The Rise of the Weak-Kneed Feminists

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Want to score an invite to the State of the Union address? One way to do so, it turns out, is to turn a rape accusation into a contemporary art project.

Imagine the following scenario: You’re a college student, and you believe you have been raped by a former friend. You don’t want to formally press charges with the police—that, you say, would be “too draining”—so you turn to your university administrators instead. When that approach goes awry, and school officials find your former friend “not responsible,” you, being a media-savvy sort, decide to turn your accusation into “performance art.” This involves schlepping a giant, 50-pound mattress around campus, gaining widespread praise in the press, and publicly dragging your former friend’s name through the mud.

This is the case of Emma Sulkowicz, a fourth-year visual arts student at Columbia University. Her senior thesis, “Mattress Performance: Carry That Weight,” started in September 2014, two years after the alleged rape occurred. It will continue, Sulkowicz insists, until her accused “rapist” leaves the university campus. “Carry That Weight” was praised by New York magazine for its “messianic rage” and “pure radical vulnerability.” It also caught the eye of New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who invited Ms. Sulkowicz to join her at the president’s annual State of the Union applause fest—a speech that also, incidentally, put Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg straight to sleep. The traveling mattress, alas, did not get a seat in that particular row.

This week, journalist Cathy Young presented the other side of the story, giving Paul Nungesser, the accused rapist—a student from Germany whose name has long been public—a chance to speak out. The charges against him, at least as litigated in the court of public opinion, are serious. “The story Sulkowicz has told,” Young writes, “is nothing short of harrowing,” detailing a consensual sexual encounter that  “suddenly turned terrifyingly violent.” According to Sulkowicz’s account, Nungesser, “a man whom she considered a close friend and with whom she had sex on two prior occasions,” abruptly transformed into Mr. Hyde during their third go-round, pinning her down, choking her, and violating her while she screamed in pain.

It’s a nightmarish account. If it were true, Nungesser would not only be disturbed, but dangerous. But in the aftermath of the alleged attack, something odd happened: For the next few months, as Young reports, Sulkowicz continued to treat Nungesser as a friend. She cheerfully responded to his party invites. She invited him to “hang out.”  In response to his message wishing her a happy birthday, she responded, “I love you Paul. Where are you?!?!?!”

By April of 2013, however, the love had apparently run out: Sulkowicz, together with two other women, accused him of sexual assault. The rest is media history, and it’s fair to say that Sulkowicz, with her mattress hoisted high, has dominated this particular narrative. Young’s article, which sets aside the hype and soberly assesses the facts surrounding Sulkowicz’s account—detailing, it should be noted, how those two other “sexual assault” charges, which were apparently somewhat spurious, quickly wilted away—is certainly worth a read. It is even more telling, however, to assess the instant and outraged feminist responses it inspired.

Uniting under the Twitter hashtag #TheresNoPerfectVictim, feminists decried Young for “victim blaming,” contributing to “rape culture,” and, as Katie McDonough wrote in Salon, perpetuating “the ‘perfect victim’ myth,” a tool used to discredit and humiliate rape survivors. Any questioning of the behavior of rape accusers, feminist activist Julie Zellinger wrote, is merely an attempt to “shame and silence victims, perpetuating a cycle that allows campus sexual assault to persist at shocking rates.”

These are all fairly predictable responses, but others were less so. The weirdest ones, in fact, seemed to justify women coddling the men who sexually assaulted them. “True story: I texted my rapist after the fact too,” Washington Post contributor Zerlina Maxwell tweeted. “Doesn’t mean he didn’t do it.” Women “act all sorts of ways toward their rapist after being attacked – they can even be friendly,” tweeted Guardian writer Jessica Valenti, linking to a blog post in which an anonymous rape victim sorrowfully describes making her rapist “eggs, bacon, and golden brown toast” the morning after an assault, complete with cutesy illustrations, and, of course, a trigger warning.

I’m sorry, everyone. I’m all for empathy and understanding, and I’m all for the realization that many rape victims react to and cope with their assaults in strange and unexpected ways. But when modern feminism has spiraled into an impassioned defense of making your rapist breakfast, I think we’re starting to get the definition of “empowered” wrong.

You know what? As a woman, I don’t want to celebrate “pure radical vulnerability,” the supposed virtue symbolized by Sulkowicz’s mattress. I don’t want women to make breakfast for their rapists. More importantly, I don’t want modern feminists, constantly hiding under the guise of “empathy” and “understanding,” to celebrate and normalize self-destructive “I’ll be nice to him”/”I’ll text him”/”I’ll stay with him” behaviors that prevent assault victims from seeking actual justice.

You know what would be really empowering? Putting rapists—real rapists, not the victims of regrettable sex—in jail. But somehow, like a nightmarish conference call that never ends, modern feminists would rather just keep talking, twisting logic, making excuses, embracing victimhood, and ignoring common-sense paths to justice for women who are actually aggrieved.

We may never know what happened in the Columbia mattress rape case. What we do know—or at least what we are told—is that Sulkowicz, despite her seemingly boundless energy and her 50-pound mattress, is a fragile creature, crushed by any questioning of her narrative, no matter how incongruous it may be. To truly pursue justice, you see, would be “draining.” It would take a great deal of courage and strength. That, apparently, is not what feminism stands for any more.

Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin,Texas. Her work can be found at  http://www.heatherwilhelm.com/ and her Twitter handle is @heatherwilhelm.



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