Columbia Student: I Didn’t Rape Her
Paul Nungesser was cleared of a rape charge but faced a harsh trial-by-media. Now, as new details come to light, he’s speaking out and fighting back.
The Columbia University senior vividly remembers the day, in April 2013, when he received a phone call while working in the school’s digital architecture lab. It was the campus Office of Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct, asking him to come in to talk. At the time, he says, he was not particularly alarmed: “I thought initially that maybe they called me in as a witness.”
Instead, Paul Nungesser, a full-scholarship student from Germany, found himself at the center of a sexual-assault case that would eventually receive national media coverage and attract the attention of politicians and feminist leaders. Nungesser’s accuser, Emma Sulkowicz—famous for carrying her mattress on campus as a symbol of her burden as a victim and a protest against Columbia’s failure to expel the man she calls her rapist—has become the face of the college rape survivors’ movement. Sulkowicz’s protest has garnered her awards from the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women and the Feminist Majority Foundation; last month, she attended the State of the Union address as a guest of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
The story Sulkowicz has told, in numerous media appearances and interviews, is nothing short of harrowing. On Aug. 27, 2012, she has said, a sexual encounter that began as consensual suddenly turned terrifyingly violent: Her partner, a man whom she considered a close friend and with whom she had sex on two prior occasions, began choking and hitting her and then penetrated her anally while she struggled and screamed in pain. By Sulkowicz’s account, she finally decided to file a complaint within the university system several months later when she heard stories of other sexual assaults by the same man—only to see him exonerated after a shoddy investigation and a hearing at which she was subjected to clueless and insensitive questions. What’s more, charges brought against the man by two other women also ended up being dismissed.
In the coverage of Sulkowicz and her battle for redress, her alleged assailant remained, until recently, a shadowy faceless villain. While Nungesser’s name was first made public in May 2014 after Sulkowicz filed a police report, he did his best to keep a low profile until last December, when he spoke to The New York Times for a story that focused on his and his accusers’ conflicting perceptions of the case and on Nungesser’s pariah status at Columbia. Now, Nungesser has agreed to speak to The Daily Beast and tell his version of the events. This story, partly backed by materials made public here for the first time and corroborated by a former Columbia graduate student who played a secondary role in the disciplinary process, is dramatically at odds with the prevailing media narrative. On one point, however, Nungesser and his supporters agree with the pro-Sulkowicz camp: A grave injustice has been done.
Seated in the same room where he once received that fateful call, now empty on a non-class day, Nungesser looks back on his relationship with Sulkowicz. They got to know each other in their freshman year, he says, mainly as fellow leaders in the Columbia Outdoor Orientation Program (COÖP), a freshman pre-orientation experience with a focus on outdoor activities. Sulkowicz also rushed Alpha Delta Phi (ADP), a coed fraternity with a literary and intellectual bent, which Nungesser joined a few months later. By the end of his first year in college in spring 2012, says Nungesser, “we were beginning to develop a very close friendship; it was an intimate friendship where we would hug each other and so on, but always platonic.” That platonic friendship included several sleepovers in Sulkowicz’s room—one of which, he says, eventually turned into a make-out session and ended in sex.
“The next morning, we had a talk about it and we both felt that it was not really a good idea,” says Nungesser, explaining that they didn’t want to risk their friendship. Four or five weeks later, he says, there was another sleepover that led to another sexual encounter, another talk, and another decision to move on—soon after which the two parted ways for the summer break.
After a summer of affectionate and often intimate Facebook chats (screenshots of which Nungesser, who has since deactivated all of his social-media accounts, provided to The Daily Beast), Nungesser and Sulkowicz returned to Columbia in late August and saw each other at an end-of-summer party for COÖP leaders. As the party was wrapping up, they started talking in the courtyard, then began to hug and kiss and ended up going back to Sulkowicz’s dorm room—at her invitation, according to Nungesser. He says he had consumed two mixed drinks and was “buzzed, but not intoxicated or anything.” (Sulkowicz has previously described him as “drunk” during the incident.)
While Sulkowicz has always said that they started out having consensual sex, her account diverges drastically from Nungesser’s at this point. According to Sulkowicz, he suddenly and brutally assaulted her, then picked up his clothes and left without a word, leaving her stunned and shattered on the bed. According to Nungesser, they briefly engaged in anal intercourse by mutual agreement, then went on to engage in other sexual activity and fell asleep. He says that he woke up early in the morning and went back to his own room while Sulkowicz was still sleeping.
