ReThink Review: The Hunting Ground -- Sexual Assault and the Colleges That Won't Stop It

03/06/2015 07:57 am ET | Updated May 06, 2015

Director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering's documentary about sexual assault in the military, The Invisible War, was deservedly nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar in 2013. Now the duo is back with The Hunting Ground, a documentary about sexual assault on America's college campuses that serves as a civilian companion piece to The Invisible War. Both films involve powerful, well-funded institutions that have a vested interest in covering up shocking rates of sexual assault, effectively protecting predators while shaming, blaming, ignoring, or driving away their victims. Watch the trailer for The Hunting Ground below.

The Hunting Ground begins by painting America's college campuses as sunny places of promise and potential, where giddy, enthusiastic young people are given their first tastes of independence and a wider intellectual world while being entertained by future professional athletes in raucous, spirited sports cathedrals. But all of this hides a terrifying secret -- 1 in 5 college women will be sexually assaulted during their college career (and almost certainly more since most sexual assaults go unreported). And perhaps even worse, school administrators will do little to sanction the attackers, defend their victims, or work to change campus' aggressively hyper-masculine groups -- fraternities and sports teams -- whose members are the most common perpetrators of sexual assault, according to a recent report by United Educators, which offers liability insurance to schools.

The film illustrates this reality by interviewing dozens of women (and a small number of men) who have courageously stepped forward to tell their heartbreaking stories of being assaulted and the callous, often hostile administrators whose primary goals seem to be to convince the victim that what happened to them wasn't sexual assault, imply that the victim invited the assault, or convince them that sexually assaulting someone is an inadequate reason to endanger the attacker's future or reputation. Naturally, the physical, mental, and academic well-being of the victims is rarely a concern, with many schools seeming to prefer that the victims simply shut up or drop out.

Many documentaries about institutional, systemic injustices are inescapably grim and seemingly hopeless until the end, where a few awkwardly upbeat minutes try to convince you not to leave the theater and immediately find a pit to fling yourself into. Thankfully, The Hunting Ground avoids this by weaving an inspiring thread of homespun activism throughout the film. Annie E. Clark and Andrea Pino are two students who contacted each other and formed a tight friendship after learning that they had both been raped while attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Using only laptops, smartphones, and strength found in each other, the pair begin their own impromptu investigation into campus sexual assault, contacting victims across the country, gathering information, and visiting campuses until they eventually crack the code of how to hold schools accountable through Title IX lawsuits, which claim that schools that fail to crack down on sexual assaults are effectively discriminating against women, with the schools risking losing their federal funding.

Confession: For a while, I wasn't convinced that rape culture (or what I knew of it) was a real thing. Of course rapists exist, but I considered them to be lone creeps or, in cases of gang rape, packs of violent, animalistic goons. Surely there wasn't an entire culture in modern America that thought that raping was an acceptable, even laudable thing to do. After all, there are laws against it, and haven't we seen enough movies and TV shows to know that rapists are the bad guys?

As I learned more about rape culture, it became clear to me that it was real. But if you still think rape culture is some sort of exaggerated feminist faux-conspiracy, The Hunting Ground will dissuade you of that belief. How can you say that rape on some college campuses hasn't been normalized after seeing footage of a large group of male students loudly and proudly chanting "No means yes! Yes means anal!" outside a freshman women's dormitory? Or freshmen women who matter-of-factly tell an interviewer in the film that everyone knows that the nickname of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity is "Sexual Assault Expected"? If a school's students all call a frat Sexual Assault Expected, don't you think school administrators should maybe check that place out?

As I learned, rape culture isn't only people who think it's okay to rape -- it's a climate and system that, in overt and tacit ways, tells rapists that they're right. As The Hunting Ground shows, the main ways schools send this message is by blaming victims for their own assaults while attackers -- even confessed ones -- are given little or no punishment. And for those wondering what possible motive a school could have for sweeping sexual assault cases under the rug, one need only look to that familiar root of all evil: money. Colleges are big business, and tuition and donation dollars will stop flowing if a school gets a reputation for sexual assault, or if assault accusations against a star athlete threatens a winning season, as was the case with former Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston, whose accuser is featured in The Hunting Ground. In business, the perception that you're doing something good is often as effective (and definitely cheaper) as actually doing something good, and underreporting/ignoring/quashing claims of sexual assault produces the same desirably low numbers as creating an environment where sexual assault isn't tolerated by both school administration and students.

That's why The Hunting Ground should be required viewing for all college students, both male and female, and especially freshmen. Young women need to be aware of the dangers they face on college campuses so they can take the proper precautions to avoid them, which is not to say that any woman is to blame for being assaulted if she doesn't -- warning someone to be vigilant and wary in a potentially dangerous situation is simply good advice, like warning someone not to wander into a crime-ridden part of town late at night. But more importantly, young men need to learn that ending rape ultimately starts with them, since there would be no rape if there were no rapists (who are almost always male), regardless of what a woman wears or how much she has to drink. Young men need to know what constitutes rape and sexual assault so they can avoid committing it, as well as recognize if it has or is about to be committed by someone else so they can either stop it or notify the proper authorities, whether it's the police, campus security, or a counselor.

Because when both male and female students (and their checkbook-wielding parents) stand up together to declare that sexual assault on college campuses will not be tolerated, school administrators will finally take the needed steps to ensure that their campuses are safe enclaves where young people can learn and develop the skills and relationships they will need to carry them through adulthood.

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