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Hunting Ground: documentary highlights international issue of rape on campus

A powerful documentary about rape is touring UK universities. The Hunting Ground focuses on rape and sexual assault on US campuses and gives voice to victims and survivors. It asks difficult questions about how women have been failed by image-conscious college authorities.

Oscar nominated filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering – who are touring the UK with the film – are no strangers to the topic of institutional sexism. Their previous film, The Invisible War, is an Emmy-award winning investigation into rape in the US military. In the military and on college campuses, the duo have uncovered an epidemic of sexual violence, primarily against women, exclusively perpetrated by men.

Research by the UK’s National Union of Students suggests this is by no means a peculiarly American problem. The NUS’s 2010 report Hidden Marks found that one in seven women had experienced a serious physical or sexual assault during their time as a student and 68% of students had experienced verbal or non-verbal harassment in and around their institution. According to the authors of the report: “This kind of behaviour – which includes groping, flashing and unwanted sexual comments – has become almost ‘everyday’ for some women students.”

University campuses are not the only places where sexual harassment is an everyday occurrence, but given the relatively enclosed nature of university campuses – combined with the focus on education – they should be places where this institutional sexism can be effectively challenged.

Yet The Hunting Ground chillingly reveals the extent to which, in a market economy where brand is everything and higher education funding is overly dependent on an old boy network of successful alumni, rape allegations are an exercise in reputation management.

In the UK, this situation is not quite so stark, but as academics are increasingly expected to market themselves and their institutions at every turn, there is a danger that protecting the reputation of the brand becomes more important than protecting people.

Conducive context

The power of The Hunting Ground lies in the first-person testimonies. Women’s testimony has long been central to feminist theory and activism against male violence. Feminist theory was built from the ground up, starting with women’s experiences and thinking about what they had in common in order to build an understanding of shared oppression.

In a media culture in which, as Louise Armstrong argued, the feminist slogan “the personal is the political” is too easily transformed into: “the personal is the personal”, Dick and Ziering’s weaving together of many survivors’ voices to tell the same story of abuse and institutional failure is refreshing.

The use of many voices also lessens the pressure on any individual. We hear, repeatedly, that victims were disbelieved, or had their experiences minimised or trivialised when they reported the crimes. There are many accounts of how hook-up culture, fuelled by alcohol and supported by all-male fraternities and sports teams, produces a sense of male entitlement.

This is what Liz Kelly, professor of sexualised violence at London Metropolitan University, has called a “conducive context” for sexual assault.

Making connections

In bringing together so many accounts, The Hunting Ground gives a voice to survivors while ensuring that no individual has to carry the burden of representing the group. That the accounts from women of different ethnic backgrounds, attending a variety of colleges, spanning the length and breadth of the US, echo one another, lends a collective weight.

An anti-rape protest by students outside the Cambridge University Union where Dominique Strauss-Kahn was scheduled to speak. Reuters/Paul Hackett

Perpetrators are not, typically, named, meaning the film is less focused on the justice or injustice of individual cases and more on what colleges can learn from their collective experience. Survivors are leading the way in this, most notably through the work of End Rape on Campus, a campaigning and advocacy organisation founded by Annie Clark, Andrea Pino and Sofie Karasek, three survivor-advocates who feature prominently in the film.

Having mapped campus rape across the US, End Rape on Campus is now leading in a legal action against a number of US universities. The action uses Title IX, a federal civil rights law which prohibits sex discrimination in any educational institution which receives public funding. By failing to hold perpetrators accountable and allowing them to participate fully in campus life, the women are arguing that universities are failing in their responsibilities to ensure survivors have equal access to education. The legal context is specific to the US, but the central message about the transformative power of collective action is equally resonant in the UK.

Given the film shies away from naming perpetrators, that the one named (alleged) perpetrator whose case is discussed in any detail is an African American accused of raping a white woman is troubling. The decision to name him is, in many ways, understandable. He is a football quarterback who now plays in the NFL and his case has already received widespread media attention. Indeed, the film shows that his sporting prowess – and its commercial value – produced wilful blindness on the part of college authorities and the media alike to the seriousness and credibility of the allegations.

In The Hunting Ground, in the absence of other named perpetrators, the quarterback is the representative rapist. Research in the US and my own research in the UK has found that interracial sexual assault is disproportionately represented in news media. Though it is beyond the scope of The Hunting Ground, a companion film which builds a collective analysis of perpetrators – thus challenging myths around race – would be invaluable.

Whether on university campuses or in the media, we can all do better in making our culture less conducive to rape and rape myths. The Hunting Ground offers an important opportunity to open up these conversations on campuses around the world.

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