Culture

New Documentary Reveals Universities’ Responses To Rape Are Even Worse Than You Think

CREDIT: Screenshot, "The Hunting Ground"

The Hunting Ground begins with scenes of joy. We see high school students crowded around their computers, family and friends at their side, at the moment they receive their college acceptances. There is happy-crying, shrieking, hugging, cheering. Some just sit there, stunned. As Ellie Goudling’s “Anything Can Happen” starts to play, if you already know what The Hunting Ground is about, you begin to feel like you might throw up in the movie theater. Anything can happen, and does.

That The Hunting Ground is helmed by director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering, the team behind The Invisible War, the Academy Award-nominated documentary about rape in the military, should be the first sign that this film is headed someplace dark. It is a thoroughly investigated, gripping and vital examination of rape and sexual assault on college campuses and how institutions of higher education systematically fail victims in every possible way.

In the documentary, rape survivors tell their stories, one by one. The details are particular, uniquely horrifying: the head slammed against the bathroom tile, the feeling of coming to and looking over to see another friend, stripped of her clothing, unconscious. But the stories share a common link: all of these women were at best ignored and at worst doubted, mistreated and shunned by their respective universities. One administrator advised a survivor to “think about rape like a football game; what could you have done differently?” Every time you think the response — or, more accurately, non-response — of a university couldn’t get worse, it does: there’s the rapist who is made to pay a $25 fine, the rapist who was only expelled after graduation, the rapist who stayed on the football team and won the Heisman trophy.

But there’s also room for hope, not because of anything the universities appear to be eager to do, but because of the efforts of survivors, notably activists Annie Clark and Andrea Pino. Clark and Pino are the founders of End Rape On Campus; they led the charge for survivors to file Title IX complaints against the schools that mishandled their cases. Due in large part to their efforts, investigations are underway at dozens of schools across the country; last May, the U.S. Department of Education released a list of higher education institutions with open Title IX sexual violence investigations.

I met with Ziering, Clark and Pino in Washington, D.C. the morning after The Hunting Ground was screened at the White House to talk about the reporting behind the film, why so many misperceptions about sexual assault persist, what drives universities to handle rape cases so poorly.

What drew you to this subject in the first place? Why make a documentary about sexual assault on college campuses?

Ziering: Every time we screened The Invisible War, someone would come up to us and say, “This has happened to me at my school. And there are a lot of analogies between what’s going on in the military and what’s happening here.” And we kept hearing that over and over again. We were working on another film, but we almost felt obliged. It really wasn’t something we were planning to do, [but] we felt we could not not make it.

How do you begin to tackle a project like this? Where do you start when the subject matter is so broad and complex?

Ziering: It presented a huge challenge on the filmmaking front because it’s such a complicated issue and there are so many different aspects of it that are actually equally important and really significant. So it’s extremely hard to reduce down and do justice to it. That was one of the hugest filmmaking challenges: which parts of this issue are we going to be able to cogently explain? At the same time, you’re juggling the fact that it’s a film. How do you make it a compelling, interesting and engaging experience while, at the same time, addressing matters that are complicated and could be dry? Like, Title IX, how do you make something so wonky something people in their seats can be interested in? It was the hardest film we’ve ever made.

We started with investigating the issue. That means massive outreach to experts, advocates, and many, many campuses to find out what’s going on. Student activists, administrators. We do a very comprehensive, thorough research and investigation process, and that, I think, is reflected in the film.

How long does that process take?

Ziering: This took us two years to make, 20 months in production and four in pre-production.

During your investigation, what did you discover that surprised you the most?

Ziering: We were very surprised by the reticence of administrators and people in positions of leadership to talk on camera. Even faculty. We were very surprised that people would usually be very glad to talk to us off-camera but be very, very reluctant to talk to us on camera. We didn’t expect that level of concern and fear. That was a huge surprise. And I was surprised about how bad it was. I was surprised about the social mores on campuses these days… I was very surprised at the retro, Mad Men mentality that I saw was more present on campuses than what I saw in the ‘70s. We like to have this narrative of progress, but it’s regressed in this odd way.

Did you sense a regressive attitude among the students or the administrators?

Ziering: Well, both. The attitude of the faculty toward sexual assault and issues of rape was, to me, really archaic and shocking. And students, what gender roles are, the way you have to behave, what you have to wear to get into a party. I couldn’t’ believe that at all. “CEOs and hoes,” the names of the parties, the way that men, it seemed, controlled the party scene in a way that was much more imbalanced and sexist than when I was growing up. It was strange.

What do you think is driving that behavior, on the part of the faculty? Why are they so unwilling to address this issue in a meaningful way? What’s holding them back?

