What “The Hunting Ground” Gets Right and Wrong About Campus Sexual Assault

On Sunday, November 22, 2015, CNN will present The Hunting Ground, an advocacy film about sexual assault on college campuses. This is likely to stir up another national debate on college rape and sexual assault, and my employer, Florida State University, will inevitably be caught in the cross hairs. Does this film get anything right about campus sexual assault? Despite broadsides leveled at the film from conservative and libertarian analysts aimed at discrediting the film, I think it gets several things right. It also gets several important things wrong.

First, some background. I have written several articles on this blog about sexual assault on campus as well as elsewhere (see here and here), and I am currently working on a book, Sexual Assault on College Campuses: Why It’s Problem and What We Can Do About it, that will be published in 2016 by Southern Yellow Pine Publishing. In preparation for CNN’s premiere, libertarians and others interested in this issue might find the following posts useful and relevant:

Prediction: Sexual assault is likely to become a presidential campaign issue, especially if Hillary Clinton secures the Democratic Party nomination. In September, she called for a “crack down” on the “epidemic” of campus sexual assault, a sentiment likely fueled by advocacy journalism such as that exemplified in The Hunting Ground. It will serve as a convenient wedge issue for women generally and allow her to distinguish herself from a likely male Republican candidate. Her activist, top-down approach to forcing private and public universities to address sexual through Title IX and other legislation will fit well into her (federal) government centered worldview as well as the mainstream “advocate and legislate” wing of political activism.

So, what does The Hunting Ground get right about campus sexual assault?

  1. Thousands of women experience sexual assault and rape on college campuses every year. While we may not know the precise numbers, or even incidence, the magnitude of the problem is non-trivial. Whether one believes the lower bounds (3-5%) or the upper bounds (10-25%), the percentages translates into thousands, not hundreds. The nature of the assaults are wide ranging, from groping to actual rape, but the numbers are significant and effect campus culture. My back of the envelope estimates suggest that at any given time the number of men and women that have been sexually assaulted on campus could fill one or more sororities, fraternities or small dorms on each campus.
  2. Colleges and universities struggle to address the issue. Eighty percent of reported incidents of rape involve an offender known to the victim, and most of these incidents involve evidence that is effectively he said/she said. The Hunting Ground claims that universities and colleges aren’t doing enough to address these issues, and this is a plausible argument. What is clear is that a consistent, structured response that addresses the injustice implicit in sexual assault and rape through policy does not appear to exist. There is no “model” that has been generally applied or implemented in colleges or universities.
  3. Finding an assailant “guilty” is rare. Colleges and universities have few procedures capable of doing more than providing emotional and psychological support to victims and survivors. They are unprepared and ill equipped to conduct meaningful investigations that lead to resolution or bring justice. Too many rapists get off because they simply deny the act occurred, even when the personal trauma makes the transgression almost self-evident. Moreover, the criminal justice system is not an adequate mechanism for redressing the harm for most victims. Too much time passes before a case gets to trial, little physical evidence exists in the typical rape, and the burdens of proof are often too high to secure a conviction.
  4. The personal trauma from rape is real, tangible, and devastating for the victim. The Hunting Ground presents college rape and sexual assault from a survivor’s perspective. The trauma seen on the film is real. Several years ago, after I became familiar with personal stories of rape, I began changing my own vocabulary to refer to victims of rape as survivors. Why rape has such devastating consequences for the victim requires a longer explanation than this post can provide, but survivors experience real trauma not unlike others that experience highly personalized violent acts. This trauma is compounded by a system that is incapable of meaningfully addressing the injustice of rape (in society as well as on college campuses).

