Emma Sulkowicz, Cenk Uygur, and Rape Culture

Emma Sulkowicz is the recent Columbia University graduate who carried a mattress everywhere she went around the university campus, as part of a senior thesis art project, after she brought sexual assault allegations against one of her fellow classmates that resulted in his being found “not responsible” by the University. She is one of six alleged victims of sexual violence allegedly perpetrated by Paul Nungesser, whose name we now know due to its publication by Emma Bolger in The Columbia Spectator after they received an anonymous tip about flyers posted around campus containing the names of four people the anonymous author or authors accused of sexual assault. Sulkowicz decided to file charges with the University after encountering two other alleged victims of Nungesser who in the wake of Sulkowicz’s action also filed charges. The results were the same however, in all three instances Nungesser being found “not responsible”. Prior to this Nungesser was accused by another woman who initially won her case against him. She moved on, graduated college, started her career and when he filed an appeal the woman initially carried on with the case against him. However, after becoming frustrated with the university’s “incompetence”, as demonstrated by routine calls in the middle of the day to her place of work to discuss the details of her sexual assault, and not wanting to lose her job by having to take time off to travel back to the university to testify in an appeal of a conviction on which she was already victorious she withdrew from the process. Without her testimony Nungesser’s conviction in the university system was overturned. Recently, the fifth victim came forward, a man. And again, Nungesser was found “not responsible”. The man is only known by a pseudonym, “Adam”. Apparently the two were discussing relationship problems “Adam” was having with his then girlfriend “Natalie” when Nungesser allegedly molested him. “Natalie” would also go on to file charges against Nungesser.

Now Sulkowicz has released another art project. The piece is entitled “Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol” or in English “This Is Not A Rape”. The piece consists of three parts. First, a page with a trigger warning explaining that the following video depicts consensual acts, and though it is not a reenactment it does makes allusions to rape, but is not a rape. Following the warning is an explanation of the project:

Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol is not about one night in August, 2012. It’s about your decisions, starting now. It’s only a reenactment if you disregard my words. It’s about you, not him. Do not watch this video if your motives would upset me, my desires are unclear to you, or my nuances are indecipherable. You might be wondering why I’ve made myself this vulnerable. Look—I want to change the world, and that begins with you, seeing yourself. If you watch this video without my consent, then I hope you reflect on your reasons for objectifying me and participating in my rape, for, in that case, you were the one who couldn’t resist the urge to make Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol about what you wanted to make it about: rape. Please, don’t participate in my rape. Watch kindly

Following the explanation are a series of questions for reflection:”Are you searching for proof? Proof of what? Are you searching for ways to either hurt or help me? What are you looking for? Do you desire pleasure? Do you desire revulsion? Is this to counteract your unconscious enjoyment? What do you want from this experience? How well do you think you know me? Have we ever met? Do you think I’m the perfect victim or the world’s worst victim? Do you refuse to see me as either a human being or a victim? If so, why? Is it to deny me agency and thus further victimize me? If so, what do you think of the fact that you owe your ability to do so to me, since I’m the one who took a risk and made myself vulnerable in the first place? Do you hate me? If so, how does it feel to hate me?”

After the video is a section for the audience to provide comments. As of this writing there are 3547 comments. Few of them are thoughtful considerations of the artist’s work. Even when excluding the numerous comments devoted to describing how the author used the video to masturbate most of the comments seem to take the form of a disgruntled dog owner berating his pet. The credibility of her claims are repeatedly called into question. She is accused of being a woman scorned on a path of vengeance via crying false rape allegations. She is told that her rape was not real, that she is deranged, a drama queen, an attention seeker who has had her fifteen minutes of fame so she should just shut up already. It does not seem to occur to many of them that the true purpose of the project is not about her or her alleged sexual assault. They fail to realized that their reaction, whatever that reaction is, whether it is sympathetic or derisive and scornful of Emma Sulkowicz, is the purpose. It is a means to eliciting the vulgarity and destructiveness of our society’s reactions to sexual abuse. How we respond, how we interact with the project reveals something about us.

