The Hunting Ground: The failures of a new documentary about rape on college campuses
The Hunting Ground opens like a horror movie: We meet a suite of innocents who have no idea they’re heading off to hell. This documentary about sexual assault on college campuses begins with YouTube videos of high school girls reacting with tearful joy to their acceptance letters. Lambs to the slaughter, we’re supposed to think. The film that follows portrays college as so dangerous for young women that the viewer is left with the sense that these students would have been better off posting college rejection videos and staying home.
The Hunting Ground arrives at an interesting moment in the national conversation on campus sexual assault. Press coverage and statements from government and university officials portray a problem of vast scope. The Obama administration has taken action: Schools are now under pressure from the federal government to show they take sexual assault charges seriously and mete out appropriate punishment. At the same time, a number of critics (and I’m one of them) suggest that a moral panic is clouding our ability to rationally assess the problem. A range of voices—among them journalists and law professors—has raised concerns that the systems being put in place at schools to adjudicate these cases are grossly unfair to the accused. What a perfect time for a film that addresses all this, and illuminates a way forward.
Unfortunately, The Hunting Ground is not that movie. It is a polemic that—as its title suggests—portrays young women as prey, frequently assaulted and frequently ignored by their universities and law enforcement when they try to bring charges. The movie, from director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering, features numerous interviews with women who describe horrific experiences, and their testimony has raw, emotional power. But good policy about the lives of young people—female and male—needs to be based on prudent assessment. The film traffics in alarmist statistics and terrifying assertions, but fails to acknowledge both the recent changes in the way the government and universities approach sexual assault charges and the critiques that those changes go too far. By refusing to engage the current conversation about this issue, the film does its subjects—and us all—a disservice.
The Hunting Ground relentlessly makes the point, for example, that about 20 percent of female college students will be sexually assaulted by classmates. Diane Rosenfeld of Harvard Law School analogizes that if the parents of male students were told their sons had a “1 in 4 or 5 chance” of being a victim of a drive-by shooting at college, Mom and Dad would think twice about sending them. In a Slate piece in December on campus sexual assault, I examined some of the studies underlying this claim, which has long been cited by advocates on this issue. It turns out many of the studies rest on narrow samples or wildly extrapolated numbers. (Even New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a co-sponsor of proposed legislation on campus sexual assault who appears briefly in the film, quietly took the “1 in 5” statistic off her website in December.) Callie Marie Rennison, co-director of the Criminology and Criminal Justice Research Initiative at the University of Colorado Denver, writing in the New York Times, deplored the idea that students and parents are being bombarded with assertions of “an epidemic where one does not exist.”
Not only is sexual assault an expected part of the college experience, the filmmakers assert, once it happens victims generally discover that no officials at their schools will take action or even care. These callous, indifferent administrators coddle perpetrators and systematically cover up heinous crimes in an effort to maintain their school’s good—if false—reputation. Occidental College assistant professor of sociology and activist Danielle Dirks says, “Schools are actively and aggressively not wanting to tell the truth about what is going on on their campuses. Because the first campuses to do so will be known as the rape campuses.” (In my article I mention Dirks’ involvement in getting a male freshman expelled from Occidental after he hooked up with a female freshman while both were drunk.)
The Hunting Ground asserts that even when a victim pushes past the roadblocks and makes a formal report to administrators, it will do no good. Lawyer and activist Colby Bruno says, “The message is clear: It’s don’t proceed through these disciplinary hearings. No matter what you do, you’re not going to win.” The film follows this quote with a graphic showing a paltry number of expulsions of male students at six top schools. But let’s examine this assertion that colleges would rather leave perpetrators unpunished than acknowledge there are any. The higher education insurance group, United Educators, just released a study of 305 sexual assault claims they received from 104 member schools for the three years ending in 2013. I spoke to the organization’s director of risk research, Alyssa Keehan, who said, “The most common narrative you hear is that institutions don’t care about sexual assault. Our data suggests otherwise.” UE’s findings show that when a formal complaint is brought against a student, in 45 percent of the cases he is found responsible. When that happens, more than 80 percent of the time he is given the most severe penalty available—either expulsion or suspension. The study found in 25 percent of the cases the accused is found not responsible. In 23 percent of the cases the school did not adjudicate, not because of a cover-up, but because in the majority of these instances the accuser either asked the school not to investigate, became uncooperative, or could not identify the accused. In the remainder of cases, the accused withdrew from school.