Ziering: I think they succumb to the cultural myths. One thing is, when you work for an institution, you tend to, more often than not, think first about protecting its interests. You’re very concerned about that. So that is part of what’s factoring in. And part of it is, to some degree, a real ignorance of this issue and a lack of understanding of sexual violence. I think they have sort of internalized the cultural myths, so they have the same sort of misconceptions and prejudices that the culture at large has about this issue, and that allows them to respond the way that they do. [It allows them to] think, more often than not, that these allegations are fabricated when they’re not, or exaggerated.

One of the things we say a lot is, conventional wisdom has it that date rape is “hookups gone bad,” and alcohol is involved, and you can’t tell, and these situations are complicated. I think what our film shows is, no. It’s a small percentage of men who commit these crimes. It’s a highly calculated and premeditated crime. And that it’s not a situation where it is grey and unclear, but rather that the statistics show that it’s so anomalous to falsely report this crime, more often than not, when someone says something, they’re telling the truth. We hope the film will help everybody reframe their understanding and perspective of this issue, so they will not fall prey to the same cultural myths that we heard said by the administrators.

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CREDIT: Screenshot, “The Hunting Ground”

How much of it, do you think, is about the fact that people don’t want to believe that anyone they know—that a young guy who has been accepted to a college, who is part of a sports team, who lives in the dorms, what have you—could be that kind of predator? That they find it easier, somehow, to chalk it up to girls making things up for some reason. I don’t know, it’s really infuriating.

Ziering: It’s so infuriating! [Rape has] the same percentage of people that falsely report any other crime. Why aren’t people puzzled, like, “Did that carjacking really take place?” It’s just so strange to me that the first impulse for this crime is to have doubt. But I think you’re right: part of it also is that people want to have an excuse to look away from something really awful. And they’ll take anything that gives them that excuse.

By the time that huge Rolling Stone story came out, I assume, you were already just about done making this film. But thinking about how that story fell apart, I’m curious how you went about, for lack of a better word, vetting the women who are interviewed in the film. Were you concerned at all about anyone’s account crumbling under what I imagine will be at least some scrutiny upon the film’s release?

Ziering: We weren’t worried about anyone’s stories falling apart. We interviewed over 170 people, and we also understand that it’s extremely odd, rare and unusual for someone to falsely report. That wasn’t a huge fear or concern. But of course, because we’re investigative reporters, we did our due diligence. We absolutely made sure we could back up and corroborate everything we were told that we presented in the film, because we knew this had to be 100 percent accurate and unassailable to make the strongest case possible. And what’s sad about that is, in many, many, many cases with these crimes, it’s impossible to get corroborating proof. But that does not mean, obviously, that the crime did not take place. So it presented a triple challenge as filmmakers, but it didn’t shake our faith or confidence in what we were being told.

Annie and Andrea, what’s this experience been like for you? How does it feel to be a part of this filmmaking process?

Pino: We never thought we’d be seeing movie posters. It was very surreal… When I was still on campus, no one was listening to what was happening. The New York Times wasn’t writing about it. It was very much a silenced issue. And now everyone’s talking about it.

Clark: I hadn’t talked about my own experiences, at least not publicly, before. I never expected to be speaking out at this level, nationally, much less have it be in a film. So the past two years have been a roller coaster, but it’s been incredible. I don’t think we’ve had a screening so far where we haven’t had survivors come up to us. Sometimes it’s just [to say] thank you. Sometimes people are in tears, because they’ve never told anyone.

Pino: You expect people to come up to you with something this issue-driven… We’ve seen people that are not even in college that are terrified of it happening to them, and people who graduated 30 or 40 years ago saying it did happen to them.

How do you figure out the tone for this documentary? Because you’re dealing with such dark, violent subject matter, and yet there are these strange moments where things are actually really funny. These little flashes of humor. Can you talk through how you find that balance with this material?

Ziering: We always look for humor in any film we make. Especially a movie that’s so heavy and traumatic, you look for any opportunity to give the audience that comic relief, to take a tiny little break and then come back a bit more fortified. So that’s extremely hard to find… You look for that, you hope for that, you don’t always get it. We were lucky that some of the sanctions that we read were so completely insane, that provided unexpected comic relief. But the tone is extremely hard to find and figure out, and to strike that balance.

Clark: Everybody deals with their experience a different way, and a lot of us who’ve been dealing with this for a while have become, not cynical, but just aware of how absurd our treatment has been. So Camilla, [a survivor] in the film, she goes, “If you wanted to introduce sex, when I was awake would have been a good time.” I think there’s just those moments where, that really happened, you can’t make it up. It’s so absurd, you have to laugh. You were given a $25 fine for raping someone? Really?

