Critics of the hit documentary The Hunting Ground - which illuminates in damning detail the prevalence of sexual violence at American universities - are ramping up their attacks just in time for The Hunting Ground's prime time debut on CNN this Sunday, November 22. And if they aren't careful, their aspersions might dovetail with the massive audience CNN commands to result in a spectacular backfire: For the film's central premise is that whistle blowers on campus sexual violence are demonized and delegitimized by the very same universities who are going on the offensive in advance of Sunday's screening.
Directed by Kirby Dick and produced by Amy Ziering, The Hunting Ground debuted to rave reviews and a standing ovation at Sundance in January - the New York Times called it a "must-watch work of cine-activism." It has since been screened at the White House, and submitted for consideration for a feature documentary Academy Award.
Using the testimony of young women who experienced sexual assault at schools like Berkeley, Harvard, and UNC Chapel Hill, The Hunting Ground brings vivid and heart-rending life to the statistic that one in five women experiences sexual assault in college. It chronicles the trauma of the violence they endure, and excoriates the lack of protection afforded to them by the institutions they trusted.
In the aftermath of their assaults, The Hunting Ground's young women describe classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including nightmares (one girl's were so vivid she woke up bleeding - she was trying to scratch her invisible rapist away from her neck), panic attacks, self-harm, and suicide attempts. Their desperation over the severity of their symptoms finally prompted some of the girls to go university administrators; others went after a friend came to them with a similar story of assault.
The response they receive from an array of administrators is fantastically crude. "Rape is like a football game," a UNC administrator told one girl. "If you look back on the game, what would you do differently?" Such inquisition seems the norm: "What were you wearing? Were you drinking? How much did you pregame? Did you say no? How many times did you say no?" Another girl was asked. A girl at Yale was told that the written admission of guilt she had procured from her rapist only proved that he "loved her".
In the same schools, these odious phraseologies are held up as examples of structural bias in gender studies and psychology courses. Their law schools and political science departments teach their students that rape is considered by international legal bodies to be a weapon of war, a war crime, and a crime against humanity. And their students, many of whom have come to college to learn how the world is ordered so they can shape a better one, can only infer by their administrators' actions in response to sexual violence that their professors' lessons are unworthy of being taken seriously.
Indeed, sexual violence seems to fall so low on universities' hierarchies of moral offence as to register below honor code violations. At the University of Virginia, the film reports there were 205 reported assaults between 1998 and 2013, and zero resulting expulsions. There were 183 expulsions for cheating and other honor code violations during the same time period. UVA has thus determined that plagiarizing a term paper is more unforgiveable than committing a war crime. This insouciance is echoed in the punishments doled out to perpetrators at other universities in the film: A one-day suspension, a $25 dollar fine, and a response paper assigned for the perpetrator to reflect upon what he has done.
The explanation offered up for this callous treatment of rape victims and kid glove treatment of perpetrators isn't so much maliciousness as convenience: Administrators are quoted as saying that they are pressured to deny that sexual violence occurs on campus, because acknowledging that it does becomes a public relations problem for the university. This, along with the potential for lawsuits from students who have been expelled, can become a financial problem for the university.
But The Hunting Ground has itself become a deserved public relations problem for the universities it features, and they are desperate to impugn its credibility in response. Florida State University has hired crisis management firm G.F. Bunting + Co., to lobby CNN not to air the film this Sunday, by claiming it lacks journalistic integrity. "It is inexcusable for a network as respected as CNN to pretend that the film is a documentary rather than an advocacy piece," FSU president John Thrasher wrote in a letter to his community.
Conservative publications like The National Review have piled on, claiming that advocacy journalism is intrinsically oxymoronic and that pure journalism must lack a point of view. This is a particularly preposterous proposition coming from The National Review, an overtly partisan publication. Journalism exists to hold powerful institutions to account. Just as The National Review is allowed to marshal what evidence it can to call The Hunting Ground inaccurate, so too is the film allowed to present its own evidence that universities are more interested in protecting themselves than they are in protecting past and future rape victims.
