Mattress Girl Redux – Arc Digital
Sometimes context matters. One point on which I disagree with Paul’s lawsuit, and many of his supporters, is the relevance of a Facebook message from Emma to Paul saying “Fuck me in the butt” months before the alleged assault, before they first had sex. Firstly, even if she intended it as a playful invitation, it says little about her inclinations months later. Secondly, in this instance, I actually think Sulkowicz’s explanation — back then, the phrase was her standby expletive to signal annoyance — rings true. Vice writer Sonja Sharp says Sulkowicz showed her a more complete transcript of the exchange and that, in its context, “the comment clearly follows a note about having to wake up early.” No one would argue for a literal reading of “Just shoot me in the head” in a similar context.
On the other hand, I don’t think Sulkowicz’s annotations provide any “context” that makes the Facebook exchanges after the alleged rape less damaging to her story. Does “I love you Paul. Where are you?!?!?!?!” really translate as “I’m still open to talking to him about the rape”? (While Sulkowicz claims that her mentions of wanting to have a “talk” are related to the attack, she made a similar comment to Paul several days earlier, on August 21.) To me, the annotations made things worse by drawing attention to the fact that Sulkowicz agreed to bring other girls to a party hosted by — if her account is true — a psychopathic rapist.
I am well aware that victims of trauma, including rape, can act in ways that look irrational. I don’t doubt that some rape victims have remained on cordial terms with the perpetrator, especially when it’s someone on whom they are dependent for familial or career reasons. (Asia Argento’s account of being coaxed into consensual sexual relations with Harvey Weinstein after an earlier sexual assault sounds quite plausible.) But in this case? I don’t think Emma’s chatty, breezy messages to Paul absolutely rule out her account, but it seems quite clear to me that they severely undercut it — especially since she alleges a very brutal rape, not a gray-area situation that leaves room for ambivalence (for instance, when someone doesn’t stop despite a murmured “we probably shouldn’t do this”).
And then there’s the issue of Paul’s messages. How likely is it that, after a very violent rape, both people would chat online as if nothing happened and agree to hang out? Sulkowicz suggests in her annotations that Paul asked her to the August 29 party because it might look suspicious if he didn’t; but that doesn’t explain why he messaged her again when she was delayed at the fencing session. We’re edging close to the Rolling Stone rape hoax story in which, two weeks after luring Jackie into a fraternity gang rape, “Drew” (a.k.a. the fictional Haven Monahan) approaches her to thank her for a great time.
Note, also, Sulkowicz’s claim that after the alleged assault, she talked to a female friend who explained that being choked, hit, and penetrated while screaming and struggling is rape. (She seems to be channeling the “victim who doesn’t realize it was rape” trope, which usually applies to ambiguous situations with minimal physical coercion.) If true, it would mean Sulkowicz has crucial corroboration: a “prompt outcry witness” whose testimony would have been admissible not only at a campus disciplinary hearing but in court. Where is this friend?
As I reported in Reason, the mystery friend actually does exist. A source familiar with the case confirmed to me that in her complaint, Sulkowicz mentioned talking to another female student the day after the incident. According to my source, “Toni” (not her real name) told investigators that Sulkowicz discussed feeling “weird” about her sexual encounter with Paul. “Toni” did not testify at the hearing and never publicly commented on the story — which is especially curious since, according to her LinkedIn profile, she was a social justice activist and a sexual assault peer counselor at Columbia. Make of this what you will.
For what it’s worth, I don’t necessarily think that, as Paul’s lawsuit claims, Sulkowicz was a “scorned woman” seeking revenge. I think the Facebook records do suggest that she had a romantic crush on Paul during the summer, but I see no evidence that she pursued him after the August 27 encounter; indeed, Paul told me they drifted apart in the fall because Emma had a new boyfriend. I believe it’s entirely possible that she came to believe Paul did something abusive to her. If she did tell “Toni” that she felt weird about what happened between her and Paul, it’s possible that “Toni” asked if she was sure it was consensual, and the question later began to haunt her. Sulkowicz’s notes for Jezebel mention that in March 2013, she met and spoke to Paul’s former girlfriend: “Together, we [came] to a better understanding of our shared trauma.” It’s also worth noting that this happened in the midst of a massive moral panic about “rape culture” occasioned by the highly publicized rape trial of two high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio. In April, Sulkowicz filed her complaint.
It’s also worth reviewing what happened after Paul was exonerated in November 2013 (notably, without the Facebook messages being allowed into evidence — as they would have been in a real court of law — and under an accuser-friendly “preponderance of the evidence” standard). In the new New York story, Sulkowicz suggests that she almost accidentally fell into activism:
Despite her activist image, Sulkowicz claims she has never been particularly political. She didn’t come to Mattress Performance as an activist, or with the expectation that her work would receive attention. When she started the project as a 21-year-old undergraduate art major, she claims that she “literally didn’t know what feminism was.”
McNamara expresses some doubt about the story, noting that by that time Sulkowicz had already met with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and landed on the front page of The New York Times as a result of that meeting. (She also grants, however, that Sulkowicz’s early comments about her story weren’t particularly political.) But here are a few other things that happened:
- In December 2013, Sulkowicz and one or both of her co-complainants contacted The New York Post to tell a shocking story of a Columbia “athlete” who had gotten away with sexually assaulting three women because the school “dropped the ball” on the investigation. (At that point, Sulkowicz was still anonymous.)
- In April 2014, Sulkowicz joined a federal complaint accusing Columbia of systematically mishandling sexual assault cases. She also appeared at a press conference with Sen. Gillibrand.
