Movie review: The Hunting Ground (2015)

Some things, unfortunately, do not change with time. Sexual assault on college campuses is one of these. This documentary seeks to lay bare the truth that colleges have covered up decade after decade: colleges are hunting grounds for sexual predators.

Theoretically, colleges exist to educate men and women. In practice, they exist to make money. They make money based on their reputations. The first concern of school employees, no matter their title or role, is the school, not the students. Recognizing and acknowledging sexual assault, let alone doing something about it, could severely damage a school’s reputation and subsequently its finances. Better to keep the women and men coming to their campuses in the dark as ignorant marks for sexual predators.

The Hunting Ground interviews college administrators and professors, and numerous women and men who were sexually assaulted at various college campuses. The problem of sexual assault on college campuses was first highlighted in a 1987 national survey on the subject. Nothing has really changed.

The documentary focuses on Andrea Pino at the University of North Carolina who fought and spoke out about her experience of sexual assault at the university. She reached out to another woman who was also a survivor for support, Annie Clark. They in turn reached out to other survivors of sexual assault, providing support that none received from the university.

The university did nothing to investigate or bring the rapists to justice. Instead, the University of North Carolina blamed the women. Thwarted from obtaining help or justice, Andrea and Annie chose a unique legal path to force the university into action. They filed a Title IX complaint with the US government, claiming that the university created a hostile environment for women.

Title IX is responsible for preventing discrimination based on sex in higher education and is tied to federal money. Perhaps in order not to lose the federal funds associated with Title IX. colleges could be legally “encouraged” to acknowledge, strive to end, and punish sexual assault on campuses, and give men and women who were attacked the support needed.

This sickening story of colleges not supporting survivors of sexual assault, not believing them, not investigating alleged rapists, not censuring rapists found guilty repeats itself at university after university throughout the United States. The story has remained the same, with variations in details, decade after decade. Andrea and Annie became lightning rods of sorts for a groundswell throughout the country. They were witness to story after story from survivors and began noting where all the attacks took place in the US.

They also began to disseminate their Title IX complaint as a model for survivors at other universities to use to file their own complaints with the federal government. Title IX complaints were attempts to hold the universities accountable for providing spaces where survivors are not blamed but supported, where assaults are investigated, and where assailants are held accountable for their actions.

Through all the interviews and recounting of Andrea’s and Annie’s path toward activism, The Hunting Ground relates sobering statistics.

16% of men and women at colleges are sexually assaulted.

88% do not report the assault. Of those that are reported, police make arrests in 20% of the cases. Of the 20% of the cases where police make an arrest, only 20% of these lead to prosecution.

4% of college men are athletes but athletes commit 19% of reported sexual assaults, pointing to the prevalence of sexual predators in college athletics.

Less than 8% of men in college commit more than 90% of sexual assaults, pointing to the prevalence of serial rapists who, without arrests and prosecution, are allowed to rape again and again.

The documentary highlights the prevalence of serial rapists and the prevalence of rape committed by athletes and fraternity members. Both subcultures will never be touched because of the money that both bring to the university: from fans of college athletic programs and from fraternity members who are alumni.

To shield their reputation and continue the flood of college students (as well as money), colleges rarely pursue sexual assailants to bring charges or censure—even when certain men are known to repeatedly sexual assault other men and women. They are left to prey on the unknowing population on campus again and again. They never learn that their behavior is unacceptable, wrong, and criminal. Colleges are failing their student body morally as well as legally.

Case in point: Erica Kinsman appears on camera, describing her rape, her identification of the assailant, and the horrific aftermath she lived through. Her assailant was Jameis Winston, a star quarterback at Florida State. Needless to say, he wasn’t arrested but continued to play football (and even became a Heisman Trophy winner, just the sort of upstanding guy who should be a role model—sarcasm intended). Erica was hounded out of college. (In January, FSU settled a civil case with Erica Kinsman.)

The documentary interviews men and women from different universities across the country who have been attacked. The blame, the culture of silence that the blame generates, and the lack of support from the university was the same everywhere whether the survivor was female or male. Some choked up when relating their stories. Some had never shared their experience with their families. One woman had committed suicide. (Her father shared her story in the documentary.)

Common themes, if there are any, are that sexual assault involves alcohol—often excessive amounts plied into targets with or without date rape drugs, the target being intentionally separated from friends or their group, and the attacker often—not always—being someone you know and trust—someone that you could easily see again on campus or in a class.

I found it disheartening that money is behind perpetuating a system of predation. Men and women—their health, their wellbeing, their futures are often shattered by the attacks—are sacrificed for financial gain.

I found it disheartening that blaming and shaming is still the norm—the men and women caused it because of where they were, what they wore, what they did (or didn’t do—often people who are attacked freeze but are blamed for not fighting back or fighting back harder). The blame is delivered as if somehow it is acceptable that predators are allowed to prey on others.

I found it disheartening that men aren’t held accountable for actions that are immoral and illegal. And thus, never learn that there is anything wrong with their behavior but keep repeating the behavior and needlessly inflict suffering on countless men and women that ripples into the future. (This point seems particularly troubling given a current Presidential candidate who routinely engages in sexual predatory behavior, his followers who seem to condone it, and his attempts to silent or destroy those who speak out.)

I found it encouraging that women came forward, to offer support to each other and to speak out against the attackers (both the rapists and the universities). Annie and Andrea helped spawn a movement of activism across campuses and initiated a slew of Title IX complaints filed with the federal government. (According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, 54 cases have been resolved and 279 remain open.)

Unfortunately, too many women can remember occasions when their bodies weren’t quite their own, when men claimed power over them, when society condoned the behavior of attackers. The Hunting Ground reveals the situation on college campuses and how survivors can make a difference to change the system.

Thank you, Andrea and Annie, for speaking out and acting up to push the conversation forward and to force universities to operate differently. Thank you to all women who have spoken up and stood up. To all survivors, keep up the good fight to heal and be whole again.

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