Elie Levine, ’16
Following the Sit-In on Wednesday, December 2nd, BHSEC students and faculty gathered in the auditorium to view “The Hunting Ground,” a documentary that exposes rape crimes on college campuses and garners advocacy for survivors. BHSEC’s STAGE (Students Taking Action for Gender Equity) society, organized the showing, and attendance was mandatory for Y1 and Y2 students. Deeply distressing and powerfully moving, the film chronicles the work of Andrea Pino and Annie Clark, both victims of sexual assault crimes on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus, as they galvanized sexual assault victims nationwide in an effort to expose rape crimes on campuses. The film, along with an upcoming publication, are meant to increase awareness that universities, revered by many as emblems of educational excellence, harbor true brutality and troubling insensitivity beneath their tidy façades.
The film featured victims’ jarring testimonials and stories of efforts to repair their lives and educations after classmates’ abuse and colleges’ denial. Institutions’ slow, and often inadequate, responses to assault added to the anxiety provoked by the act itself. “Rape is like a football game, Annie,” an administrator at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill told Annie Clark, a survivor of sexual assault. “And if you look back on the game, what would you do differently?” These questions are just one example of the rampant victim-blaming resulting from instances of sexual violence on college campuses. Victim-blaming “has a silencing effect on survivors,” says Caroline Heldman, a professor at Occidental College, in the film. Indeed it does—eighty-eight percent of female sexual assault victims do not report. Their silence is due to a “rape culture that normalizes violence against women,” says Wagatwe Wanjuki, an activist who was expelled from Tufts University due to poor grades after being raped. Colleges downplay reports of rape, and often silence and deny victims’ complaints, in order to save face.
STAGE’s presentation of the film was followed by an informal talk with Barbara Jones, executive editor at Henry Holt and Company, who is involved in the publication of a forthcoming book by Pino and Clark about campus rape, entitled “We Believe You.” Jones discussed firsthand the work Pino and Clark have done as part of their organization EROC (End Rape on Campus) and distributed an early draft of the book’s front matter. According to EROC’s website, http://www.endrapeoncampus.org, the organization, co-founded by Pino, Clark, and Sofie Karasek (the latter of whom is also featured in “The Hunting Ground”), provides direct support for student survivors of sexual assault. Though EROC itself is made up of activists and writers with little legal and professional expertise, the organization aims to “connect survivors to a growing network of mental health professionals and lawyers as needed.” EROC pushes for federal accountability for Title IX and the Clery Act. Title IX ensures equal protection for students of all gender identities and sexual orientations, and the Clery Act guarantees transparency surrounding campus crime.
At the end of her talk, Jones assured Y1s and Y2s they would love our next colleges, “even though 1 in 5 of you will be sexually assaulted there”—a bleak statistic. Many students were emotionally affected by the movie. Reham Mahgoub, a Y2, articulated the issue bluntly: “I just have to face the fact that either I, or someone very close to me, will be a victim of sexual assault, and that’s the reality.” “It was appropriately distressing,” Finn Clark, Y2, said, adding that a high level of anguish-prompting footage was necessary in order to ensure that the film’s message was heard.
Beyond the jarring details of the film, a hopeful message persists. “Despite how bad [the film] made you feel, there is definitely something salient to take away from it,” Mr. Rubenstein, a math teacher, remarked, referring to the determination with which Pino, Clark, and other students set out to help victims. There is much we can already do to raise awareness and effect change; for instance, proceeds from STAGE’s snack sales at the screening benefitted victims of sexual violence.
“The Hunting Ground” premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in January and was aired on CNN in November. Its public reception is characterized by reverent acclaim and harsh vitriol in equal measure. Many articles claim that the film’s portrayal of universities’ responses to sexual assault is inaccurate. In a New Yorker article entitled “Shutting Down Conversations About Rape at Harvard Law,” Jeannie Suk, a Harvard Law professor defends the school for its dealings with Brandon Winston. Winston is the alleged rapist of a Harvard Law student, Kamilah Willingham, who is featured in the film. “We denounce this film as prolonging his ordeal with its unfair and misleading portrayal of the facts of his case,” she said in a statement. Winston was ultimately vindicated—unbeknownst to Kamilah—and permitted to graduate from Harvard Law.
Kamilah’s story is only one of many. The fight for advocacy for rape victims is far from over. STAGE’s screening of the film here ensured that many BHSEC students are more sensitive than ever to the epidemic of sexual assault on American campuses, a problem that will become increasingly relevant as we move on to future colleges.
“A very generous parent allowed for STAGE to screen ‘The Hunting Ground,’” Emma Morgan-Bennett, Y2 and co-president of STAGE, explained. “We were able to partner with the CTO Advisory so as to have a larger audience that could access [the film’s] powerful message. We knew that this documentary was controversial—and indeed, some left the auditorium feeling scared, angry, or simply dubious. But frankly I think that the variety of emotions that we saw was exactly our aim.” Morgan-Bennett went on to explain that rape and sexual assault necessarily generate a variety of reactions—and it’s better to have those reactions out in the open to be discussed and parsed apart than to keep them under wraps.