I did not watch the video. I did not watch it because one is not supposed to watch it without Sulkowicz’s consent. And because I did not want to continue to participate in the further sexualization of a crime as perpetuated by the media outlets who drew me to the website with their spurious analysis of her art project. One can easily find vivid descriptions of the content online. Though I did not read those either. It is sufficient to know that the play performed in the video begins as consensual and suddenly turns violent once the woman withdraws consent. In many of the news articles I read concerning this project there is very little discussion of the text that precedes the video, which does not surprise me. Most articles only discuss the video, playing up the sexual sensationalism of a famous, young, female, artist who accused a classmate of sexual abuse and has now created and released a video of a sexual assault as an art project. When reading those articles I found myself disturbed by the content of the project. But once I went to the actual webpage and discovered the seemingly forgotten text the purpose of the project became clear, and though I was still conflicted about the nature of the project I at least understood it’s purpose. Again, it is not surprising that the text was ignored in the press. Few seemed to care about Sulkowicz as a person with agency when the sexual assault charges made it into the national media. It is unlikely that the press would care much about presenting this project in the manner originally intended by the artist. But this did not only apply to outlets from whom one would expect this kind of behavior.

The Young Turks, a daily online broadcast of news and commentary also fell into this trap. A panel of four people discuss the project in the video, available on Youtube. At the outset of the discussion two quotes from the actual webpage of Sulkowicz’s project are provided, but they are provided out of context. The quotes come from the first and third paragraphs on the actual webpage. Hannah Cranston, who reads the quotes, fails to mention that the first quote is from a “trigger warning” provided to alert sexual abuse survivors of the potential problems the video may cause for them. She also fails to provide the text surrounding the second quote that explains the entire purpose of the project as I did earlier in this article. Nor does she, or anyone else on the panel, explain that without Sulkowicz’s consent to watch the video one is not supposed to watch the video. But, however, if one persists in viewing it one is supposed to reflect on the questions she provides. After the initially description of the project the discussion follows. Cenk Uygur, Ben Mankiewicz and Cara Santa Maria constitute the rest of the panel. The two women, unsurprisingly, are the most sympathetic to Sulkowicz, though Mankiewicz hardly says anything; when he does he speaks solely to reinforce Cenk Uygur’s point concerning the negative impact this art project has, and may have, on the credibility of Sulkowicz’s claims of sexual abuse, and the credibility of claims of sexual abuse by women everywhere.

The main problem here is Cenk Uygur. Throughout the video he argues that this project cements in his mind the idea that Sulkowicz is merely seeking attention. Apparently, he already had doubts as to the veracity of her claims when she began carrying the mattress around campus, and because of the manner in which she came to understand what happened to her as an instance of sexual abuse after discussing the encounter with two other women who shared similar stories about their sexual interactions with Paul Nungesser. He argues that he now believes her claims are “bullshit”, and that because of her behavior and her art projects men around the country are now going to be even more skeptical of claims by women of sexual assault. What seems to escape Uygur’s understanding is how he is one of those men he appears to be criticizing. For him, the reality of what happened between Nungesser and Sulkowicz was adjudicated within the university system and because Nungesser was found “not responsible” Sulkowicz should leave the entire issue alone. For Uygur, Nungesser is the victim in this story because he was outed as a rapist by Sulkowicz (Though I have not been able to find any evidence of his claims it would not shock me to discover that Sulkowicz was behind the anonymous fliers posed on campus listing Nungesser as one of the four rapists on campus). I suppose the fact that he has been accused of sexual abuse six times, in each case ultimately being found “not responsible”, is not evidence of a flawed university system, but is, instead, evidence of…of what exactly? His innocence? A conspiracy to punish a man his false victims believe has escaped punishment? Cenk Uygur does not tell us.

Uygur’s arguments are the products of a rape culture he has taken countless hours on his media platform condemning. No sexual abuse survivor owes anyone anything. They do not owe anyone a certain standard of behavior to ensure the credibility of their claims. They do not owe anyone a report to the police of their abuse, nor do they owe anyone their suffering through the meat grinder that is the American justice system to hope against hope that this one predator might somehow, someway, maybe, possibly, end up in prison, and thus be prevented from preying on another innocent person ever again. Perhaps the argument is different in the case of a sexual abuse victim who becomes an activist against sexual assault. Emma Sulkowicz is not, however, a traditional activist. She is an artist. And in either case I would still argue that they she is not, nor is anyone else, responsible for conforming to some imaginary “perfect victim” standard conjured in the minds of the Cenk Uygur’s of the world in order for them to find it easier to believe their claims of abuse. Blaming Emma Sulkowicz for the beliefs of men around the country, who after seeing her latest project, are now less likely to believe the claims of the abused is a most pernicious example of rape culture. Blaming alleged victims of sexual abuse, regardless of whether one believes their claims, for something over which they have absolutely no control is despicable. We might as well blame prejudice against blacks, or gays, or Jews, or Muslims when their beliefs or behavior fail to conform to the desired preferences of bigots because by failing to live up to those standards they are providing ammunition for discrediting the very claims of discrimination and hatred they are attempting to dislodge from society. So, I say this: Fuck you, Cenk Uygur. In this case YOU are part of the problem.

