They are supposed to be institutions of higher learning. They are supposed to offer the recent school graduate a chance to pursue their interests in an environment of openness, experimentation, and diversity. Protection is implied, but there is also a level of individual responsibility that provides a buffer between the students and conduct that goes beyond the basic “kids being kids”. It’s a time to grow up. It’s a time to face the “adult” world head on.
There is no excuse for how the modern American college campus handles allegations of rape and sexual assault, very adult subjects indeed. In his jaw-dropping documentary The Hunting Ground, Kirby Dick (Twist of Faith, Outrage, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, The Invisible War) makes it very clear that, when it comes to such “she said/he did” scenarios, administrators err on the side of the male, putting the angry and confused victim in the grotesque position of defending themselves.
You’ve heard the numerous (and always ridiculous) “she deserved it” arguments. They are here in abundance.
As stated, the situation goes a little something like this: a guy and gal hook up, usually at a bar or (more than likely) a frat house. She drinks too much, or he spikes her libation with one of several roofie-like substances. He offers to take her home. She can barely acquiesce.
The next thing you know, rape kits are being prepared and harried Deans are determining the best way to handle the possible PR nightmare. Charges are rarely brought, and in one of the most shocking statistics in the film, less than one percent of the perpetrating predators who are accused are expelled from school. In fact, some schools refuse to remove the perpetrator on the grounds that he will get his always lawsuit happy parents involved.
All of which leads to Dick’s main question: Why? Why does this happen? Why does this continue to happen in 2015? Why are victims forced to coexist within the same area where the crime was committed, and with the criminal himself? Granted, in the real world, we have concepts like due process and burden of proof, and not every claim is 100 percent concrete truth, but in those cases where something obviously happened, often involving the written confession of the perp, major institutions like the University of North Carolina do nothing. Literally.
Dick divides his narrative into three distinct parts. At first, he lets the women speak for themselves. Their stories are haunting, harrowing, and all too similar. He then focuses on the activism of former UNC victims/students Annie Clark and Andrea Pino who discover a novel way of bringing this problem to the attention of authorities outside the school system. Using Title 9, they came up with an intriguing lawsuit claiming that, under the current climate, victims of sexual assault are not afforded the same protections as other students, including shields given to the accused.
It’s a novel concept, and one that Kirby and his collaborators really don’t detail. We get some of the preparation, but that’s it. Instead, we go back to the victim’s stories, and in particular, the case revolving around Florida State University, Jameis Winston, and the 2014 college football season. Like fraternities – which get a similar scorching, especially Sigma Alpha Epsilon – sports are seen as part of the problem. As Winston’s victim, Erica Kinsman, outlines the events of that fateful evening, as she plays out the account of her enticement and battery, as she describes the texts she sent, the trip to the emergency room, the rape kit, and the filing of a complaint, we wonder how this case ever came into question.
The obvious answer would be police incompetence, or bias, and it looks like both occurred here. Dick lays out a prejudice against Kinsman from the start (she reported the crime to a policeman who was an FSU alum and warned that Tallahassee was a “football town”) and then argues that Winston’s role in reviving FSU BCS fortunes (duh) overrode a desire for justice. When we hear that it took over a year before Kinsman’s rape kit was tested, that it tested positive for Winston’s DNA, and that such results required the quarterback to claim “consent”, we can see the start of the spin. By the time The Hunting Ground hits theaters, Kinsman will be back home with her parents, while Winston prepares for a career in the National Football League.
The final element is the institutional failure, on all levels, among the many universities on display. While it might be part and parcel to hear names like FSU and UNC thrown around, it’s the stories from Yale, Harvard, and Notre Dame that at the most disturbing. There, within an Ivy League setting specializing in a sense of entitlement and privilege, we hear horrible stories of administrative belligerence and categorical denial. As one official puts it, they can’t advertise these instances. Think of what it would do to a university’s reputation (and potential admissions pool). Indeed, imagine getting an acceptance letter from your college of choice and, on the bottom of the page, in small print, you find a warning involving the percentage of applicants who end up getting raped.
This obviously isn’t the best advertising for your particular school – like Dick’s film is any better. As Clark and Pino continue to help other groups bring Title 9 suits, as the number of complaints to the Department of Education increase, and as the lingering question of culpability and blame continue in the offices of Presidents and Deans, the undeniable fact remains that female students (and the occasional male) are being threatened by the constant presence of predators given official leeway to victimize an university’s populace as they see fit. It’s similar to situations in the church and in the military, both subjects Dick has tackled before.
At the beginning of The Hunting Ground, Dick shows several young women waiting to see if they’ve been accepted to the college of their choice. As each reads their letter (or email), they’re reaction indicates that, at least in this small sequence of their lives, a dream has come true. The Hunting Ground argues that, for many of them, it will soon become a nightmare.