We are now fully into the backlash phase of the campus rape story. It’s only been a few years since the issue burst into public consciousness, driven by an extraordinary group of young women who’d turned their victimization into fuel for activism. Students and former students, they’d been raped while at college; when they sought help from administrators, they were treated with indifference or outright obstruction. Finding each other online, they launched a campaign that eventually reached President Obama, and ultimately changed how Title IX, the law banning gender discrimination in education, is enforced. For a little while, their story captivated the media.
That narrative, however, was quickly overtaken by another, one about unjust accusations and murky definitions. Some of the backlash might be written off as a product of the misogyny that always leads people to doubt rape victims. But it’s been exacerbated by two things. First was Rolling Stone’s discredited tale of a brutal frat-house gang rape, an act of journalistic malpractice and a gift to those who would downplay the problem of campus rape more broadly. Meanwhile, we’ve seen campus administrators trying to compensate for their awful treatment of victims by being equally heedless of the rights of the accused. Some schools have decided that if heterosexual students have consensual sex while they’re both drunk, the male student can be found guilty of sexual misconduct. In the Harvard Law Review, professor Janet Halley writes of a case in which an Oregon man was ordered to stay away from a fellow student—cutting him off from campus housing and other opportunities—“because he reminded her of the man who had raped her months before and thousands of miles away.”
All this has led some people to conclude that the furor over campus rape is nothing but a moral panic. “The latest national hysteria over campus sexual assault combines aspects of its predecessors: the salacious outrage that characterized the daycare sex panic and the dubious federal stamp of approval that made McCarthyism’s excesses so dangerous,” writes defense attorney and civil libertarian Harvey Silverglate in The Boston Globe.
When campuses ignore basic due process, such analysis threatens to become, if not conventional wisdom, then at least a widespread sneaking suspicion. Before it does, people really need to see The Hunting Ground, the powerful new campus-rape documentary from the directors of The Invisible War, an Academy Award–nominated expose of sexual violence in the military. The film, which opens on Friday, is a reminder that, no matter what we think of the way schools are responding to sexual assault, this whole uproar began because a great many students have been raped with impunity.
There is nothing ambiguous about the stories in this film, no question of mixed messages or next-day regrets. At its center are Andrea Pino and Annie Clark, two heroic young women who, after being violently raped at the University of North Carolina, helped catalyze a nationwide movement to hold schools accountable for failing to protect their students. Interspersed with their triumphant story—which begins with shoestring organizing and culminates in action from the federal government— are a great profusion of others. The chorus of voices testifies, over and over and over again, to a pattern of schools’ covering up or brushing off sexual assault, often to protect their fundraising, their fraternities or their athletes.
Filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering told me that they’d been planning to make an entirely different movie after The Invisible War. As they toured campuses for screenings, however, they kept hearing from students who told them that the rape crisis in the military had parallels at their own schools. “We felt we had to respond to this call,” says Ziering, and they began investigating in 2012. That’s about the time the story exploded nationally, and part of the thrill of the film is seeing the student activists creating a movement from scratch and watching as it finally forces powerful people to take notice.
In some cases, the response from those in power has been deeply flawed, replacing reflexive dismissal of all rape claims with reflexive dismissal of the rights of the accused. As civil libertarian feminists have pointed out, this not only leads to new injustices, it ultimately undermines the fight against rape. As public cynicism grows, we’re seeing attention shifted away from the plight of victims. Maybe The Hunting Ground can shift it back. “There’s a desire for society to look away from bad things,” Ziering says. “I don’t want us to succumb to that impulse when the reality is so brutal and can’t be ignored.”