Ending the victimization of alleged perpetrators of assault
In July of this year, Columbia University settled alleged rapist Paul Nungesser’s lawsuit against the school for gender-based discrimination. Nungesser was accused of raping then-fellow Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz, who gained attention for her 2014 performance-art piece Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight).
Although Sulkowicz’s project itself gained a lot of media attention, the story behind it and her motivations for doing it were less popularized. Sulkowicz created Mattress Performance following Columbia University’s decision to not hold Nungesser responsible for sexually assaulting her. Sulkowicz had first gone to Columbia’s Office of Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct and reported her assault on April 13, 2013 after learning that two other women had also allegedly been assaulted by the same person who she said raped her on the night of August 27, 2012. After 7 months of investigation, however, the school found Nungesser not responsible for Sulkowicz’s allegations.
In May of 2014, Sulkowicz then filed a police report against Nungesser which detailed her experiences. According to the report, Sulkowicz and Nungesser had consensual sex twice before the alleged rape, which began as a consensual encounter but then turned violent. According to Columbia Spectator, Nungesser “‘hit her [Sulkowicz] across the face, choked her, and pushed her knees onto her chest and leaned on her knees to keep them up.’ He then ‘grabbed [Sulkowicz’s] wrists and penetrated her anally.’” She reportedly struggled against him and told him to stop, but he did not.
Sulkowicz began Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) in September of 2014 for her senior thesis. After she gained national attention for this piece, Nungesser sued the University in 2015 for failing to protect him from the gender-based harassment he felt he faced as a result of the project. While his suit was initially dismissed in 2016, he refiled an amended lawsuit, which the university settled this July.
In a recently released statement, Columbia said that they stand by their 2013 finding that Paul was not responsible for any misconduct after a“diligent and thorough investigation,” and that they recognize that Paul—who, they note, graduated as a “distinguished John Jay Scholar” recognized for “remarkable academic and personal achievements, dynamism, intellectual curiosity, and original thinking”—had a “very difficult” time at Columbia. They concluded that “Columbia will continue to review and update its policies toward ensuring that every student—accuser and accused, including those like Paul who are found not responsible––is treated respectfully and as a full member of the Columbia community.”
Nungesser’s parents released their own statement, too:
“The scarlet letter that comes with an allegation of rape is virtually indelible, and that is why universities must take great care in their approach to these matters. This dark episode in Paul’s life will never fully disappear, but we are extremely happy that Paul can now fully focus on following his passion and talent as an aspiring filmmaker.”
The way these statements portray Nungesser in the best light possible via his academic achievements to counter the allegations made against him is similar to the statement ex-Stanford University student Brock Turner’s father made when his son was found guilty of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. Turner also wrote a statement detailing all of Brock’s accomplishments as a student athlete, emphasizing Brock’s early dedication to academics as an “indicator of the importance he placed on academic achievement” and added that his “extremely strong work ethic [led] to academic success at all levels.”
All of these statements highlight just how important it is to recognize that rape culture is maintained not just by how we regard survivors, but also by how we treat and view perpetrators. Activists and feminists have made great strides towards illuminating the way survivors are too frequently viewed with suspicion until proven otherwise—for example, even after Sulkowicz provided explicit details about what happened to her in her report, her story was still discredited. But reiterating perpetrators’ academic achievements as if they outweigh possible sexual misconduct or could reasonably combat allegations against them is also a huge problem. Correlating success and character is highly problematic because it falsely implies that accomplished people are incapable of also being sexually violent.
These types of depictions also encourage people to view accused perpetrators as victims. Nungesser’s parents referred to the allegation made against their son as a “scarlet letter” that contributed to a “dark episode” in his life, while Dan Turner stated that the verdicts against his son “have broken and shattered him and our family in so many ways. His life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.”
And these two cases are hardly the only ones in which perpetrators are portrayed this way; This is undeniably a cultural pattern. In 2015, former University of Alabama student Megan Rondini reported that she was raped by Terry Jackson Bunn Jr.—an influential and powerful businessman in Tuscaloosa. Rondini and Bunn met in a bar, she blacked out, and found herself in Bunn’s car when she regained consciousness. She reported that “‘he didn’t really take’” her protests to having sex and eventually determined that “‘just letting him have sex with me was the only way he would let me go.’”
Rondini endured a lot after this already traumatic incident: She went to the hospital, but the hospital didn’t employ sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs), who are trained to perform sexual assault exams on rape victims. She then went to the police and told an investigator what had happened, but instead of asking about the rape allegations he asked about Rondini’s actions. According to BuzzFeed, the police officer told her, “Look at it from my side. You never kicked him or hit him or tried to resist him.” Rondini later sought counseling, but her first therapist withdrew herself because she knew the Bunn family and her second counselor refused to work with her unless she showed that she was on medication. Unfortunately, Rondini ended up hanging herself on February 26, 2016, and this past month Rondini’s parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit suing the university, Bunn, and the sheriff’s investigators for mishandling her case.
In response, Bunn took out an ad in the local newspaper titled “Character Assassination in the Internet Age.” Bunn’s attorney claims that the allegations against Bunn were “horrible, misleading and blatantly false” and used Rondini’s text messages to her friends to supposedly prove she had consensual sex with Bunn to absolve him. The article also emphasizes the value of the Bunn family and their business, S.T Bunn Construction, pointing out that “The Bunn family, for more than 70 years, have given their time, energy and resources to making [their] community a better place to live. Now according to ‘journalists’ every act of charity and good citizenship was nothing more than a longstanding conspiracy.” This statement undoubtedly draws a connection between Bunn’s legacy and work as an excuse for his alleged behavior and paves the way for him to be treated as the victim in this case.
While this trend of defending perpetrators has long persisted, we have a responsibility to change this narrative. Whether it’s challenging family members’ preconceived notions or tendency to victim-blame, calling U.S. representatives and senators to ask that they address legislation that helps survivors, or any other act, we must continue to focus on unlearning what we believe about perpetrators, survivors, and sexual assault, and instead learn that sexual violence is a product of the dynamics of sexism and other systems of power.
More articles by Category: Arts and culture, Education, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Rape, Campus rape, Sexualized violence