The Hunting Ground Pulls Back the Curtain on Campus Sexual Assault


Each heart is pounding, dizzy with nerves. Then, elation. The young women are joyously, openly weeping. They’re flanked by shrieking moms, dads, sisters, brothers and best friends. It’s assuredly the best day of their young lives, they’ve been admitted to college: This is how The Hunting Ground, a documentary on the epidemic of sexual assault on campus, begins. The mood doesn’t last.

The film is an unrelenting indictment of the way American universities adjudicate sexual assault, by way of countless sobering testimonials from campus rape survivors who tried in vain to get their institutions to hear them. According to the film, only 2 to 8 percent of sexual assault reports are false. But Huffington Post found that fewer than one-third of reported sexual assaults ever result in expulsion.

The documentary underscores the most persuasive reason for the dearth of campus rape convictions: college is a business. Universities, the documentary explains, rely on the powerful networks of sororities and fraternities, and on the “multibillion dollar” college football industry for profit. If a school—from big public universities like UNC to small liberal arts colleges like Occidental College to religious institutions like the University of Notre Dame—is labeled as dangerous, it’s assumed their profits will suffer. This explains why, across the board, the punishment for academic cheating is generally harsher than for committing sexual assault. In the mind of universities, preserving the veneer of safety is more important than actual safety.

Without consequence, it’s easy for rapists to repeat offend. In fact, serial campus offenders commit an average of six assaults. One rapist who spent six and a half years in prison spoke to the filmmakers on a condition of anonymity. Will a rapist repeat offend if he doesn’t get caught? “To be quite honest, probably 100 percent,” he answered. We learn that less than 8 percent of men commit more than 90 percent of sexual assaults.

It’s only in the last two years, the film notes, that attention to campus sexual assault has made its way into the national conversation. Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz, who has been carrying her mattress in protest of her alleged attacker being allowed to remain on campus, attended the State of the Union last month as a guest of New York Senator Kirstin Gillibrand. And in 2013, Andrea Pino and Annie Clark, made the front page of the New York Times for counseling other campus rape survivors on how to file a Title IX complaint against their schools, as they did at the University of North Carolina. But as Executive Director of the Women’s Law Project Carol Tracy reminds us, “sexual violence has always been part of the college experience.”

The goliath in this story is rape culture. Using the profound experiences of survivors, the film challenges football culture, fraternity culture, and the entire university system writ large. Right now, the documentary points out, more than 90 colleges and universities are under federal investigation for mishandling sexual assault complaints. “We’re really hoping this is our watershed moment,” says one expert.

Me, too. Because the alternative is the sober note the film ends on: “If nothing changes, more than 100,000 college students will be sexually assaulted in the upcoming school year.”

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