While I have no special insight into your psychology, your highly defensive reaction to this art project seems an indication of an underlying reactionary character that very rarely finds expression in your work. This does not surprise me. Even the best among us have this tendency. The culture in which we have been socialized is highly racist, sexist, otherwise bigoted, prejudiced and patriarchal. To grow up within it and not be in some way affected, particularly on an unconscious level wherein we have less active control, is impossible. However, those of us invested in the progressive improvement of our society must search inside ourselves for our reactionary tendencies and find a means of expelling them so that they do not cloud our judgement about important issues. In some cases this is easy, in others it may be more difficult. From where your reactionary tendency with regard to this issue emanates I can only speculate. Of course, given your repeated references to your past life as a man largely ignored by women, incapable of earning their sexual trust and consent, one can only imagine that your unconscious, and thus unresolved, conflicts regarding this self-conception is the most likely explanation. I have little reason to expect that you will re-evaluate your perspective on this issue. However, if you do I will be elated to admit my error.

1. http://www.cecinestpasunviol.com
2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j5a4wtscImc
3. http://columbiaspectator.com/news/2014/05/16/frustrated-columbias-inaction-student-reports-sexual-assault-police
4. http://columbiaspectator.com/spectrum/2015/05/21/paul-nungesser-found-not-responsible-alleged-sexual-assault-male-student


Invisible Forms of Patriarchal Violence

In recent years, while attending university, I repeatedly encountered a perception among young people, both men and women, though more men than women, that feminism is no longer a movement with the intended goal to create equality between men and women. Instead I often heard that feminism had changed from a movement about equality into a movement about creating a new inequality, with men unequal to women. This is a common allegation made against any movement that seeks to rectify an inequality. All one has to do is read the speeches of slaveholders and segregationists and one easily finds this fear of being subsumed. It should be clear to any fair-minded person that these claims are absurd on their face. A society is obviously compelled to act in the face of an injustice as despicable as racism and sexism. But we must understand what people are actually saying when they claim that a social justice movement devoted to establishing equality is really trying to reverse an inequality, with the slave now the master, and master slave.

What they are truly saying when they make this claim is that the inequality is not an inequality at all, but the true state of equality. Your attempt to overturn this equality is the real injustice. The inequality has achieved such a state of normalcy that the reality of it is invisible. Within the context of patriarchal violence this applies in such subtle ways that even the most progressive among us can be unable to recognize it. It is not our fault. The culture is teeming with messages justifying this violence, and we are inculcated with it from birth. Heterosexual sex is one area of particular concern. If the violence perpetrated does not meet the narrow definition of violence accepted by the police, or by the society at large, then no violence was perpetrated. Though it is certainly relevant to the conversation I am not talking about the incidents of rape where the victim is not beaten, but still coerced into being raped. You know, I thought long and hard about how to phrase that last sentence. Often, even among feminists and progressive writers, that sentence will usually read: “Though it is certainly relevant to the conversation I am not talking about the incidents of rape where the victim is coerced into having sex”. One cannot have sex with a person who is raping them. Sex is consensual. Rape is not. Obviously the intention of the writer is not to imply that the victim somehow consented to sex while being raped. But patriarchy is so deeply embedded into the very language we use to not only converse with one another about these issues, but to think through them ourselves, that even the best among us often fail to recognize when it is molding our consciousness.

Patriarchy is so embedded in our society that even during consensual sex it makes an appearance. Recently I became aware of just how intimate this violence can be and how the banal, every day nature of it warps the minds of women throughout the world. A quote from Reina Gattuso:

“Recently, I had sex with a man I heard afterward is a rapist… I was sitting with my friend, drunkish, on the green quad lawn when she asked me about the night before. I uttered his name. She made a face and I knew it was bad. She had heard, she said, rumors. For years. Times he did not take no for an answer. Times he finished regardless. Things he said… But through the disgust, and the weird sense of guilt, and the retrospective fear, something clicked: A feeling I’d had through the sexual encounter, a feeling that wasn’t — but that related to — rape… Sometimes there’s a moment when I’m having sex that I think a lot of us have felt. I feel it with particular frequency with straight, cis dudes, but we can feel this across all kinds of gender and sexuality experiences. It’s the fear that, if I asked the person to stop, they wouldn’t. I don’t mean when we say stop and someone keeps going, or uses threats, or pressures us. I mean another, subtler feeling. It’s not necessarily wanting to say no. It’s the fear that, if we were to say no, we wouldn’t be heard. Sometimes, I test this feeling: Slow down. Stop. Not so fast. And mostly, people listen.

