A Columbia student accused of committing a violent rape in 2012, inspiring a very public and widely covered protest by his alleged victim, has spoken out for the first time about the claims made and is vehemently denying he committed the alleged sexual assault.
On August 27, 2012 Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz says she was violently raped by a close friend -- Jean-Paul Nungesser. Sulkowicz initially went to Columbia's internal justice system to report the brutal allegations against Nungesser, before filing an official police report. When the University failed to remove Nungesser from campus, she vowed to carry her 50-pound mattress everywhere she traveled at Columbia as part of her senior art thesis entitled, "Carry That Weight."
Sulkowicz claimed the protest symbolized the burden she carried after the August 2012 assault, when Nungesser choked, hit, and sodomized her while she repeatedly begged him to stop, according to her account. She said she would continue to carry the mattress until he was removed from campus, or until she graduated.
Her story spurred similar protests across the country and she became a leader within the community of sexual assault survivors.
It's a sort of David and Goliath story, one little voice speaking out against the Ivy League giant. Her protest, which embarrassed her alleged assailant and garnered unwanted media coverage for her school, resonated with a growing swell of student activists who believe universities largely fail to properly address the problem of rape on campus.
A slew of feminist groups, including the Feminist Majority Foundation and the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women, formally recognized her for the demonstration. Hundreds of college students across the country lugged mattresses around campus for a day in solidarity to raise awareness about sexual assault on college campuses in October. Sulkowicz even attended the State of the Union address as a guest of New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand this year.
But after all these accolades, the man she accused -- who was cleared of charges by Columbia, but has still faced a relentless trial by media -- has spoken out to tell his own very different account of the incident.
In an interview published this week in the Daily Beast, he describes a lengthy friendship with his accuser. He says they were friends who interacted often, and sometimes engaged in consensual sexual acts. Nungesser shared screenshots with the Daily Beast that appear to show conversations he and Sulkowicz had on Facebook during the fall of 2012, which seem to indicate the two remained at least superficially cordial long after the night she claims he savagely assaulted her. Their messages are friendly -- even affectionate.
Several days after the alleged rape, Nungesser reached out to Sulkowicz, saying "small shindig in our room tonight ~ bring cool freshmen." To which she responded: "lol yussss," before adding "also i feel like we need to have some real time where we can talk about life and thingz." Nungesser replied, "word," before Sulkowicz responded with: "because we haven't really had a paul-emma chill sesh since summmerrrrr."
To onlookers, the conversation is fairly damning for Sulkowicz. Why would a rape victim be so friendly to her perpetrator?
Cynthia Lubin Langtiw, an associate professor of clinical psychology at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, says that it isn't uncommon for a person who endures a traumatic event to behave in ways that don't make sense to an outsider.
"[A victim's] behavior might seem confusing because they are confused -- they're trying to figure out how to integrate an overwhelming event into their lives," said Dr. Lubin Langtiw.
Langtiw also added that it can sometimes take time for a rape victim to fully identify an assault as what it is.
"Often, [a victim] may not have named it as a rape at the time. But they may identify it as such later," she said.
In May of 2013, Sulkowicz filed a police report about the incident.The report stated that Nungesser "hit her across the face, choked her, and pushed her knees onto her chest and leaned on her knees to keep them up" before he "grabbed her wrists and penetrated her anally," according to the Spectator.
But Nungesser has insisted all along that on the night in question, he and Sulkowicz had consensual sex. In an interview with the New York Times, Nungesser flat out said: "The matter of the fact is it's not a misunderstanding. What was alleged was the most violent rape, and that did not happen."
Sulkowicz has since opted not to pursue criminal charges. She and Nungesser will both graduate in May.