Few documentary makers see their work bring results as substantial as those witnessed by producer Amy Ziering and writer-director Kirby Dick when The Invisible War, their exposé of sexual assault in the U.S. military, was screened for secretary of defense Leon Panetta in April 2012. One of the key problems identified in the movie was the policy requiring any military assault victim to report the incident directly to his or her commanding officer, who might be friends with the perpetrator or might even be the perpetrator himself. The day after seeing The Invisible War, however, Panetta ordered this policy changed so that victims file reports of sexual assault further up the chain of command, to a colonel or higher-ranking officer.
With The Hunting Ground, Ziering and Dick shift their focus from the most powerful conservative institution in America to the most powerful liberal institution—higher education—and find it similarly ineffective in punishing sexual offenders. According to the filmmakers’ projections, some 100,000 young people will be sexually assaulted on college campuses this year, yet only a small fraction of those crimes will be reported, and only a small fraction of those will be punished. Like The Invisible War, The Hunting Ground presents allegations of sexual assault from a variety of witnesses and culminates in a crusade for justice that brings those witnesses to Washington, D.C. Yet the crimes alleged in The Hunting Ground are governed not by the Uniform Code of Military Justice, a closed system that allows the armed forces to police themselves, but by university administrators subject to the messier arenas of civil and criminal law. The movie may inspire a sense of outrage, but it’s less likely than The Invisible War to bring about any change.
Both movies begin with credit sequences that define the institutional promise made to women: in The Invisible War an old army-training film and recruitment TV commercials celebrate women in the ranks, and in The Hunting Ground a montage of home video shows young women anxiously opening response letters from their dream schools and shrieking with excitement as they learn they’ve been admitted. Images of women arriving on campus and moving into their dorm rooms follow, but the dream turns ugly as Andrea Pino and Annie Clark, two students from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, recall being forcibly raped at frat parties. According to Clark, the year she arrived at UNC two incoming freshmen were raped before classes had even begun. A title insert, citing six different academic studies, estimates that 16 to 20 percent of women are sexually assaulted at some point during their college careers.
Pino and Clark aren’t the only ones: about a half dozen other women come forward to share their stories, and in one damning montage, Dick collects their accounts of trying to report sexual assaults to college administrators, who immediately placed the onus on them. “Rape is like a football game, Annie,” Clark remembers hearing from the woman who listened to her story. “What would you do differently?” Melinda Manning, formerly an assistant dean at UNC, reports that administrators discourage victims of sexual assault from going to the police, and Kimberly Theidon, a professor at Harvard, explains that universities consider sexual assault a PR problem more than a matter of student safety. Many of the women claiming they were assaulted saw their complaints go nowhere and had to get used to seeing their assailants strolling around campus.
Ziering and Dick make their case against the universities primarily through anecdotal evidence and statistics, which show that only 5 percent of campus assaults are reported and only a small percentage of those lead to expulsion or criminal prosecution. In 2012, 40 percent of all U.S. colleges and universities reported no rapes whatsoever, and 95 percent of all college presidents defended their institutions’ handling of sexual assault cases. The anecdotal evidence is even more damning, suggesting that even when a student is found guilty of sexual assault, his punishment is typically a slap on the wrist: one culprit was asked to draw a poster listing appropriate ways to approach a woman, another was assigned a paper, yet another was ordered to complete community service at a rape crisis center, and some lucky offenders were given “expulsion after graduation,” whatever that means.
The Hunting Ground makes its biggest contributions to the debate by clarifying the scope of the problem and identifying the larger economic forces that inhibit universities from taking effective action. As Ziering and Dick explain, the majority of campus assaults—90 percent—are acquaintance rapes, the typical scenario being a woman at a fraternity party who’s fed alcohol, and in some cases date-rape drugs, and then spirited away to a private room for a sexual seduction that turns violent. (“No means yes! Yes means anal!” chanted pledges to Delta Kappa Epsilon, George W. Bush’s old frat, outside the women’s freshman dorms at Yale University last October.) Yet the biggest problem, the movie reveals, isn’t the majority of frat rats, obnoxious though they may be, but a small subset of serial predators who commit 91 percent of all campus sexual assaults and average six incidents over the course of their college careers.
Isolating these pathological cases should be easy enough, but as the movie reveals, nothing at a U.S. college or university is easy when it poses a threat to the Greek system or the athletic program, both of which are major revenue sources. According to The Hunting Ground, fraternity members are three times more likely than other male students to rape someone, yet fraternity alumni account for 60 percent of all university donations over $100 million. Student athletes account for about 3 percent of the student body, yet they commit 19 percent of all campus sexual assaults, secure in the knowledge that their privileged status on campus will protect them. Included in the movie is the well-publicized case of Jameis Winston, a quarterback for Florida State University, who was accused of assaulting a fellow student in December 2012; an April 2014 story in the New York Times concluded that “there was virtually no investigation at all, either by the police or the university.” Winston went on to win the Heisman Trophy; his accuser, interviewed in The Hunting Ground, says she was ultimately hounded out of school.
Another national news story looming over The Hunting Ground is the Rolling Stone report of a frat-house gang rape at the University of Virginia that was published in November 2014 and almost immediately began to fall apart. The magazine based its story on the alleged victim’s account and, out of concern for her privacy and safety, failed to corroborate it by interviewing any of the alleged attackers; shortly after the story was published the magazine added a disclaimer copping to all of this, and earlier this week it promised to publish an external review of the story by the dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Dick has assured interviewers that the witnesses in his movie were carefully vetted, and in contrast to the anonymous victim in Rolling Stone, the women who tell their stories in The Hunting Ground are all identified. Taking questions this weekend after a screening at Landmark’s Century Centre, he expressed frustration that one botched report could steal the spotlight from the more important issue of forcing universities to take action.
Yet the Rolling Stone mess also underscores a point that he and Ziering downplay in their movie: some accusers do lie. According to a statistic cited onscreen, anywhere from 2 to 8 percent of rape accusations are false (production notes revise the top figure to 10 percent), and one can’t help noticing that, except for Jameis Winston, Ziering and Dick never identify any of the perpetrators of the crimes alleged. University administrators don’t have that luxury; if they take draconian action against a student without conclusive evidence, they face the almost certain prospect of litigation. Add to that the difficulty of proving rape by an acquaintance, especially when the accuser may have been drinking heavily and may have followed the attacker into his bedroom, and you begin to understand that there’s more to the equation than alumni bucks, rabid sports fans, and protecting the school from bad publicity.
Speaking at the Landmark, Kirby also noted that dozens of colleges and universities have arranged for special screenings of the film, which will help educate incoming students about the dangers they face on campus. The idea of cautioning young women to stay away from risky situations is derided by one of the movie’s interview subjects as part of the problem: women have the right to feel safe wherever they go, and warning them away from dangerous environments helps perpetuate the myth that they’re responsible for anything bad that happens to them. On the other hand, avoiding a sexual assault can be a lot easier and less painful than trying to get justice afterward, or living with the trauma for the rest of one’s life. Where American jurisprudence is concerned, an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure.