CNN’s The Hunting Ground Is a Cognitive Necessity

One of the final scenes in CNN Films’ The Hunting Ground (2015), a 103-minute documentary film about the nationwide epidemic of campus sexual assault in universities and colleges that is now streaming on Netflix, consists of a single line on an otherwise blank screen. The line seems innocuous—almost an afterthought—but in actuality, it is one of the most affecting comments in the entire film. The line is: “We can stop this epidemic.”

The five words in that sentence are indisputable. There’s no behavior, no level of intoxication, no personality type or manner of dress or any other factor whatsoever on the part of the victim that causes rape. The only thing that causes rape is a rapist. This is not new information, but based on the accounts in the film (and the world at large), it is a fact that is often overlooked, forgotten, or ignored.

I have to state before I continue with this piece that this is not a typical review. It is an urgent request, an insistence that you watch this documentary. This is not a film designed to be entertaining, nor is it one that, like some documentaries, was produced for its level of intrigue or mere compelling viewability. The film is, in fact, both compelling and intriguing, but these are tertiary attributes. It only takes a few minutes to realize the true magnitude of the film—The Hunting Ground is a cognitive necessity. Although both men and women are perpetrators and victims of sexual assault, as the film notes, the overwhelming majority of predators are men. I hope that men not only view this documentary but also genuinely, deeply listen to all of the messages contained within it. Just like An Inconvenient Truth, Schindler’s List, and Alex Haley’s Roots, The Hunting Ground is a catalyst for a much larger, long overdue discussion that absolutely must inspire lasting, meaningful change to both individual and collective behavior.

The documentary focuses primarily on two University of North Carolina graduates, Andrea Pino and Annie Clark, both survivors of rape. After their assaults, they received neither support nor justice from the university, leading them to file a Title IX complaint against UNC and to create the advocacy group End Rape on Campus. In addition to documenting their incredibly challenging fight for equal protection under the law—and basic human decency from university administrators and law-enforcement officials—the film highlights the accounts of dozens of other survivors from schools all over the country, as well as professors, legal professionals, law enforcement, and parents. The entirety of the spoken words in the film come from these first-person accounts, augmented by primary-source recordings and news vignettes that are only interrupted with title cards and graphics showing statistics, research results, and, at the end, sources for the viewer to get involved.

About 30 minutes into the film, there is footage from newscast sound bites given by two (male) college students. The first one claims that campus rape victims are “idiots” and that the rape stats are overblown because they’re a result of “the girl carrying a grudge.” The second student states, incredulously, that “to be saying that just because a woman says ‘no’ and because you have sex—those are the two facts—a woman says ‘no’ and you had sex, then are you a rapist, automatically because of that?”

YES.

Absolutely yes. A quadrillion times yes.

If a woman, if anyone, says no, and you proceed to have sexual contact with them, that is rape. There is zero room for debate. There are no exceptions. This formula (sexual activity minus consent equals rape) is 100 percent accurate in every case. Without consent, it’s rape. This is an inflexible, irrefutable fact—yet the film unflinchingly displays how rape culture, of which the denial of this fact is a part, is prevalent in institutions all over the country. From the Ivy League halls of Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth on the East Coast to the football towns of Florida State, the University of North Carolina, and Notre Dame/St. Mary’s, over to the sunny, West Coast campuses of USC Berkeley, Occidental, and Stanford and everywhere in between, institutions of higher learning have an ongoing, gravely troubling pattern of simply turning a blind eye to the most atrocious acts. But why?

The Hunting Ground answers this question with quantitative accuracy through dozens of examples, covering the gamut of factors that contribute to creating environments that foster sexual assault—fraternity organizations, athletic departments, so-called “party atmospheres.” But at the root, it all comes down to one constant: money. The film shows how fraternities contribute to schools’ bottom line by providing housing for an eighth of one university’s student population and increasing the amount drawn from alumni donors. This carries quite a bit of weight, as donor contributions are an incredibly significant portion of revenue for schools. Additionally, athletic programs, football in particular, contribute billions to the school’s coffers through ticket sales, television deals, and endorsements (yes, that’s billions with a b). Based on the actions—or, more aptly, lack of actions—that the schools’ administrations take, the message is shockingly, inhumanely clear. The rapists are lucrative, so the policies and actions are designed to cater to them.

This point is crushingly reinforced by the account of Tom Seeberg, father of Saint Mary’s College student Lizzy Seeberg. The police claimed they couldn’t locate her assailant for weeks after her assault, even though he was on the field at multiple Notre Dame Football games during that time. Fearing reprisal and uncertainty about her safety, Lizzy Seeberg tragically committed suicide in 2010.

Erica Kinsman faced fallout not only from her school but from the national press as well. In the film, Kinsman bravely shares her account of how, after she reported being roofied and raped by Florida State University star quarterback Jameis Winston, the police officer in charge of the case (an FSU alumnus) wouldn’t even collect a DNA sample from Winston to test against the rape kit. Kinsman received an avalanche of harassment from classmates, strangers in the FSU community, and even commentators on ESPN. The name calling, threats, questions to her credibility, and ostracizing was because Winston was a star athlete who brought in widespread attention and profits—considered 2015’s top NFL draft pick, he currently plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The victim, on the other hand, was a student seeking a safe learning environment who had the audacity to fight for justice for her brutal attack.

The fact that, according to the studies cited in the film, one woman out of every five will be sexually assaulted in her life, and that if her assault happens at college she could have her physical well-being and her literal life treated as a expendable in the face of profits, is the second most monumentally unsettling aspect of the film (the first, of course, being the accounts of the events themselves). The schools are more concerned with protecting their brands than their student victims, disgustingly and misguidedly concerned that openly admitting and addressing the sexual assault issues on their campuses would be a bad business move. Fear of professional retaliation keeps even many lower-level faculty silent. Filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering (Invisible War, This Film is Not Yet Rated) reached out to the president of every college and university mentioned in the film. Only two were interviewed. Thirty-five college or university presidents either declined to speak or did not respond at all.

This is not a dark trend or a tragic issue plaguing a handful of students at a handful schools in a handful of areas. It’s an epidemic encompassing every part of the country, every type of school, and everybody on campus. The Hunting Ground is horrific not only because of the accounts it relates of assaults that have happened but also because the sexual violence is contemporary. It’s happening right now. The accounts are retrospective, but the thesis of the film is a veracious opprobrium of our collective culpability in fostering, perpetuating, disregarding and denying the abominable, malicious, fatal atmosphere infecting our educational system.

The only way to end it is for us to end it: as the film states, “We can stop this epidemic.” The only thing that causes rape is rapist. Don’t rape. Teach others not to rape. Support survivors of rape and other sexual assault. Retaliate not against those brave enough to seek justice but against those who preyed upon them. Listen with your ears and hearts. Talk with your wallets. Stop patronizing anyone and anything that stands with rapists. Stop the violence. Watch this film.

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