On Campus
May 22, 2015, 10:02AM

Goodbye, Mattress Girl

And, hey, free speech? Screw you.

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Students, or someone, have put up posters asserting an unpopular position on a controversial issue. Other students, not liking the message, are tearing the posters down so that minds may not be infected with the disapproved thought. One of the country's leading magazines/websites takes a look at the situation and curls its lip. At what? Well, at free speech. The precision is remarkable. New York Magazine zooms right in on our country's finest principle and offers a sneer: “Students have begun sweeping the campus to take down the posters, which—of course—has sparked cries of 'But my free speech!!!'” Well, I should think it would. Suppression of unwanted thought might even spark cries of “But their free speech!” Not at New York.

The posters denigrated Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia girl who carried a mattress around campus until her graduation this week. Sulkowicz says she was raped by Paul Nungesser, another Columbia student. He says it wasn't rape, just sex. The university investigated and found no reason to believe the girl instead of the boy; this was under the “preponderance of evidence” standard, by which the defendant is cooked if even 51 percent of the evidence indicates guilt. Sulkowicz then began a publicity campaign to shame Nungesser and drive him off campus. The campaign culminated in her nine months of mattress carrying. She wanted the world to know that the boy had raped her. Of course, this isn't something we can know. She has presented no witnesses to the act, no physical evidence, no incriminating texts or emails. His guilt is something many people believe, but it's not something they know.

The posters call Sulkowicz a liar—a “Pretty Little Liar,” which is the phrase planted in big letters next to the girl and her mattress. Of course, we don't know she's a liar. Some of the available evidence hurts her credibility, some helps, and none of it adds up to much. This has sunk in even with Robby Soave, a journalist at Reason who was making dark noises about the chest wound allegedly dealt the girl's credibility by her Facebook exchanges with the boy. On reflection, Soave is no longer so sure: “We have no way to conclusively tell who is lying... the record of messages between them bolsters his side of the story without tipping the scales in any remotely definitive sense.” Better late than never.

Sulkowicz strikes me as a pissy, self-righteous jerk, but jerks can tell the truth. At any rate, the boy doesn't seem like a prize either. Three other students have accused him of misdeeds. Of these accusations, only one sounds heavy: a male ex-friend says the two of them sat down for a conversation and that Nungesser then spent several minutes feeling up the ex-friend's genitals, presumably through the ex-friend's clothing. Columbia investigated and found the accusation not seaworthy. Still, Nungesser seems to have collected some enemies.

One thing is clear: the posters are doing what Sulkowicz did. They are making a nasty accusation that we can take or leave. If it's all right for Sulkowicz to stage her publicity stunt, it's all right for her detractors to answer back. This logic should be familiar to anyone who cares about free speech. But people don't care about free speech, they care about their speech.

Loose ends. Sulkowicz carried her mattress across the stage at commencement and that was the end of it. No more mattress. She received loud cheers and was praised (though not by name) in the commencement speaker's address. But Columbia's president became seriously occupied with his water bottle when Sulkowicz and her mattress hovered near. Perhaps as a result, he did not shake her hand, whereas (we're told) he shook hands with the other graduates. Including Nungesser? One supposes. At any rate, Nungesser received his diploma and got the hell off campus, thereby ending Sulkowicz's self-imposed obligation to mattress-carry.

If a museum wants to buy the mattress, she's willing to sell. Sulkowicz says she bought the thing online, which may be a surprise to the professor who helped her concoct the mattress stunt and who is treating it as her senior thesis. This fellow, who sounds very excitable, told the campus paper about the project's glory back in September: “Carrying around your university bed—which is also the site of your rape—is an amazingly significant and poignant and powerful symbol.” What about carrying a mattress that is not your university bed and not the site of your alleged rape, but which is a whole lot like the original bed and site? I bet the professor doesn't mind. I don't either, it's just that he made such a to-do. If a substitute mattress is also amazingly significant and poignant, then what was the point of all that gush? I guess by this point there's no sense asking that sort of question. Sure, the new mattress is equal to the original, and mattress lugging is equal to art. After all, accusation is equal to proof.

