“The Hunting Ground” opens with gleeful shrieking and tears of joy from high school girls reading college acceptance letters. All that SAT tutoring and toiling over college essays was worth it: these promising students are off to prestigious Ivy League and state schools that will launch them into equally prestigious, post-graduate jobs.
Of course, the next four years will see considerably more crying over peer pressure, soured romances, less-than-excellent grades, and horrible cafeteria food. But the dangers sketched in this documentary facing young women on campus are far graver than the ordinary stuff of growing pains—they revolve around sexual assault.
The title is an explicit giveaway: in “The Hunting Ground,” college is an eminently dangerous place for young women, who are attacked by predators the moment they wade into the beer-sludge of a fraternity basement.
Before they know it, their heads are pressed up against a bathroom wall, their defenses slackened and thoughts clouded by date-rape drugs. They wake up naked in a young man’s bed with visceral memories of being forced into sexual submission.
Those brave enough to bring their stories to school administrators are either callously disregarded or ruthlessly interrogated, perpetuating a culture of harassment. They are presumed to be fantasists, blamed and shamed for being victims of a heinous crime.
The stories in the documentary are brutally evocative. “Two of us were sexually assaulted before classes had even started,” says Annie Clark, a former student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “You just stay there, and you hope you don’t die,” says Andrea Pino, another former UNC student, of being raped during her sophomore year at a fraternity party. Clark and Pino both filed federal complaints against UNC and have become leading activists in the fight to end campus rape.
From acclaimed director Kirby Dick, “The Hunting Ground” has its own powerful point of view—not surprising from the director of “Outrage,” a provocative, call-to-arms documentary about hypocritical, closeted Washington politicians.
“The Hunting Ground” comes at a watershed moment in the national debate on campus sexual assault. The Obama administration has called on 90 universities across the country to enforce Title IX gender-discrimination laws, implement harsher disciplinary procedures against alleged assailants, and push preventative measures to reduce sexual assault rates.
High-profile alleged campus rapes have led the news agenda in the last year. Emma Sulkowicz, a senior at Columbia University, has become the face of the movement with her “Carry That Weight” performance art activism—a pledge to haul her mattress around campus as long as her alleged assailant, Paul Nungesser, remains at the school.
Rolling Stone found itself at the center of a controversy when one young woman’s account of being brutally gang-raped at the University of Virginia began to unravel.
In September, California passed an affirmative consent law for the state’s college campuses, redefining the “no means no” standard of rape to “yes mean yes.” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is moving swiftly to implement similar legislation.
New Jersey and New Hampshire are also considering it, and progressive colleges across the country are taking it upon themselves to enforce the standard.
While there is little dispute that sexual assault is being poorly handled by universities, not everyone agrees on how schools are attempting to remedy the situation. Many are concerned that the refurbished systems to adjudicate campus sexual assault are kangaroo courts, where the accused is presumed guilty until proven innocent—even when there’s no evidence beyond he-said-she-said reports.
“The Hunting Ground” presents one side of this fraught debate, and a very powerful and disturbing one at that. It features interviews with dozens of young women, and a few men, who recount horrifying details of their sexual assaults and subsequent lack of concern from school and law enforcement authorities.
It does not feature testimony or representation from the victims’ alleged attackers, or any voice dissenting from the narrative focus that campus rape has become something of an epidemic, which is either being overlooked or appallingly dealt with by authorities.
When Clark reported her assault to a UNC administrator, the administrator compared rape to a football game, asking what she would have done differently if she looked back on the situation. “I was expecting resources,” Clark says. “I was expecting support.”
Others like Erica Kinsman, a former student at Florida State University, goes public with her rape accusation against former FSU quarterback and this year’s top NFL draft pick Jameis Winston.
In the film, Kinsman says she had a drink at an off-campus bar one night and is “fairly certain there was something in that drink,” because she woke later to Winston raping her. She claims both the school and Tallahassee police failed her.
The filmmakers don’t mention that two toxicology reports following the alleged rape found no drugs and little alcohol in her system. Nor do they note that, at a hearing in December, Kinsman didn’t say she had been drugged or unconscious. This isn’t to say the attack didn’t happen, but merely the documentary might have made clear the full array of evidence.
FSU, which cleared Winston of wrongdoing, recently claimed that “Hunting Ground” filmmakers portrayed the school unfairly and didn’t give them the “opportunity” to tell their side of the story. The filmmakers insist the school didn’t respond to interview requests.
The movie has shined a light on this high-profile case, and Kinsman and others in the documentary are brave, smart young women whose stories must be heard.
But there’s another side to these stories that “The Hunting Ground” consistently neglects: that of the alleged perpetrators. Instead, the film interviews activists, professors, and psychologists who reinforce the idea that women are prey for serial student rapists.
Diane Rosenfeld, a professor at Harvard Law School, makes the crude analogy that if young men had a “1 in 4 or 5 chance” of being killed in a drive-by shooting at college, their parents likely wouldn’t send them.
The movie also presents alarmist statistics without noting that many of them, like the 1 in 5 number cited by the Obama administration and analogized by Rosenfeld, have been widely disputed. Even New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who is pushing legislation to fine schools for underreporting rape, recently removed the statistic from her website.
In “The Hunting Ground,” students don’t even benefit from bringing lawyers into university disciplinary proceedings. “The message is clear: It’s ‘Don’t proceed through these disciplinary hearings,’” says lawyer and activist Colby Bruno, who represented a female student at Harvard in the film. “No matter what you do, you’re not going to win.”
Indeed, the movie never strays from its colleges-are-corrupt script.
“Schools are actively and aggressively not wanting to tell the truth about what is going on on their campuses,” says Danielle Dirks, an activist and assistant professor of sociology at Occidental College who appears in the film. “Because the first campuses to do so will be known as the rape campuses.”
The movie has succeeded on this front. New York magazine film critic David Edelstein, who is planning college visits with his daughter, a junior in high school, wrote in his review that he “found myself jotting rape school next to several of the candidates.”
These documentaries are never unbiased. If they were, they wouldn’t be as emotionally compelling. In “Blackfish”, a heartbreaking documentary about the mistreatment of killer whales at Sea World and other water theme parks, Sea World is the cruel, money-grubbing man in the suit. Surely some who have worked with killer whales there would disagree, but their testimonies don’t fit the documentary narrative.
As compelling as “The Hunting Ground” is, it perpetuates a panic about the campus rape crisis that distracts from a rational assessment of the issue. It would have done better to expose its villains in front of the camera—and let them hang, or convincingly defend, themselves.