By Maria Hanophy, Intern 2015
Trigger warning: This piece discusses issues around sexual assault.
Last September, Emma Sulkowicz, a student at Columbia University in New York, began her senior thesis, Mattress Performance: Carry That Weight. As a victim of campus sexual assault, Emma decided that she would carry her mattress, the site of her rape, with her for as long as her alleged rapist attended Columbia. When I heard about Emma’s project, I was moved by her commitment to express the burden that survivors of sexual assault carry every day. I remember how empowered I felt when I saw more than one person walking around New York City with a pillow or some other “Carry That Weight” marker on the day of action in October. I felt that the response to Emma’s project was amazing and unifying. I also remember how hard it hit me when I first read that Emma and her alleged rapist attended Columbia University — because my abuser attends that same university.
This is not to say that the same man who allegedly raped Emma Sulkowicz is the same man who abused me; the university connection simply drove the case home. This amazing young woman has formed a powerful anti-rape coalition on the very campus where my abuser is likely to be at any time. What if she’s passed him on her way to class? What if he’s seen her carrying her mattress? What does he think?
Still fully in support of Emma and her project, I somewhat skeptically clicked on an article in The Daily Beast in which Cathy Young interviews Emma’s alleged rapist, Paul Nungesser. While it was valid to seek out another side of the story, this article is incredibly biased. In addition to lamenting Nungesser’s compromised anonymity and speaking to his girlfriend and parents who “have overwhelming trust in him,” Young probes the relationships between Nungesser and his accusers: Natalie, Emma, and “Josie” (an accuser’s pseudonym). Nungesser maintains that these relationships were consensual and non-abusive. However, the way Young psychoanalyzes these young women is uncomfortable and unnecessary.
In an attempt to portray Nungesser as an innocent victim of false accusations, Young pulls out several examples of friendly relations between him and his accusers. For instance, after mentioning Natalie’s depression and past abusive relationships for some reason, Young mentions that the two “talked things out” in the fall of 2012 and “remained on friendly terms after that.” Similarly, Young quotes a friendly, joking email from Josie to Nungesser.
Finally, Young presents Facebook conversations between Emma Sulkowicz and Nungesser, showing that they maintained a seemingly friendly relationship after the alleged rape occurred. With all of this evidence of friendliness, Young seems determined to discredit Natalie, Josie, and Emma’s accusations. She questions how a woman could possibly continue being friends with someone who allegedly raped her. Adding to the list of unnecessary details in the article, Young explains that “Natalie did not come to see her relationship with Nungesser as abusive, or their sexual relations as non-consensual, until ‘months after their breakup.'”
So what does all of this mean? It means that once again, there has been a complete failure to understand and validate the experiences of victims of sexual violence.
Young’s article reinforces the incorrect assumption that there is only one narrative of sexual violence. The “perfect victim” narrative, as described by Julie Zeilinger, is one in which:
“…[F]emale survivors’ stories are evaluated in terms of gender stereotypes such as those related to idealized virginal purity and simplified fallacies about uniquely felt and lived experiences, like the identity of a rapist and the nature of the relationship survivors have with them.”
In short, if sexual violence doesn’t conform to a certain socially accepted image, we consider it a “flawed narrative” — and we’re less likely to believe the survivor. We accept only one narrative for the victim’s feelings, response to rape, and relationship with the rapist.
The “perfect victim” narrative can trick us into thinking that sexual violence can only be committed by strangers or acquantances, when this is not the case. Analyzing the friendly relationships between Nungesser and the victims tries to erase the reality of intimate partner violence, which is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “physical, sexual, or psychological harm by a current or former partner or spouse.” The reality is that men and women in the United States experience a combined 7.7 million intimate partner rapes and physical assaults per year. With the prevalence of intimate partner violence in the United States, it is very possible that Emma, Natalie, and Josie could have been raped by Nungesser although they were each close to him at the time.
Young’s article also emphasizes the myth that victims are at fault when they do not report rape or other instances of sexual violence. In the “perfect victim” world, someone who experiences sexual violence immediately reports it and never speaks to the perpetrator again. However, fear of partner retaliation, lack of confidence in law enforcement, and shame are just three of the reasons why women choose not to report rape. Ruby Hamad said it best: Victims of sexual violence are “attacked twice, once by their rapists, and again by a victim-blaming culture that so stigmatizes them that they feel they are better off staying silent.”