One thing that really struck me, watching the film, was how the universities come out looking like the villains here. It’s not that they look “worse” than the assailants, so much as, I think we expect those institutions to be the adults in the room, to be the moral authority. Was that your original intention, to look so closely at the schools’ behavior?

Ziering: Not at all. We really had no idea. And intuitively, like the public, we assume… We’d done The Invisible War, and from our outsider perspective, neither of us having ever served our country in that way, with that film we could conceivably understand that there could be these attitudes that didn’t take this issue seriously or respect it. But we did not expect to find that very same thing on our campuses. It was very counterintuitive to us. We did not expect to find that reticence to speak and that fear to be so high.

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CREDIT: Screenshot, “The Hunting Ground”

Clark: That’s something we all experienced. We went to our institutions and we expected to be believed and respected. Rachel [a survivor] has a good line in the film: “I thought they would believe me, just because it actually happened.” And now, as Andrea and I began to work with more and more schools, it’s interesting how we went from “your institution is going to do right by you” to “here are your options; here’s what’s most likely going to happen.” Now it’s no longer surprising when institutions deny that this happens on their campus.

Pino: Schools [are] waiting to be under investigation, waiting for a reason to finally do their job. And it’s sad because most of these students are teenagers when they’re impacted. You’d think that, when you have all these children being impacted by their college journey, you’d think that institutions would care more. You’d think they’d actually care about your safety. But in most cases, you’re just a public relations case.

Have you spoken to any high school students? I’m curious if learning about sexual assault on campuses, and the failure of universities to support victims or punish rapists in a meaningful way, just has a lot of teenagers thinking, “Maybe I should just stay away from college altogether.”

Clark:I was giving a talk about this, and a high school student came up to me in tears afterwards saying, “I’m terrified to go to college.” That was a heartbreaking moment. But this issue is just not discussed at all. So when people have that moment of enlightenment, that this does happen, that’s really scary. But the other thing to point out is: it happens way before college. And I think we need to be having these conversations at age-appropriate levels, even starting in elementary school. The fact [is] that we have so many students coming to college who are already survivors. While it’s an issue in college, it’s also an issue before college. And the fact that the first time you hear about sexual assault is during campus orientation, I think that’s way too late.

Pino::What we’re seeing too is, a lot of this is being made about sex. Especially in red states. I’m from Florida, and we didn’t talk about this at all. We didn’t talk about sex, much less consent and much less sexual assault. So you need to have children actually knowing that they have a right to their own body, that it’s not something anyone can violate of their own free will. That’s something we also see on college campuses. You very much have universities telling you to take care of yourself and walk with a buddy and use the blue lights, and never does anyone tell you that you have a right to your own body.

You spend a significant time in the film talking about the way some of the large institutions within the university—particularly fraternities and sports—enable sexual assault and provide cover for the assailants. Do you think that there is just something inherently toxic in Greek life and athletics, or do you think there are ways for those organizations to be reformed so they can be a positive force on campus?

Ziering:I don’t think it’s inevitable. There are definitely ways. And there are coaches who understand this and have studied it, and their leadership has helped their athletes have lower levels of committing these kinds of assaults. Yes, it is a predator problem, but it’s also a climate and culture problem. Those two go hand in hand. There are ways in which these cultures can shift so these crimes won’t proliferate within them. So no, I don’t think it’s hopeless or any kind of fait accompli.

Pino:I think also with big institutions [like sports and fraternities], they’re just worth a lot to these [universities]… The film is very clear about that. And we emphasize how little a deterrence there is for rape. The likelihood of getting expelled or suspended is very low, but the likelihood of being ostracized from your community is very high. So there isn’t much of an incentive to come forward if you’ve been assaulted, especially by a person who is very valuable to the institution.

How are you feeling, right now, about the progress being made on this front? Are you more towards the optimistic end of the spectrum, or do you feel daunted and overwhelmed?

Pino: I think it’s a bit of both. [Through] our involvement in DC with Senator Gillibrand, we’ve seen a lot of the focus come back to survivors… Even in the media, people that we’ve never met and probably never will are coming forward and sharing stories just like ours. It’s daunting, and it’s scary to think the issue has such a large scope. But to see so many people stepping forward alongside us, it’s very inspiring.

Clark: I think we’re at a cultural tipping point with this issue… We’ve collectively been able to shatter a lot of the silence around talking about sexual assault and put some of that shame and blame back on the perpetrator. We’re talking about it more, and that’s a positive thing. There’s definitely going to be some backlash, but I think we’re moving in the right direction for sure.