Moreover, attempts to undermine the film only prove its point that institutions favor accused perpetrators. A cabal of Harvard Law School professors recently published a statement defending (and naming) one of their students, who was (anonymously) accused of sexual assault in the film. The letter emphasized that he was not responsible for the women's inebriation, nor was he a repeat offender. (Congratulations?) "There was never any evidence that Mr. Winston used force," they write, "nor were there even any charges that he used force." They neglect to mention that force would have never been necessary, because the women were unconscious when Mr. Winston began to assault them, rendering a "forceful" response impossible.
The Harvard Law professors claim the documentary "provides a seriously false picture of... the sexual assault phenomenon at universities." This is curious, given the letter sent to the entire Harvard community earlier this fall by Harvard President Drew Faust outlining her concerns about sexual violence on campus. Faust cited a survey of female Harvard College seniors, in which 31% (of the 60% of female seniors overall who responded to the survey) said they had experienced some form of "nonconsensual sexual contact" since college began. She also acknowledged "the disturbingly low percentage of students who... believe that the University will respond appropriately when assaults are reported." Far from providing a "seriously false picture," The Hunting Ground seems to have it just right.
The most important thing The Hunting Ground can do is pierce the pervasive illusion that sexual violence is uncommon on college campuses. In 2012, 45% of colleges reported zero sexual assaults. A year without sexual assaults on a college campus is like a "democratic" election where 99% of the population votes for one candidate. Before you learn about autocracies, you might just assume the candidate is extremely popular, and before you learn about sexual violence, you might assume that a campus without a single instance of it is simply full of upstanding youth. If zero cases of sexual assault remains a standard presumed to be remotely achievable in the short term, administrators will keep feeling pressure to see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil in order to keep their statistics low.
To actually reach zero, we need to better and more explicitly educate our sons about sexual violence. It is understandable for a parent to view a conversation with their son confirming he understands having sex with an unconscious woman is unacceptable with displeasure - what parent wouldn't find that excruciating, or like to assume their child knows better? But The Hunting Ground shows a news clip of an indignant young man that illustrates crisply why such conversations are nonetheless necessary: " "Because you had sex and a woman said no, are you a rapist automatically because of that?" He asks a reporter, as if the answer is rhetorically in the negative.
While mandating that students read and watch graphic scenes of rape runs the risk of triggering some students, such a requirement would also ask students to take rape seriously. The song Lady Gaga composed and recorded for The Hunting Ground, "Till It Happens to You," reminds listeners they can't know how sexual violence would scar them unless it has happened to them. This is true, but the next most effective way to get people to whom it hasn't happened to take it seriously might be a serious crash course in empathetic imagination.
The Hunting Ground will not surprise most young women. We know that we don't report sexual violence (in the rare cases when we do) to exact revenge for having been spurned or to seek attention, as critics in the film and of the film suggest. The same rate of false reporting applies to sexual violence as it does any other crime in America - two to eight percent. Yet that single-digit number receives the lion's share of the attention from those who would rather not acknowledge the other 92-98%. This includes John Thrasher, who likened The Hunting Ground to Rolling Stone's discredited story on campus rape, without, ironically, a shred of evidence to back him up.
As a young woman, it is jarring to learn that there are people who doubt that sexual violence is common, and stranger yet to learn there are people who are skeptical it should be taken seriously. Those unsure what they believe should certainly watch The Hunting Ground, for it is as convincing as its detractors are not. But there is also a reason for those who already know how terribly common sexual violence is to tune in Sunday night on CNN: The institutions The Hunting Ground call out deserve to feel a fraction of the humiliation and hurt that the thousands of victims of sexual violence they have brushed aside over the years have felt.
Maybe then some of these institutions can find within themselves a fraction of their courage.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.