Follow C.T. May on Twitter: @CTMay2

  • To go ahead and attack head on the overall message of this article, freedom of speech does not mean freedom from repercussions of harmful, ignorant, biased, hateful, or degrading words. There is always that stereotypical person that will state something outrageous, and immediately when they get negative feedback they will shake their hands in the air and protest, "but freedom of speech! I'm allowed to say whatever I want!" Freedom of speech does not mean it is okay to try and silence a rape victim's words with your accusations. Freedom of speech does not mean it is okay to put the blame on a girl, who physically carried a mattress around with her for months to represent the pain and hardship she was carrying with her every day, and to simply state she is a "self-righteous jerk" or as the posters claimed, a "pretty little liar". One of the many problems with the rape culture we live in is when a strong individual, who publicly states that they were sexually assaulted in order to attempt to bring positive change for other rape victims does so, there are people like you who laugh behind their computer screens or as they are walking down the street and seeing these harmful posters trying to take the power from her words. You weren't there, you heard there wasn't enough evidence, so surely it probably didn't happen. Surely Emma was making it up, or just needed an outstanding idea for her senior thesis. Your attitude is why the majority of rape victims do not come forward. Your attitude, mirroring the feelings of the majority of our society and in some ways our legal system, is why rape victims don't think they are strong enough to get the justice they deserve. It is why many rapists continue on unharmed, unaffected by their actions and their brutal violence. It is why many women, and so many men, choose to simply carry the weight with them for the rest of their lives that Emma Sulkowicz was attempting to demonstrate. But I guess that's not important, right? What is important is the freedom of your speech, or so seems to be the theme of your post. It doesn't matter the violence that exists within our culture and that continues to happen every single day. What matters is your right, as a presumable male, to shake your finger at girls like Emma just so you can legally claim, "you're such a liar!" What is important is that a student, probably close to the accused or else why would they have put in so much effort and made it so personal to Emma, can hang up posters attempting to silence her voice just because they want to. We live in a country that claims to have such a high moral ground, but when situations like this tend to present itself to us, many fall short in doing the right thing. Columbia University fell short in making one of their students feel safe and secure after something that happened on the very campus. Protesters of Emma and her journey attempt to take value from her words and point the blame instead of hearing what she has to say. Here's an idea - imagine if it was your future son, daughter, wife, or husband that claimed they were raped. Imagine if they made the difficult decision to publicly come forward for the very slight chance of justice. Imagine if after doing so, after they began feeling stronger, relief, or a support system unfold - they began to get attacked. If the very city they lived in, posters sprung up with their image calling them a liar. Would you be saying the same words you wrote in this post? Or would it be different, because that person that was hurt would be close to you? Here's the thing: I shouldn't have to ask this question. People should have enough empathy in order to not need that personal connection. You shouldn't have to imagine Emma as your future daughter or wife. You should be able to see her as a person, claiming she was violated in the most grotesque way humanly possible, and you should sit down to listen to the words she has to say. Because unfortunately, although we live in a country with freedom of speech, it does not mean a victim's honest words will bring them the justice they deserve.

  • According to the U.S. legal system. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty. Why do you feel that should not apply to sexual assault? I don't know who is lying and who is telling the truth. As a result I can have empathy for Emma and Nungesser at the same time. Why can't you?

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  • This wasn't a case dealing with the U.S. legal system. This was a situation dealing with Emma Sulkowicz and dealing with her private university and the small board that decided whether or not Paul Nungesser deserved any punishment. This case was also largely discussing the public perception of Emma and other rape victims rather than the legal contingencies themselves. When it comes to rape, it takes a lot of courage for the victim to come forward and state that such a thing happened to them. There are a lot of social, emotional, mental, and physical consequences that happens when one makes such a private and intimate statement. Therefore, when it comes to rape, I will always believe the victim unless they later state they made it up or unless conclusive evidence in an actual court proves otherwise. I especially cannot have empathy for Nungesser when multiple other individuals have come forward stating they were assaulted by him. Such a thing cannot be coincidental and the odds of that many individuals lying for attention is impossible. Also, this is a thing to ponder: why is our first reaction to rape victims coming forward to question their honestly rather than to do something about the rape issue as whole? Because rape does happen, there is no question about that. That is what deserves the compassion.

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  • Why wasn't this a legal issue? Did Emma not go to the police? Why not? Besides, I haven't heard or read anyone saying that rape isn't a horrible crime. Or that more should not be done to prevent rapes occurring Or that rapes don't happen so I'd suggest you are raising straw man arguments. But to your question of believing the victim, when there is a total lack of evidence of any crime, why wouldn't the accusers claim be questioned? Should someone's life be ruined based on a mere accusation? What about all the black men who were falsely accused of rape prior to the civil rights movement (or after) just because they had consensual sex with a white woman? Did they deserve your preponderance of guilt just because someone claimed they were raped?

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  • confession: I didn't read your comment and won't. It's way too long and the first sentence shows you don't know what you're talking about. Tearing down posters is suppression of speech. Whereas "repercussions" of unwelcome speech (such as an art project designed to generate publicity for a dubious factual claim) would include people putting up posters denouncing the speaker.

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  • I see that at the end of your comment you tell me I should see ES "as a person" and that I "should sit down to listen to the words she has to say." Rest assured, I have indeed experienced the thoughts of ES, including her mattress project, which is supposed to be the premier example of her self-expression. Having done so, I have concluded that she strikes me as a pissy, self-righteous jerk. If it makes you feel better, pissiness and self-righteousness are qualities that only a person can have.

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  • A couple of articles have mentioned that N's other accusers seem to have been coordinated. IOW, lied. Looks to me like Jackie's case. Lie for some reason--guy didn't call afterwards or something--and when it gets real serious, charging ahead looks like a better bet than backing off. Sort of like running a Ponzi scheme, always trying to stay ahead of the next reason it didn't happen. Now, if it takes lots of courage to report an actual rape, what kind of courage does it take to make one up? When you think you have the Process on your side no matter what, it might look like a good bet.

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