The “perfect victim” myth: How attempts to discredit rape survivors stand in the way of real change

Following the lead of a December piece in the New York Times, the Daily Beast and writer Cathy Young on Tuesday profiled Paul Nungesser, the man Emma Sulkowicz says raped her and is the reason she’s carrying her dorm mattress in a performance art and protest piece called “Carry That Weight.” There is nothing in Young’s story that the Times didn’t already cover, and both make essentially the same case: Nungesser believes he is a nice guy who was wrongly accused of rape and is now being bullied off campus by an avenging woman and her network of powerful supporters, including New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

In the more than 5,000 word piece, Young provides transcripts of friendly Facebook exchanges Nungesser had with Sulkowicz after the alleged rape, his mother talks about raising her son in a feminist household and Young points out that Columbia University declined to discipline Nungesser after citing a lack of evidence in the case. In the end, Young concludes that Nungesser could very well be “a man who has been treated as guilty even after he has proved his innocence.”

Now if you believe that the battle to remake the institutions and cultural norms that foster rape and protect rapists will be lost or won on the unimpeachability of rape victims (for more on the limits of personal narratives in justice movements, this piece from Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig raises some interesting points), then Young’s history of writing to discredit victims can feel like a major thorn in the side of the anti-rape movement. And it’s important to respond to Young’s piece by pointing out why victims of abuse sometimes remain with their rapists or may try to protect their abusers (and themselves) by refusing to cooperate with investigations that can be hostile and re-victimizing. How trauma and memory can make victims’ stories seem unreliable. And how none of that changes the prevalence and realities of rape on campus and off.