Sulkowicz has said in interviews that she was too embarrassed and ashamed to talk to anyone about the rape, let alone report it; an account of her mattress protest by New York Times art critic Roberta Smith says that she “suffered in silence” in the aftermath of the assault. Yet Nungesser says that for weeks after that night, he and Sulkowicz maintained a cordial relationship, and says she seemingly never indicated that anything was amiss.
Nungesser provided The Daily Beast with Facebook messages with Sulkowicz from August, September, and October 2012. (In an email to The Daily Beast, Sulkowicz confirmed that these records were authentic and not redacted in any way; while she initially offered to provide “annotations” explaining the context on the messages, she then emailed again to say that she would not be sending them.) On Aug. 29, two days after the alleged rape, Nungesser messaged Sulkowicz on Facebook to say, “Small shindig in our room tonight—bring cool freshmen.” Her response:
Also I feel like we need to have some real time where we can talk about life and thingz
because we still haven’t really had a paul-emma chill sesh since summmmerrrr
On Sept. 9, on a morning before an ADP meeting, it was Sulkowicz who initiated the Facebook contact, asking Nungesser if he wanted to “hang out a little bit” before or after the meeting and concluding with:
whatever I want to see yoyououoyou
respond—I’ll get the message on ma phone
On Oct. 3, Sulkowicz’s birthday, Nungesser sent her an effusive greeting; she responded the next morning with, “I love you Paul. Where are you?!?!?!?!” Nungesser claims that these exchanges represent only a small portion of their friendly communications, which also included numerous text messages. But he also says that during those weeks, they were starting to drift apart; they saw each other at meetings and parties, but plans for one-on-one get-togethers always seemed to end in “missed connections.” Nungesser says that he assumed it was simply a matter of hanging out with a new crowd and, in Sulkowicz’s case, being in a new relationship. He says that “it was very amiable; nothing was changed or different or weird or anything in her behavior.” (To be sure, many rape victims’ advocates would argue that women traumatized by sexual violence, especially by someone they trusted and cared about, may deal with trauma in ways that don’t make sense to an observer.)
After the winter break, in early 2013, Nungesser sent Sulkowicz two brief Facebook messages (one of them saying, ‘tu me manques’—French for ‘I miss you’) to which she did not respond. Then, he says, she texted him in March and suggested getting together, and they made tentative plans on which she did not follow up. Nungesser says he was not unduly alarmed, since such things had happened before.
In an email to The Daily Beast, Sulkowicz said that by the time of that exchange, she had already visited the Office of Gender-Based Misconduct to report Nungesser. “They asked me if I’d ever ‘tried talking it out’ with Paul,” Sulkowicz wrote. “So, because they suggested it, I sent him a text message listing a few times during which I would be free and said that I was ready to talk. However, when he texted me back, it hit me that there was no way I could meet him one-on-one somewhere. It triggered so much pain and fear that I couldn’t bring myself to text him back.”
Columbia’s Title IX coordinator, Melissa Rooker, did not comment directly on Sulkowicz’s case but pointed The Daily Beast to the school’s Gender-Based Misconduct Policy for Students, which states that the office never recommends informal resolution for sexual-assault complaints.
On April 18, when Nungesser came to the Office of Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct, he was informed that Sulkowicz had filed a complaint accusing him of sexual assault. He was given no specific details—not until a meeting with the school’s Title IX investigator nearly two weeks later.
“My first reaction was, ‘It has to be a misunderstanding,’” says Nungesser. “Maybe she meant a different guy, or something completely strange happened.”
Even before the investigation began, the charge had immediate consequences. Nungesser was placed on restricted access to university buildings other than his own dorm; these “interim measures” made it extremely difficult to continue in his campus job as an audiovisual technician (especially since he was not allowed to explain why he was under these restrictions) and to attend the counseling sessions he had started. Meanwhile, it became obvious that despite confidentiality rules, news of the accusation was spreading: Within a few days, Nungesser says he was being conspicuously shunned by many fellow students.
On April 29, Nungesser was startled to find in his inbox an email to the ADP listserv from a senior officer of the society announcing that a male ADP member and house resident had been accused of rape by a female member who was pressing charges within the university system. Saying that other members had said they “feel uncomfortable” around the accused, the ADP officer wrote, “separate from the case itself, the E[xecutive] Board believes that the male member has flagrantly violated his vows, disregarded his obligations as a Member, and has transgressed the rules of life—violations that calls (sic) for the immediate expulsion of the male undergraduate member.”