All this said, The Hunting Ground misses the mark on several important, perhaps even overarching issues, including:

  1. Sexual assault is not an epidemic. The “best” evidence suggests that 5-8% of women will be sexually assaulted during their four years on campus, and college students are less likely to experience sexual assault than non-college students. But an issue doesn’t have to be an epidemic for it to warrant public attention and intervention. Coercive behavior demands a direct response to maintain civil society.
  2. Rape “culture” is rare. While certain elements of a university or college environment might be characterized as supporting a rape culture–an athletic team that views sex as an entitlement or a fraternity that encourages its members to bed as many women as possible–few institutions can fairly be characterized as having a true rape culture where non-consensual sex is condoned and supported. In fact, most colleges and universities have been consciously working on programs that do just the opposite, and surveys of college men and women consistently show they believe consent is important for having sex. The prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses is less about a rape culture than an environment where a minority of individuals take advantage of prevailing attitudes and behaviors that allow them to engage in non-consensual sex. The fact individuals transgress does not indict the community any more than individual murderers or robbers indict neighborhoods or cities.
  3. Risky behavior, whether sexual permissiveness and excessive drinking (or drug use), leads to poor judgement, and this is an integral part of understanding and addressing the problem. Nowhere does The Hunting Ground recognize that many young men and women significantly contribute to the likelihood of rape and sexual assault because they engage in risky behavior, whether allowing themselves to become inebriated or simply using poor judgement such as going to the room of an acquaintance alone. This is not victim blaming, but a recognition that certain decisions, such as becoming drunk or frequenting a known hook-up bar, puts individuals at greater risk than spending a quite night out with friends (or staying home and studying). Choices impact outcomes. Similarly, choosing to stay in common areas or public places substantially lessens the likelihood of an assault. Individuals do have some control over these risks, and this is part of the solution.
  4. Solutions are hard. The Hunting Ground presents the solution as if it’s simple: expel or incarcerate the rapist. Due process is never mentioned or presented as a value worth preserving, and the film takes on face value the veracity of every accusation against sexual assault. I’ve written before that the prevalence of sexual assault is in fact a failure of civil society on college campuses (see also here), not the failure to punish students for acts they may or may not have committed. But one of the premises underlying The Hunting Ground is that all rapists have the same profile. Yet the sexualized world of young adults doesn’t make these distinctions so clear cut. Even though “no” means “no,” and silence does not mean “yes,” a rapist (or confused college student) will ignore these verbal lines that can’t be crossed, or see blurred lines, when they should be bright ones. Predatory rapists–the kid drugging a woman’s drink–is very different than a circumstantial rapist–a confused college student that doesn’t understand consent. They require different responses. The most effective approaches will not seek a silver bullet, as is implied in The Hunting Ground, but focus on a multi-pronged strategy. In my view, a more comprehensive framework includes programs, all of which have evidence supporting their effectiveness, that:
    1. educate students about what consent is as a way to change behavioral norms
    2. empower individuals to defend against personal attacks and promote bystander intervention through self-defense training
    3. use restorative justice programs to hold perpetrators accountable for the human consequences of their acts when the legal system is an inappropriate remedy (which is likely in most cases), and, as a last resort,
    4. uses of the criminal justice system to contain predators and violent offenders.
  5. Colleges have been working hard to address sexual assault but it takes time. Florida State University, my own institution, in fact has been working diligently for years to address problems of bystander intervention and attitudes toward consent with meaningful positive impacts. Despite putting FSU in the cross hairs, the documentarians producing The Hunting Ground did not mention these programs. As an advocacy film, the filmmakers are not interested in presenting a balanced perspective on the institutions they profile. Their intention is to generate action–advocate and legislate. Unfortunately, most of this action is knee-jerk and not well informed, and is likely to hamper effective solutions to the college campus sexual assault problem.

Others have been writing and commenting about sexual assault on college campuses as well. Readers might want to check out Christina Hoff Sommers’ Factual Feminst videos (she has several) as well as this excellent overview on campus rape statistics and their misuse by Robby Soave at Reason magazine.

Samuel R. Staley is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Managing Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center in the College of Social Sciences at Florida State University. He is a contributing author to the Independent books, Property Rights: Eminent Domain and Regulatory Takings Re-Examined and Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis.
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