I have to admit, there have been moments when I have doubted Emma Sulkowicz’s story about being raped by her Columbia classmate Paul Nungesser. Not at first—she seemed perfectly credible to me when I spoke to her last year, for a Nation story about campus sexual assault. But then, in December, Ariel Kaminer’s New York Times article about Nungesser came out. “He has gotten used to former friends crossing the street to avoid him,” Kaminer wrote. “He has even gotten used to being denounced as a rapist on fliers and in a rally in the university’s quadrangle.” I couldn’t help but imagine how horrifying it would be to face such ostracization if you were innocent, and to wonder if he possibly could be.
A few months after Kaminer’s story, Cathy Young published a piece in the Daily Beast quoting friendly Facebook messages that Sulkowicz sent to Nungesser just days after the alleged assault. I know that rape victims can behave in ways that, from the outside, seem strange and counterintuitive. I know that they can try to appease their attackers, and that it can take a while for those raped by intimates to admit to themselves what happened. Yet those messages seemed so insouciant and confident. When Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus” came out, about the sexual brutalization of a University of Virginia student named Jackie, I’d felt a flicker of skepticism. If frat boys were really going to lure a young women into a premeditated gang rape as some sort of initiation, wouldn’t they do it somewhere secluded, not at a crowded party? Then I’d suppressed it, worrying that perhaps I was in denial about the true scope of rape culture.
When that story was discredited, one lesson seemed to be not to put aside doubt for political reasons. Perhaps, it occurred to me, much as I wanted to believe Sulkowicz, I should heed the unease I’d felt reading about Nungesser. I didn’t think Sulkowicz was a liar. I wondered, though, if over time she had transformed an ambiguous sexual encounter into something more definitively horrific.
Now that another woman has come forward to write about her alleged assault by Nungesser, I look back on my own thought process and see how doubt can be as reflexive as credulity. I see how easy it is for victims’ stories to be undermined, how simple it is to make a woman—any woman—seem a little bit crazy and prone to exaggeration. The piece, published in Jezebel in response to posters plastered around Columbia calling Sulkowicz a “Pretty Little Liar,” sheds new light on the case and shows how successful Nungesser has been at creating a counter-narrative to Sulkowicz’s. “Every time I read another version of this narrative—that Nungesser merely ‘picked the wrong friends,’ that the complaints against him were a calculated vendetta—my stomach flopped,” writes the anonymous author. “Don’t forget: before he appealed away the conviction, Paul Nungesser was found responsible for sexually assaulting a woman at Columbia. And I’m writing this because that woman was me.”