There is a tendency in society to see alleged rapists as victims, as evidenced by Young’s article and the Steubenville High School rape case in 2012. In our society, it is common to lament the ruined lives of young people accused of rape rather than feel for the victims of sexual violence. In this way, victims are made to seem like monsters who robbed someone of their promising future. As feminist author Roxane Gay writes, “This is not simply the careless language of sexual violence. It is the criminal language of sexual violence.” Months after beginning her project and refusing to be silent about her experience, Emma Sulkowicz has already faced a lot of backlash from the media and those who side with Nungesser.
In addition, 20.3% of women surveyed said their rape was a one-time or minor incident, proving that victims do not always immediately understand or are unwilling to acknowledge the severity of what has happened to them.
I can’t speak for Natalie, Josie, or Emma, but from personal experience I can tell you how easy it is to continue a relationship with someone who has hurt you. For me, it was simply because I didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t realize I had been sexually abused until nearly a year after the fact. I began to understand after I attended a Take Back the Night event at my college only a month or so after I cut ties (for the first of many times) with my abuser. I was moved by the performers and storytellers who shared their experiences of sexual assault, but it wasn’t until I had completely removed myself from my abuser months later that I finally realized what he’d really done to me.
The final piece of the puzzle fell into place when I was in a production of The Vagina Monologues at my school. At one of our final rehearsals, I heard the “Call to Action” for the first time, during which the audience and cast members are asked to stand first if they have been victims of sexual violence, then if they know someone who has been a victim of sexual violence, and finally if they promise never to let this violence happen again. Since we were just rehearsing, no one stood, but I went home that night and thought about when I needed to stand. Had I really been a victim of sexual violence? Was I making a big deal out of nothing? Couldn’t I just let it go and stop thinking about it?
Like many who have bought into the “perfect victim” narrative, I didn’t see my experience as valid because it did not fit my expectations of what sexual violence was. I wasn’t raped, and I thought the things that were happening to me were normal. While in this relationship, I felt guilty and prudish when I didn’t do something my abuser asked. I thought that meant I was doing something wrong. I continued my relationship with him because I thought after a while I would become comfortable enough to do the things he wanted. When I became fed up and stopped talking to him for a month or so, my reasoning didn’t even have anything to do with sexual abuse. It took me a long time to stop seeing him as simply a bad boyfriend and understand that he had emotionally and sexually manipulated me.
And I’m not the only young woman who feels this way. A recent study in the journal Gender & Society found that girls in middle and high school “perceived everyday harassment and abuse as normal male behavior, and as something to endure, ignore, or maneuver around.”
Our definition of “normal” or “excusable” behavior allows all kinds of abusive behavior to go unquestioned, and this is doubly true in marginalized communities. Queer and trans experiences of rape and sexual violence are often overlooked or trivialized. Large numbers of trans folks are sexually assaulted by people in positions of power, such as healthcare professionals or police officers, making it difficult and frightening to report these instances of violence. Furthermore, only 1 in 5 LGBTQ victims of intimate partner violence or sexual assault get help from service providers. Many LGBTQ victims do not report sexual violence for the same reasons I mentioned earlier (fear of partner retaliation, stigma, etc.), but also sometimes because doing so would require them to come out when it is not safe or comfortable to do so.
It is vital that we support victims of sexual violence and validate their stories. I’m sharing my story here to challenge the idea of the “perfect victim,” and I encourage others to do the same. If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual violence, call the free, anonymous, confidential National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE, or use their online hotline.
The American Psychological Association defines sexual abuse as “unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats, or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent.” And about 1 in 20 women and men have experienced forms of sexual violence other than rape. There is no perfect victim. There is no perfect story. As soon as we realize this, we can treat victims with the respect and compassion they deserve. Although survivors of sexual violence don’t all carry a mattress like Emma Sulkcowicz, we each carry our own weight, and I for one will not be silent as long as I carry mine.