Sexual Assault

The Hunting Ground

Director: Kirby Dick

Released: 2015

View on: Netflix

*Trigger warning: Content of documentary describes sexual assaults and rapes. Blog post references that content.

The Hunting Ground tackles the issue of sexual assault when both the victim/survivor and the assailant are college students (the act does not always take place on campus, but the university still has a responsibility to investigate and punish the assailant if found guilty). In recent years this issue has had more focus from the media and lawmakers, but the issue is still prevalent and universities continue to try to silence victim/survivors who come forward – they’ve been in that practice for years. The reason for increased focus is because victim/survivors began to organize themselves. No one else stood up for them, at least in any real way. They had to do it themselves.

Among the harrowing statistics shared in The Hunting Ground is one that I have certainly known to be true – somewhere between 16 and 20% of women in college experiences a sexual assault. There are also many men who experience sexual assaults, though the statistics are much lower. The vast majority are committed by someone the person knows. Most of the assailants are serial assaulters. As we know, the vast majority of men do not sexually assault or rape (the documentary sites a statistic of about 8% of all college men), but those who do are typically not caught until they have assaulted multiple people.

The documentary focuses on fraternities and college athletes as two groups who have a higher percentage of assailants among them, and who tend to rally around the assailant to protect him (it’s usually, but not always, a him) and shame the victim/survivor. And, while I don’t think I should have to say this – I think it should be assumed – but I have written about this issue too many times not to say it, I will just say that not all fraternity members or college athletes are rapists. But I also think that those who don’t commit sexual assaults should be focusing on holding their frat brothers and teammates accountable instead of constantly just saying “not me!”

I have my own theories about why sexual assaults occur more among these groups. I think some of it is group think – the culture that surrounds these young men. I think some of it is that men who gravitate toward those cultures were taught when they were younger that women are commodities and they have every right to take what they want from women. And I think that these assailants take advantage of a culture with a lot of alcohol, parties, and women in close proximity to assault – truly a “hunting ground.” This last part is also spotlighted in the documentary. To me, that says that one of the most important ways to prevent rape by college students is to teach them at a young age, long before they ever get to college, about respect and consent, and not treating women like objects.

The documentary highlights the way that universities often deal with sexual assaults when they are reported – they try to cover them up and discourage the victim/survivor from moving forward with any actions. If they ever do bring the assailant before a disciplinary committee, they tend to hand out garbage punishments, like expulsion upon graduation (which is just another way of saying graduation), a $75 fine, or a few hours of community service.

Universities, even public universities, are businesses. Universities need to have good reputations so that parents are willing to let their kids go there and pay the tuition to prove it. They need to keep their reputations clean so that alumni will continue donating large sums of money. Many of them also need to keep their reputations clean so that their athletic teams continue bringing revenue in. To do that, they will go to great lengths to protect their star players who bring in wins.

Universities are required to report crime statistics to the federal government, and have been for years. This is one of the reasons they try to discourage reporting. If they have to report a bunch of rapes, they are afraid they will get a bad reputation. What I’ve learned is that you should actually be looking to the rape and sexual assault reporting statistics to be relatively high, because regardless of what the stats say we know there are sexual assaults going on at every campus. You want to see that the university is encouraging reports, because that means they take it seriously.

The women followed in this documentary decided to act when their universities did not properly deal with their reports. They filed a Title IX complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, who began investigating their cases as being in violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. This title prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs or activities operated by recipients of Federal financial assistance. Schools found in violation are at risk of losing federal funding. Once again, it all comes back to the money, and these women understood that. Now, they go around the country helping other victim/survivors learn their rights and file Title IX complaints when necessary.

So what can you do? Well, the first thing is to teach young people about respect, consent, and human worth. It is the most important thing we can do, and even though we won’t necessarily see the fruits of our labor right away, in my opinion it is the only way to truly solve this problem. Second, familiarize yourself with the organization Know Your IX, which was started by college students (I believe some of the women featured in The Hunting Ground). Donate to them if you can, and definitely make sure that all of the high school and college age people in your life know about them. They are an important resource.

Finally, if you attended a college or university, why not contact them and ask them what they’re doing to prevent and respond to sexual assaults when their students are victim/survivors and/or assailants? Let them know their alumni are watching this issue closely. If you are the parent of a student, do the same. Tell them you want to see their statistics showing people reporting assaults, you want to see the process the school goes through to investigate those reports, and you want examples of actual punishments they have given. Money talks, and unfortunately it’s increasingly important to institutions of higher education. So use your power as an alum and donor, or as a parent paying tuition. Speak up so that these students don’t have to continue to relive their assaults again and again just to get justice.