But sometimes, when I feel this feeling most strongly, I don’t test it, because I don’t want to know the answer. That’s what happened the other day, with the dude about whom I later heard the rumors. I don’t think that if a sexual experience is not affirmatively consensual, it is definitionally assault. I have had experiences that have not felt consensual in a deep way, but that also did not feel like assault. We live constantly under the violence of patriarchy; a lot of our daily micro-interactions are coercive. These undertones of coercion don’t just disappear when we get into the bedroom (or the living room, or the car). And they create a lot of experiences that are hard to find language for… I mean, what was so weird about that sexual encounter — what made something click in my head, in my heart, when I heard that he had raped — is the way it felt like he didn’t need me to be there. He didn’t need me to have a head. He didn’t need me to have a heart. He didn’t seem to even need me to be awake.

A lot of sex feels like this. Sex where we don’t matter. Where we may as well not be there. Sex where we don’t say no, because we don’t want to say no, sex where we say yes even, where we’re even into it, but where we fear — some little voice in us fears — that if we did say no, if we don’t like the pressure on our necks or the way they touch us, it wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t count, because we don’t count. This feeling isn’t necessarily assault, but it is certainly on a continuum with it.”

These interactions are common in households where domestic violence takes place. The abused, in order to survive, is forced to submit to a variety of coercions. They live in a constant state of paranoia, sensitive to every subtle bodily and psychological cue of their abuser. This is also the state of mind of many women throughout the world. A state of mind beset by the fear that a man will harm or kill them. We have a society in which women are terrorized on a daily basis by a violence that takes a great variety of forms. Living as a member of the privileged class within this society even I often fail to grasp the depth, and breadth, of this violence, and the seemingly innumerably subtle forms in which is finds expression. Thinking back on those interactions with individuals who claimed that feminism is a movement seeking to establish a matriarchy I am struck by how little of what they had to say is in any way something they independently produced. It reminds me to be aware of such a flaw in myself; for we are all susceptible, some of us more than others.



Purvi Patel, Women, and Male Supremacy

An Indiana woman named Purvi Patel was recently sentenced to over two decades in prison after being convicted on charges of feticide, or the unlawful termination of a fetus, and neglect of a dependent. How can those two charges co-exist in a criminal case in a country where abortion is legal you might ask. In July of 2013 Patel went to the emergency room because of sustained vaginal bleeding as a result of a miscarriage of a stillborn fetus. Not knowing what to do Patel told the medical staff at the hospital that she disposed of the stillborn fetus, though the prosecution claimed that the fetus was born alive, in a dumpster and came to the E.R. once realizing that she could not put an end to the bleeding. The police discovered text messages exchanged between Patel and a friend of hers in which Patel claimed to have attempted to purchase abortion-inducing pills from Hong Kong. Under Indiana law it is illegal to purchase these legal drugs online.

The pathologist who examined the evidence and testified for the defense argued that the fetus was approximately 23-24 weeks old and so its lungs were too underdeveloped to survive outside the womb. The pathologist testifying for the prosecution argued that the fetus was actually 25-30 weeks old and was born alive, using the “lung float test” –whereupon one places the lungs in a tub of water and if they float they supposedly have air in them and that air was supposedly acquired through breathing- to make this determination. However, this methodology, going back some three hundred years, and has not been considered scientifically valid for a century, given the variety of ways that air can enter the human body; even the pathologist who posited the theory to the jury as evidence of a live birth admitted that the lung float test is, in and of itself, unreliable. Frankly, it is disturbingly reminiscent of the Trial by Ordeal methods used to determine whether a woman was a witch by throwing her in a body of water to see if she would float or sink.

The prosecution’s pathologist claims there was other evidence indicative of a live birth such as the “weight of the lungs and the other organs, the inflation of the lungs and the air sacs, the presence of blood in the lung vessels and the ‘relative maturity’ of the lungs…along with a lack of blood in the baby’s body”. To the defense’s pathologist this same evidence was inconclusive. Also, the government’s own toxicologist could find no evidence of the abortion pills they claimed Patel took to induce her miscarriage. So, there was no actual direct evidence that supported the charges made by the state, and yet a woman will likely spend the next two decades behind bars.

Then there are the violations of her civil and legal rights. She was interrogated by police after being anesthetized, after losing a substantial amount of blood with the volume percentage of red blood cells present in her body at 22.1%, never having been read her Miranda rights and the judge permitting her illegally and unethically acquired statements to police to be entered into evidence at trial. All this fails to include that a politically active anti-choice OBGYN was permitted to testify in court that the fetus was 30 weeks old despite the fact that OBGYN’s “are not experts in assigning gestational age at birth”.