Keep in mind that UE’s broad definition of sexual assault includes, “sexual coercion, nonconsensual sexual touching (i.e., fondling and kissing)” as well as “nonconsensual sexual intercourse including vaginal, oral, and anal penetration.” (Although there is no standard definition of sexual assault used by colleges, this one is reflective of a general move to expand the term.) Is the UE study the final word to show that higher education does take sexual assault claims seriously? Of course not. It’s safe to say that when it comes to campus sexual assault no study is the final word. But I wish the filmmakers didn’t treat every data point, or statement by a talking head, as indisputable truth.
The Hunting Ground asserts that the criminal justice system is as uninterested in pursuing campus sexual assault cases as college administrators. But the recentVanderbilt University gang rape convictions offer one dramatic counterexample. This case, so appalling it shocks the conscience, is not examined in The Hunting Ground. There was no accuser bringing forth a claim—she has no memory of what happened because she was unconscious. Campus police, looking into a report of vandalism, found security footage of an unconscious female being dragged down a dormitory hall by a group of athletes. If ever a school had an opportunity to ignore a possible rape and spare itself a grave blow to its reputation, this was it. Instead, the campus police turned the footage over to Nashville police (and Vanderbilt eventually kicked the young men off the football team and expelled them). At first the victim refused to believe anything had happened to her. But the detectives were persistent, and their evidence, including horrifying cellphone videos, convinced her. After the verdict, she gave her heartfelt thanks to the authorities who helped her and made sure justice was done.
Young activists profiled in the film brought complaints to the federal government that their schools’ poor handling of sexual assaults violated Title IX, the law that forbids sex-based discrimination in education. In response the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights began an aggressive campaign of investigating schools for such violations—there are now around 100 schools on that burgeoning list.
But beyond noting this list, The Hunting Ground does not examine or explore the role of OCR, the most important player on the issue of campus sexual assault. The Obama administration has made ending campus sexual assault a signature issue. Toward that end, the OCR has released a series of regulatory edicts that has remade how campuses deal with sexual assault, starting with the infamous “Dear Colleague” letter released in 2011. That letter told administrators that they must put new rules in place to assure the physical and psychological safety of accusers. But that worthy goal has resulted in a system stacked against the accused, one that often assumes guilt and eviscerates due process. Groups of professors at both Harvard Law Schooland the University of Pennsylvania have written open letters condemning these developments.
Schools are focused on doing exactly what the OCR demands in order to avoid attracting its attention. The Chronicle of Higher Education notes that “a shadow justice system” is being set up on campuses, with schools hiring new staff—often lawyers—to investigate and adjudicate sexual assault cases and that law firms are offering their services as freelance finders of fact, at a fee of $5,000 to $20,000 per investigation. If you want to see how seriously schools are taking the OCR mandate, look at this page from the Swarthmore College website, touting how many personnel are devoted in full or in part at this school of 1,500 students to monitoring and handling sexual misconduct. But The Hunting Ground does not address the changes OCR has wrought in the ways campuses handle sexual assault accusations; instead it declares there are virtually no resources for victims.
Many of the female students in the film say that when they reported crimes against them they were asked rude questions, such as “Did you say ‘No’?,” “How much did you have to drink?,” and “What were you wearing?” But presenting such questions as prima facie insensitivity is unfair. People who handle campus sexual assault cases have to ask whether someone said no—that goes to the heart of whether there was consent. They need to ask how much someone had to drink—it’s relevant in establishing whether a victim can clearly recall the events in question. One investigator told me that asking what someone was wearing is not done to shame, but to establish facts. If he says she lifted her own skirt, and she says they struggled as he pulled off her jeans, then you have a matter that needs resolving.
A Swarthmore student in the film describes an assailant and says she knows of four other students assaulted by the same person. It’s a horrifying assertion. But we have no basis on which to judge it. What was the nature of these assaults? Were they reported? If so, how were they handled? If they weren’t reported, what was the school to do? As for the idea that Swarthmore blithely lets predators roam free—here’s a case for which details are available.
