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