- In May 2014, Sulkowicz went to the police to report her alleged rape. She told The Columbia Spectator her main purpose was to make Paul’s name a matter of “public record.” The Spectator proceeded to identify him. Sulkowicz said she had been inspired by Lena Sclove, a Brown University student who publicly named her alleged assailant when he came back from a suspension and essentially drove him from school. At the same time, Sulkowicz criticized Columbia for removing or covering up lists of campus rapists that had started appearing in women’s rooms and that prominently included Paul’s name. (When interviewed in January 2017, she denied ever engaging in “a bullying campaign” against Paul and claimed that “no one knew his name until he put it out there.”)
- The stated purpose of the “mattress performance” was not just self-expression. It was, as Sulkowicz repeatedly stated, to force Paul off campus — either by shaming him into leaving of his own volition or by shaming the university into expelling him. The terms of the project were that she would carry the mattress until either she graduated from Columbia or he left.
- On October 29, 2014, Sulkowicz spoke at a rally where she said into a megaphone, “I don’t need to say his name. You know who it is.”
- A little-known part of Sulkowicz’s art project included the week-long pre-graduation display, at a campus art gallery, of three drawings superimposed on newspapers with stories about her case. One of those drawings depicted Paul raping and choking Emma; the other showed him exposing himself.
In yet another wrinkle in this messy case, a fourth alleged victim — this one a male student — came forward in late 2014 to accuse Paul of groping him three years earlier. (This fact was first made public in Jezebel’s purported rebuttal to my Daily Beast piece.) Paul’s lawsuit alleged that the male student, dubbed “Adam” by Jezebel, was a “close friend” of Sulkowicz’s and that “Paul was informed about this complaint first by reporters to whom Emma presented this complaint, when Paul started to go public to defend himself against Emma’s campaign.” Other, independent sources also told me that Sulkowicz informed more than one reporter of the new charge before it was public. I was unable, however, to get definite confirmation of this. In April 2015, shortly before his graduation, Paul was found “not responsible” of misconduct toward “Adam.”
The Title IX investigators’ report on the case, which was leaked to me and about which I wrote for Reason, left no doubt that the accusation was absurd. “Adam” made numerous claims that were flatly contradicted by messages he himself turned over to investigators, and his complaint that Paul harassed and intimidated him after that incident included such “deliberately aggressive acts” as sitting too close to him in class and, I kid you not, complimenting a point he made in a class discussion.
Laughable though this may be, it was no joke for Paul. His experience at Columbia included widespread ostracism, strong pressure to drop out of a scholarship-paid class trip to Europe and Asia, mattress-toting activists invading one of his classes to glare at him and take his picture, threats on social media, and lost job opportunities.
In July 2017, two years after Emma and Paul graduated, Columbia University settled his lawsuit and issued a statement reaffirming his exoneration and praising his accomplishments:
While Paul was a student at Columbia, he was accused of sexual misconduct. In November 2013, after a diligent and thorough investigation, Paul was found not responsible for any misconduct. Columbia University stands by that finding.
In 2015, Paul graduated from Columbia in good standing as a distinguished John Jay Scholar. …
Columbia recognizes that after the conclusion of the investigation, Paul’s remaining time at Columbia became very difficult for him and not what Columbia would want any of its students to experience. 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.
After graduation, Sulkowicz made an X-rated art video that seemed to reenact her alleged rape. She had a solo exhibition of “performance art” in Los Angeles called “Self-Portrait” in which people could talk either to her or to a lifelike sculpture of herself called the Emmatron (it answered standard questions with pre-programmed answers). And she put on a performance piece in New York in which in which she was tied up, berated, hung under the ceiling, and beaten by a BDSM master as some sort of commentary on Trump’s America. In 2018, she began to identify as “gender-fluid,” adopted the pronoun “they,” and gave a bizarre interview on the subject to the art website Hyperallergic. (Now, she apparently alternates between pronouns but told New York’s McNamara to use “she.”)
Today, Sulkowicz seeks dialogue and admires Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, a book that highlights the different value systems people bring to political clashes. She has apparently given up art and entered a four-year master’s program in traditional Chinese medicine. Per the New York piece, she supports #MeToo but “wants a clearer path to forgiveness.”
What to make of this self-reinvention?
Some have suggested that it’s an elaborate piece of performance art lampooning “civility” (I don’t think so). There’s even speculation that the conservative boyfriend who met with McNamara may have been a hired actor. (He’s not; a reliable source who knows him has confirmed to me that he really exists.) Others say that this is simply a bid for more attention and for another 15 minutes of fame. Given her past, I don’t think it’s terribly unfair to call Sulkowicz an attention-seeker.
It’s also entirely possible that Sulkowicz has, as she says, grown up: As she puts it, “I’m a human and humans can change.” Or maybe Sulkowicz is very astute about shifts in the cultural mood, and her new persona signals that social-justice militancy is out and cross-ideological tolerance is in. I can only hope so.
I could talk to this new Emma, except for one thing: If Emma told the truth, I owe her an apology. If she did not, she owes a far bigger one to Paul and his parents.
My read as a close watcher of the way this story has played out is that, in her latest phase, Sulkowicz is so far not quite telling the truth about verifiable things, such as her involvement in activism and her role in exposing Paul’s identity. I don’t know if she’s deliberately lying or just working with an edited version of the past, as many people do. But the story we’re being told of the new Emma is not the full story. It’s being presented in a selective way.
Given the spotlight her case has attracted over many years, that’s not Emma Sulkowicz’s problem. It’s a journalism problem.