If one were attempting to scientifically determine the age of the fetus, which was “male and was 12.2 inches (30.99 cm) long and weighed 1.46 pounds (662 g). The body had exsanguinated so we should add about 100 ml/kg of blood, or 70.17 g (the weight of 66.2 ml of blood) to achieve a birth weight of 732.17 grams. Using average fetal growth curves for a male fetus (these are well known) the length is equivalent to 23 weeks gestation and 1 or 2 days and weight of 24 weeks and 3 or 4 days gestation”. Therefore if had experienced her miscarriage in the hospital instead of in her home she would not be in jail now because “at 23-24 weeks a woman is allowed to decline resuscitation” for extremely prematurely delivered fetuses whose viability outside the womb is highly unlikely.

This is not the only case in the United States where people have been arrested, charged, prosecuted, and convicted in the wake of the miscarriage of their pregnancy. Here are seven other cases:

“1. A critically ill, 27-year-old Washington D.C. woman was 26 weeks pregnant when a judge ordered her to have a Cesarean section. He did so with the understanding that the procedure would very likely kill her. It did. The baby died as well.

2. A pregnant woman in Iowa fell down a flight of stairs and went to the hospital. The hospital reported her to the police who arrested her for “attempted fetal homicide.”

3. A Utah woman gave birth to twins, one of which was stillborn. Her doctors blamed the death on her decision to delay a C-section. She was arrested for fetal homicide.

4. A Louisiana woman checked in to a hospital due to vaginal bleeding. She was locked up for a year on charges of “second-degree murder before medical records revealed she had suffered a miscarriage at 11 to 15 weeks of pregnancy.”

5. A Florida woman “was held prisoner at a hospital to prevent her from going home while she appeared to be experiencing a miscarriage. She was forced to undergo a Cesarean.” She still lost the baby, and her two small children at home were left without her while she was held. A state court ruled that this detention was wrong, although it would have been fine if she were further along in her pregnancy.

6. Another Florida woman who went into labor at home was picked up by a sheriff, driven to the hospital and forced to have a Cesarean against her will. She filed suit, and the court concluded that the woman’s personal constitutional rights “clearly did not outweigh the interests of the State of Florida in preserving the life of the unborn child.”

7. A severely depressed, pregnant 22-year-old woman in South Carolina tried to commit suicide. She was jailed for child abuse.”

It is unlikely that this trend will stop of its own accord. Since the anti-choice misogynists are unable to outright criminalize abortion they have taken to targeting pregnant people and their abortion rights in less direct ways by passing feticide laws, medically unnecessary clinic regulations, created delays between appointments and procedures, etc., etc., etc. Ultimately this issue is about self-determination and autonomy. But this is not the only issue where beliefs about women and self-determination intersect. Frankly, any conversation about women, but particularly about female sexuality, is littered with ideas intended to restrain a woman’s autonomy. Examine any conversation and it becomes strikingly obvious that value judgments are routinely made to restrain, restrict, or justify a particular legal or moral consideration about women and how they manage their bodies and their lives. Whether it is about contraceptives, consensual sexual activity, number of sexual partners, sexual assault, abortion, clothing, employment, family, and on, and on.

Recently a new phrase entered the American lexicon, the “War on Women”. This phrase, and its emergence in American culture, is both laudable and frustrating. Calling these activities a “War on Women” belies the reality that this is the status quo throughout the world. The “War on Women” did not begin with the election of the Republican Party to the majority position in nearly two-dozen states and the national Congress, and it will not end if Hilary Clinton is elected President in a few years. The banal regularity of patriarchy is precisely what makes it so destructive, and yet so difficult to combat. It must be challenged every day, in every venue, and the people most needed in this fight are men. We are the problem. Certainly there are women who perpetuate this antagonism, but regardless of their behavior the structural inequality between men and women remains. It is real, concrete, and institutionalized; protected by law, politics, religion, education, the police, the courts, and the broader culture. While progress has been made in important ways there is no conceivable reason any fair minded person could believe there has been enough.

1. http://rhrealitycheck.org/article/2015/03/30/purvi-patel-sentenced-41-years-feticide-neglect-dependent/
2. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/01/magazine/purvi-patel-could-be-just-the-beginning.html?_r=1
3. https://drjengunter.wordpress.com/2015/03/17/if-purvi-patel-had-delivered-in-hospital-she-could-have-declined-neonatal-resuscitation-but-she-delivered-at-home-so-she-might-go-to-jail/
4. http://www.alternet.org/civil-liberties/arrested-having-miscarriage-7-appalling-instances-where-pregnant-women-were