minimizing and denying the realities of rape—distorted the evidence and took certain communications out of context, even going so far as to suggest that one of the alleged victims couldn’t be a real victim because she made a dirty joke once.
Undeterred by this prominent debunking, Nungesser is pulling out the next trick in his campaign to paint himself as the real victim: The nuisance lawsuit. Nungesser is suing Columbia, arguing that the school should have censored Sulkowicz’s art project and failure to do so means they failed in their duty to protect him from harassment.
It’s an interesting choice to go after the school, instead of going after Sulkowicz directly with a libel suit. Part of that might be that this is the safer route. A libel suit, after all, would mean that Sulkowicz would introduce evidence of her honesty in a public court, which could backfire dramatically on Nungesser. This suit isn’t about what happened that night, but about the aftermath and whether the school had a responsibility to shut Sulkowicz down.
But it’s also hard to miss the way Nungesser’s lawsuit echoes the demands being made by victim advocates and even President Obama on universities, to protect their students against gender-based harassment and abuse. The entire debate over campus rape began because of a movement and a White House initiative to push schools to better enforce both Title IX and the Clery Act, by taking accusations of abuse and harassment seriously and disciplining those who are guilty of gender-based abuse accordingly. This lawsuit is taking the arguments of anti-rape activists and directly inverting them, painting alleged abusers as victims and alleged victims as abusers.
For feminists, this tactic should feel familiar. There’s a certain subset of anti-feminists whose main objection is to feminists’ tendency to fight harassment and violence against women. For this group, inverting feminist arguments and arguing that men are the real victims is their primary strategy. Even the name they usually adopt—“men’s rights activists”—is meant to imply victimhood. “I know you are, but what am I?” is elevated to philosophy. They deny the existence of misogyny, instead claiming that “misandry” is the real issue. The fight against sexual harassment is recast as a movement to bully men into being afraid to even speak to women. Theirs is a world where “false accusations” are a real problem while rape is not, and men who are arrested for wife-beating were just defending themselves against violent women.
The entire thing has more than a whiff of conspiracy theorist paranoia to it. The most popular “men’s rights” forum on Reddit even acknowledges this, calling themselves the “Red Pill,” an utterly unironic Matrix reference that suggests that misandry truthers are the only people who see the ugly anti-male reality while the rest of the world is deluded into thinking sexism is a thing.
The “nuh uh, you are!” tactic is a common one with reactionaries of all stripes, of course, which is why our culture has ridiculous phrases like “reverse racism” or why you see anti-gay bigots claiming that Christians are being oppressed by the homosexual mafia. But the men’s rights dudes take it to another level, obsessively inverting every claim of sexist oppression into an argument about how men are the real victims.
It’s this mentality that’s all over Nungesser’s lawsuit and many others like it. Rape and sexual harassment are a problem and Title IX is meant to fix that problem. But Nungesser’s lawsuit inverts that claim, arguing that the real harassment is speaking out about rape and harassment. The scary thing is strategies like this can be effective. The campus rape issue was straightforward enough when it first surged forward in the public imagination: Men are raping women and it needs to stop. But through efforts like this lawsuit, anti-feminists can distort the public image of the issue so it instead looks like a bunch of angry people pointing fingers at each other, with no way to distinguish between accusations and counter-accusations. Which will lead a lot of people to throw up their hands and give up caring at all. Which is likely the point.
This post has been updated.
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about liberal politics, the religious right and reproductive health care. She’s a prolific Twitter villain who can be followed @amandamarcotte.