The ADP officer went on to say that the alleged offender would be offered a chance to resign voluntarily and that if he refused, a hearing would be held on his termination. In a follow-up email the next day, the officer reported that the accused had said the university was allowing him to stay at ADP, and concluded by acknowledging that “all members deserve due process, as well as an opportunity to tell their side of the story.” (The ADP officer did not respond to requests for comment on this article.)
On May 3, one day before the end of classes, Nungesser was given notice of two new complaints. One was from a former girlfriend who was alleging that he had emotionally and sexually abused her for the duration of that relationship. The other one was from a fellow resident at ADP, a senior who claimed that over a year earlier, in April 2012, he had followed her upstairs during a house party after offering to help her get more beer to restock the bar, then grabbed her and tried to kiss her. Due to the second complaint, the Office of Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct sent Nungesser an email instructing him to vacate his room at ADP the next day “to ensure the safety of all the parties involved in this matter” and move to another dorm for the brief remainder of the school year.
As Nungesser headed back to Germany for the summer break, matters looked grim for his future at Columbia, with three different women now accusing him of sexual assault. Yet by the end of the year, he had been cleared by all charges. To Nungesser and his parents, who helped hire a criminal attorney for him and stood by his side throughout the process, this outcome is a victory for justice.
Of course, to Sulkowicz’s supporters, the case is a travesty of malignant distrust toward women who accuse men of sexual violence, all the more blatant when it’s multiple women accusing the same man.
Last April, a press release from the office of Sen. Gillibrand on the problem of campus sexual assault quoted Sulkowicz as saying, “My rapist—a serial rapist—still remains on campus, even though three of the women he assaulted reported him.”
Actually, only one of the charges against Nungesser was a clear allegation of rape. What’s more, there are indications that the accusations may not have been completely independent of each other.
A fairly detailed account of the second and third complaints against Nungesser, based on interviews with his accusers, can be found in a January 2014 story on the university's handling of sexual-assault charges posted at Bwog, the Columbia online student publication. According to the article, Sulkowicz (identified as “Sara,” since she had not gone public at the time) ran into Nungesser’s former girlfriend, “Natalie,” at a campus party at some point before she filed the complaint; having “heard rumors of their messy relationship,” she “couldn’t help but wonder about the nature of their split.” (Natalie did not respond to a request for an interview, while Sulkowicz did not respond to a question about her interaction with Natalie.)
The Bwog story also says that the third accuser, whom it identifies by the pseudonym “Josie,” decided to bring a complaint after “a mutual friend” of hers and Nungesser’s told her he had been named in a sexual-assault complaint. The article provides no clue as to the identity of this friend. But Nungesser says that at the hearing on Josie’s charge, the ADP officer who had sought to have him expelled from the society openly admitted that she had encouraged Josie to come forward.
Nungesser’s claim about the ADP officer’s testimony is confirmed by Michael Roberson (not his real name), who attended the hearing as his official supporter. Columbia rules allow both parties in a sexual-assault case to have a “supporter” from the university community who assists them in a quasi-advocacy capacity; Roberson, then a graduate student who had no prior acquaintance with Nungesser, took on this role as part of his service in a mentoring program for undergraduates. Currently an academic consultant living in his native England, he was interviewed for this article by video call. While he now believes that the charges against Nungesser are “completely false,” he stresses that he “did not have that impression going in” and undertook the task simply out of commitment to due process for those accused of offenses.
The charge brought by Josie was the only one on which Nungesser was initially found “responsible,” with a sentence of disciplinary probation. But that finding was later overturned; Nungesser’s appeal cited various errors and improprieties, including the admission of hearsay, and claimed that the burden of proof—“preponderance of the evidence”—had not been met. When the complaint was referred for a new hearing, Josie decided to withdraw from the process. (The New York Times article suggested that this was because she had already graduated and was unable to participate, but in fact, Josie had already graduated at the time of the first hearing.) The second hearing cleared Nungesser on that charge as well.
Nungesser has always staunchly denied that anything happened between him and Josie; he says he attended the party but never followed her upstairs and certainly never groped her or tried to kiss her, and that the accusation was a ploy to get him kicked out of ADP. As evidence that Josie was not uncomfortable around him, he offers a screenshot of a Jan. 29, 2013, email that he says she sent in response to his request on the ADP listserv to open the door if a package for him arrived in his absence. In the email, Josie not only offers a “friendly PSA” that the package can be left in the vestibule if he signs for by leaving a note on the front door, but makes a ribald joke: “People are usually pretty good about bringing in packages if they’re sitting there, so unless you’re waiting for a golden dildo or something equally expensive (?) it’s usually worth it.” (Josie declined to be interviewed for this article or to comment on the authenticity of the email.)
