The Insidious New Lawsuit Targeting Columbia’s Anti-Rape Activists

University of Oregon students and staff protest on the steps of Johnson Hall on the UO campus in Eugene, Ore. Thursday May 8, 2014 against sexual violence in the wake of allegations of rape brought against three UO b... University of Oregon students and staff protest on the steps of Johnson Hall on the UO campus in Eugene, Ore. Thursday May 8, 2014 against sexual violence in the wake of allegations of rape brought against three UO basketball players by a fellow student.(AP Photo/The Register-Guard, Chris Pietsch) MORE LESS
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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.

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  1. Exactly how does he claim that he was harassed by her when he and not she identified him as her assailant?

  2. Avatar for hjs62 hjs62 says:

    Yes. because there is nothing more insidious than using the court system to right a perceived wrong. What is the alternative? The “Anti-rape activists” are upset when Nungesser talked to Cathy Young, so we know they think that is insidious as well.

    Also, I am not sure what Marcotte means by publicly identified, Nungesser’s name was appearing atop lists of unpunished rapists in bathroom’s around campus. So I guess if you are sneaky and wage a whispering campaign that is OK.

  3. Ultimately, of course, only the parties involved know exactly what happened, but contrary to the author’s glossing-over, virtually all of the evidence in this case points to the accused’s innocence. I’m particularly confused and concerned by the author’s attempt, like the acuser in this case, to paint the accused as some sort of serial rapist on the flimsiest of accusation – no evidence, mind you, just bare accusations long after the fact, including citing one of the other two accusers who only accused him (like the third victim) many, many months after the fact, and only accused him of being “emotionally abusive.” To conflate that with accusations of rape reaks of a smear campaign. And, no, I’m sorry, but Cathy Young’s exhaustive piece on the accused’s likely innocence was not “debunked” by anyone, certainly least of all by the almost exclusively ad hominem attacks on Young included above. But ultimately, there’s no need, as the author does, to extrapoloate beyond the facts of THIS case. In THIS case, it’s clear that the alleged victim’s behavior does not comport with any idea of having been raped by the accused. I’m not sure why it is that “anti-rape activists,” as this author terms them (is anyone pro-rape?), simply cannot or will not accept that not every rape accusation is true or acknowledge that one acused person being innocent doesn’t mean rape isn’t a serious problem. Instead, the author desperately clings to her pre-conceived conclusion that the accused in THIS case is guilty, despite a complete lack of evidence of guilt and a whole lot of evidence of innocence. Does the author fear that if one alleged case of rape is undermined, that will somehow undermine the case against rape as a crime in general? Whatever the legitimacy of that fear, it is not worth sacrificing an innocent person for the cause. In THIS case, even against a stacked deck, even with the proceedings geared against him, the accused still was ultimately found not responsible by every authority and tribunal that has reviewed the matter. The harrassment, intimidation, and pure slander directed at the accused in this case, all under the weak guise of “art,” has been outrageous. Given the almost complete lack of evidence against the accused in this case, it’s frankly becoming outrageous and frankly almost libelous, under almost any reasonable concept of fairness and justice, to continue to accuse this guy of rape.

  4. Avatar for darcy darcy says:

    If there’s anything to get all hysterical about it should be the tuition at Columbia.

  5. While I agree with much of the post above, I didn’t author it. I typed a completely different reply to this article, but when I tried to post it, my post disappeared and the one above – author unknown – appeared instead, and mine disappeared. WTF is going on?

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