In the spring of 2011, Swarthmore students John Doe and Jane Doe shared a kiss. A few days later, they escalated their sexual contact but did not have intercourse. Shortly after that, there was a third rendezvous; by Jane’s own admission she came to John’s room and initiated consensual intercourse. Nineteen months after these events, Jane reconsidered what had happened and brought a complaint to the school that she had been coerced during the first and second encounters. The school investigated, but took no disciplinary action against John. Then two Swarthmore students filed a Title IX complaint with the OCR. Within two weeks the school reopened its investigation of John, quickly found him responsible for sexual assault, and expelled him. John filed suit, and at the end of last year, Swarthmore vacated its finding against John—who is now attending another college and has no intention of returning to Swarthmore. The Hunting Ground never even makes a feint at acknowledging that dozens of young men like John Doe have filed similar lawsuits, saying they were deprived of an education over dubious charges.
At the emotional heart of the film are a few extended stories, and they are wrenching. But these accounts leave out the kind of crucial details that show how complicated these cases can be. One is about Lizzy Seeberg, a 19-year-old who committed suicide by taking an overdose of antidepressants after reporting that a University of Notre Dame football player had forcibly kissed and touched her. (There was no allegation of rape.) It is agony to hear her father describe his daughter’s last days. But surely the filmmakers have an obligation to mention that Seeberg had long been treated fordepression and anxiety and that her therapist noted she’d previously had “suicidal thoughts.” And fairness would require them to acknowledge the accused’s differing version of the evening.
The longest set piece concerns the rape allegation against Jameis Winston, the former Florida State University quarterback. Winston was not charged after a criminal investigation and was found not responsibleafter a campus hearing in December. TheNew York Times wrote that the film challenges the National Football League to reconsider drafting him. In the movie his accuser, former FSU student Erica Kinsman, goes public. She says that after drinking a shot at an off-campus bar she started feeling strange: “I’m fairly certain there was something in that drink.” Slipping in and out of consciousness, she says she found herself in a cab with three men—Winston and his roommates—and woke to find him brutally raping her. But the filmmakers fail to note that two toxicology reports found that she had no drugs in her system and little alcohol. They don’t reveal that at the December hearing she did not assert that she was drugged or unconscious. And because Winston is on the record denying the charges, fairness would mean acknowledging this.
I recognize that raising questions about the stories of rape accusers is sensitive territory. And it was brave of the women in this film (and their families) to tell their stories. For far too long, women’s rape claims went ignored. But a rush to the opposite extreme—to privileging the claims of accusers without due diligence or due process or any recognition that sex can be murky territory—has already had real and devastating consequences at universities across the country. Sexual assault is a serious problem on campus, and activists are to be applauded for bringing attention and resources to it. But the atmosphere of alarm that pervades The Hunting Grounddoes not serve accusers, the accused, or their classmates, young people who are still learning how to think about sex.
At one point in the film a cheeky animation shows the absurd punishments imposed on young men found responsible for “sexual assault.” There is a student who is suspended for one day, one who is fined $25, and one who is asked to write a paper. But we have no idea what behavior is covered by the term “sexual assault.” I assume even the filmmakers would agree someone accused of an unwanted kiss should be treated differently from someone who had intercourse with an unconscious woman. Colleges today are being urged by the federal government to conduct “climate surveys” analyzing the incidence of and attitudes about sexual assault on campus. At Barnard College the 2014 campus climate survey found that about 20 percent of Barnard students said they had experienced sexual assault. The question that drew the overwhelming majority of responses was this: “During the past 12 months have you given into sexual play (fondling, kissing, touching, but not intercourse) when you didn’t want to because you were overwhelmed by the other person’s arguments and/or pressure?” This trivializing of sexual assault should give all of us pause. This definition means that if a male Columbia University student persuades a Barnard student to make out with him, and she later feels she was pressured, she could file a complaint that leads to his removal from school. Through such questions we may be teaching a generation of young men that pressuring a woman into sexual activity is never a good idea, but we are also teaching a generation of young women that they are malleable, weak, “overwhelmed,” and helpless in the face of male persuasion.
A film that factually and fairly examines what is happening on campuses regarding sexual assault, that looks at all the forces at work, that understands when there is an accuser there is also an accused, and that we need to hear both of their sides would be a useful contribution to this issue. The Hunting Ground is not that film.