Nungesser is also emphatic that “there was never any kind of abuse whatsoever, not of a physical nature, not of an emotional nature” in his relationship with Natalie, which began early in their freshman year, in October 2011 and was over by the end of the spring semester. He acknowledges that it was “a really difficult relationship” in which he “completely loved” Natalie in the beginning but later struggled with his waning feelings for her. Natalie was apparently wrestling from her own personal issues: The Bwog article mentions that she “was suffering from serious depression before meeting [Nungesser] and had recently ended an emotionally abusive relationship.” That story also makes clear 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.” Meanwhile, Nungesser says that while Natalie was angry at him after he decided to end the relationship, they “talked things out” in the fall of 2012 and remained on friendly terms for some time after that. He showed me a screenshot of an October 2012 Facebook chat in which they agreed to meet for dinner; according to Nungesser, he offered it into evidence to the Title IX investigator.
Natalie’s complaint was dismissed in July 2013, after—by her own admission to the Bwog and The New York Times—she stopped responding to emails asking her to call the Title IX investigator to discuss the case. A letter from the Office of Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct informed Nungesser, in clunky bureaucratese, that “based on the information available from the investigation, there is not sufficient information to indicate that reasonable suspicion exists to believe that a policy violation occurred.” The finding in Josie’s favor was reversed on appeal on Oct. 28. On the next day, a hearing was finally held on Sulkowicz’s complaint.
That hearing figures prominently in Sulkowicz’s claim that she was wronged by the university during the disciplinary process; she has said that she was subjected to humiliating and needlessly graphic interrogation. Last September, she told New York magazine that panel members kept badgering her with questions about the exact position she was in during the rape: “At one point, I was like, ‘Should I just draw you a picture?’ So I drew a stick drawing.”
But Roberson, the supporter who sat at Nungesser’s side during the hearing and watched Sulkowicz’s testimony on closed-circuit television, strongly disputes the notion that there was anything inappropriate about her questioning. “The panel were asking sensible questions; they were equally asked of Paul, and had been asked of Paul through the entire process. I’d been sitting in on the initial meetings where his statements were noted down. The questions were extremely personal because they had to be. That was much more graphic than anything that happened in the hearing, and the questions were asked with the utmost sensitivity.”
Nungesser has his own gripes about the hearing. Among other things, he says he was never allowed to present the Facebook exchanges, which he regards as strongly exculpatory, to the panel: The hearing, he claims, had to focus exclusively on the facts of the alleged attack in an attempt to decide whose version of this event was more credible. Despite this, and despite a low “preponderance of the evidence” standard which requires adjudicators to find in favor of the complainant if they believe it is even slightly more likely than not than the assault occurred, Nungesser was cleared. In late November, the university upheld that decision, rejecting Sulkowicz’s appeal. Nungesser says he now felt free to pursue his earlier plans to spend a semester in the Czech Republic studying at a Prague film school. But he was about to face a new trial—in the media and in the court of public opinion.
In December 2013, shortly before flying to Germany for the winter break, Nungesser says he received an email from The New York Post giving him a few hours to respond for a story about his case (he did not) and then had to dodge Post photographers outside his building. The Post story, which described him as an entitled campus jock who had gotten away with multiple sexual assaults “because the school dropped the ball on investigating him,” ran on Dec. 11. In spring, while Nungesser was in Prague, Sulkowicz went public, appearing at a press conference with Sen. Gillibrand and then on the front page of The New York Times. (The Times did not contact Nungesser for comment—one of the authors of that piece, Richard Pérez-Peña, told The Daily Beast, "When that article was published in early May, we did not know the man’s identity. As far as I know, at that point in time, Ms. Sulkowicz had never publicly identified him.")
Nungesser’s anonymity was increasingly precarious: In early May, lists of campus “rapists” and “sexual-assault violators” began to show up in bathrooms in several Columbia dorms, with his name topping the list as a “serial rapist.” Then, on May 14, Sulkowicz filed a police report. In her comments to The Columbia Spectator, she said: “Maybe his name should be in the public record.” And indeed, The Columbia Spectator story included Nungesser’s name.
Sulkowicz ultimately elected not to pursue criminal charges (she has been quoted as saying that it would be “too draining”). According to Nungesser’s criminal defense attorney, Daniel Parker, Nungesser voluntarily met and spoke with two Manhattan assistant district attorneys in August and was later informed that no charges would be brought against him. Yet, as Nungesser returned to the Columbia campus, the notoriety of his case exploded with Sulkowicz’s mattress protest.
