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<i>The Hunting Ground</i>: Stop Victim Blaming and End Campus Rape

I believe the two most basic religious questions are: "What can I trust?" and "Am I alone?" The immoral failure of schools of higher learning to be a place students can trust is, in the broadest sense, a betrayal of this religious value.
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"One in five women in college will be sexually assaulted." That is only one of the horrifying statistics in the new documentary The Hunting Ground on the "epidemic" of campus sexual assault. It is the work of Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, whose previous documentary, The Invisible War, about sexual assault in the military, was nominated for an Academy Award.

The film is premiering starting this week and will be shown on CNN later this year. It is horrifying and inspiriting in turn. I just saw it, and I can tell you there were gasps from the audience at several points.

The power of this documentary is not due to horrifying statistics, however, but to so much searing personal testimony of those, women and men, who have been sexually assaulted on college campuses and who have been blamed and shamed, and who have not seen justice. Perhaps even more heartbreaking is the voices of parents of students who have committed suicide following an assault.

But the gasps were telling, because they often came at the blatant contradictions between the halting voices of the ones victimized not only by campus sexual assault, but also by their schools' failure to support them, and the high-sounding, even pious rhetoric of especially college and university presidents extolling the virtues of their institutions.

Now I have been a seminary president, and I know that making your school sound like a paradise of virtue and opportunity is often expected. But it is blatantly immoral for an institution to fail to live up to those very virtues when it comes to sexual assault. And the truth is: the failure to live up to those virtues is not accidental. It is all about money.

One crucial point made over and over in the film is that these sexual assaults are not a few "bad apples" on campuses, but a systematic pattern of enabling that results when colleges and universities prefer to dismiss, defer, and finally hide the extent of campus sexual assault because they are in the business of getting tuition, donor dollars, and the revenues from sports teams.

This is the hidden financial motive that makes this a systemic issue and not just a matter of individual cases of sexual assault. Rape on campus statistics could deter students from attending, make schools look bad to donors, and if the assailant is ultimately proved to be an athlete, hurt the revenue from college sports. Even the culture of impunity around certain fraternities that are known to be places where sexual assaults occur has a financial motive for schools. Fraternities provide housing stock that overcrowded schools need.

The film is not just horrifying. It is also inspiring because it is the students themselves who are working to change this culture and force schools to confront this epidemic of sexual assault.

The central narrative is the journey of two women, Andrea Pino and Annie E. Clark, who go from being victims, to becoming survivors and then powerful national activists on campus rape. Pino and Clark were students at the University of North Carolina when they were each raped. But it was the lack of action by administrators, and what must be seen as a culture of complicity at the school, that led them to file a Title IX complaint against UNC. Through their networking efforts and the courageous work of other campus activists, now 95 schools are under investigation under Title IX for the 'hostile and intimidating environment' created by campus rapes.

These young people researched the law on their own, with no one to help them, and taught themselves and then others how to use the law to force their schools to do what the schools should have been willing to do all along. "I learned you could be 20 and take on a 200-year-old university."

Administrators are very often doing the exact opposite of justice for students who have been victimized by rape. The attitude of some administrators to students when they attempt to report rape has to be heard to be believed, as the film makes clear.

"When I went to an administrator to report my assault, I was told that rape is like a football game," Clark remembers. "The administrator asked me if, looking back, there was anything I would have done differently."

Victim-blaming. There it is. This is the consistent pattern behind the testimonies, the statements over and over that the rape was terrible, but the experience of trying to report, trying to get their schools to hear them, believe them and then act with fairness was sometimes worse. That's why "88 percent of victims don't report," as another statistic in the film reveals.

I waited through the whole film for someone to talk about going to a campus chaplain for help. There is no mention of that, and if chaplains had been victim-advocates, I think one of the many survivors would have noted it. I found that absence a huge indictment of the religious chaplaincy system.

The failure to deal adequately with campus rape is not just due to uninformed administration or chaplaincy, but as the film makes unrelentingly clear, is the result of a systematic effort to silence victims because colleges and universities have a huge financial investment in the status quo.

The victim-blaming is part of the enabling culture as sexual assault is still not seen as a crime of violence, and an exercise of power of one (or more than one) over another. Instead, sexual assault is still considered shameful for the victim, and accusations of rape are met with disbelief and silencing.

But you can see the positive changes in Andrea Pino and Annie E. Clark and many others in the film as they go from being victims to becoming survivors and then activists. This is a hard journey, and as they open themselves to support other victims, they feel their own pain again.

There is no doubt, however, that their work is making a difference. The documentary is being requested by campuses nationwide. There have been more than 1,600 inquiries and 150 campuses are booked so far.

I believe the two most basic religious questions are: "What can I trust?" and "Am I alone?" The immoral failure of schools of higher learning to be a place students can trust is, in the broadest sense, a betrayal of this religious value.

The moral high ground of this film is this reality: "You are not alone." Sign up to take action on the film's website and #EndCampusRape.

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