Sulkowicz’s act, which is also her senior project for her visual arts degree, has been praised as both protest and art. To Nungesser, however, it is something else altogether: harassment. “It’s explicitly designed to bully me into leaving the school—she has said so repeatedly,” he says, referring to Sulkowicz’s statement that she will carry the mattress until either Nungesser leaves Columbia or they both graduate. “That is not art. If she was doing this for artistic self-expression, or exploration of her identity—all these are valid motives. Scaring another student into leaving university is not a valid motive.”
Nungesser also says he has been the target of social-media threats. A Tumblr post that began to circulate last September said, “The name of Emma Sulkowicz’s rapist is Jean-Paul Nungesser. Don’t let him have any feeling of anonymity or security. Rapists don’t get the luxury of feeling comfortable.” Around the same time, Nungesser says that he and his parents spotted an eventually removed a Facebook post that had a far more ominous tone, stating, “I’m only pissed that I’m not in NY to CUT HIS THROAT MYSELF!”
Nonetheless, Nungesser still has a measure of anonymity at school. A few people have snapped photos of him and posted them online; however, he is not instantly recognizable and attracts no stares as he walks through the campus. Most classmates, he says, do not realize who he is, and even professors who recognize his name on the roster do not seem to match his face to his name.
In addition to a small number of friends, Nungesser also has a new girlfriend, Angela (not her real name), who agreed to join him at the end of the interview for The Daily Beast on the condition that not only her name but the name of the college she attends not be disclosed. They met while studying in Prague and had been together for a few weeks when Nungesser told her about his case shortly before his name was made public. “I was trying to connect this person portrayed in the media with this person that I knew and I couldn’t really find any connections,” says Angela, who is eager to emphasize that she does not take sexual assault lightly. “It’s not like an easy decision for me, to stay with Paul. But I do because I have overwhelming trust in him.”
That overwhelming trust is shared by Nungesser’s parents, who have anxiously followed his travails from overseas. They discussed his case, its coverage in the media, and their frustrations with Columbia’s policies with The Daily Beast in late January, in Karin Nungesser’s home office on the ground floor of their home. (The city where they live is not being named at Paul Nungesser’s request.)
“What really struck us as outrageously unfair,” says Nungesser’s father, Andreas Probosch, a schoolteacher who speaks near-perfect English, “was the university’s non-reaction to Emma Sulkowicz's public campaign. After investigating the allegations against Paul for seven months they found them not credible, but when Ms. Sulkowicz went to the press and claimed Columbia had swept everything under the rug, why didn’t they stand by his side and say, ‘We do have a process and we followed that process and we stand by the acquittal’? Instead they declined to comment and just threw him under the bus.”
Both Probosch and Nungesser express bafflement at the practice of letting colleges handle allegations of violent rape. But if such a process must exist, says Probosch, “doesn’t [it] only make sense if people accept its outcome?” In this case, he says, “Paul went through this whole process with endless hours of hearings and interviews and cooperated in every way possible. And yet if you Google him, in half of the articles you´ll find, he is still labeled a serial rapist.”
For Nungesser’s mother, Karin, the situation is laden with additional irony as a self-described committed feminist. Paul Nungesser’s comment to The New York Times, “My mother raised me as a feminist,” caused predictable controversy; but his mother, at least, agrees. She points out that she and her husband took an equal role in parenting and that gender issues, which were part of her journalistic work, were often discussed in their home when her son was growing up: “I think we did not just tell him that men and women are created equal, but we lived it.”
Karin Nungesser fully understands the desire to support someone who comes forward with an accusation of rape: “This is a good cause—but even in a good cause, you have to try to check the facts.” What she views as the failure to check the facts in this case appalls her not only as a feminist but as a journalist. “We can’t understand to this day why the major media never asked Paul about his side,” she says. “Going back to our own history, the media in western Germany were built upon the model of The New York Times. It was the idea of good journalism, of good fact-checking, of not doing propaganda.”
It is likely that some facts in this case will never be known. Nungesser’s feminist upbringing does not make him incapable of sexual assault, and his former girlfriend’s reported psychological problems prior to their relationship do not mean that he did not abuse her. The reported interaction between Nungesser’s alleged victims does not necessarily prove that they unduly influenced each other’s stories.
Yet this case is far from as clear-cut as much of the media coverage has made it out to be. And if Nungesser is not a sexual predator, he could be seen as a true victim: a man who has been treated as guilty even after he has proved his innocence.
Ed. Note—the original version of this story mistakenly listed the date that Nungesser first talked to the Office of Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct as April 2012. It was April 2013.