Documentary Stirs Discussion About Campus Rape and Sexual Assault

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A new documentary on campus rape is stirring controversy. CNN was threatened with legal action for airing it, Slate’s Emily Yoffe has called into question one of its central claims, and 19 Harvard Law School professors have written a letter denouncing its portrayal of how Harvard handled a particular rape accusation. The documentary, The Hunting Ground  aired on CNN.

The Hunting Ground was born when, according to CNN, director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering were showing their previous documentary on rape in the military to students on campuses across the nation. Dick and Ziering received “dozens” of emails from students who told them that their schools were treating rape survivors similarly to the military, covering up and mishandling rape accusations.  

What resulted was a hard-hitting look at several cases of alleged sexual assault on campus as well as an examination of the research on campus sexual assault. The Hunting Ground debuted in January at the Sundance Film Festival, according to the New York Times. And according to the same paper, members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are considering it for a so-called short list of 15 documentary feature Oscar contenders, which will be released next month.

But The Hunting Ground is not without its detractors. Many in the media contest the accuracy of its portrayal of an alleged rape involving Harvard Law School students. Slate‘s Emily Yoffe examines evidence that the Harvard Law rape accusation isn’t as cut-and-dried as presented in the documentary. And according to New York Magazine, a group of 19 Harvard Law School professors have written a letter arguing that the film misrepresents the facts of that incident in important ways.

The other big point of contention centers around research by retired clinical psychologist Dr. David Lisak. New York Magazine’s Jesse Singal accuses Lisak of peddling “questionable research” that “leads people astray.” Lisak’s research indicates that the vast majority of rapes are committed by a small number of rapists. But as Reason has reported, the research has considerable flaws which make it suboptimal for drawing conclusions about most college campuses, including that the men surveyed were considerably older than the average college student, and may not have even been students at the time the alleged rapes occurred, or even when they were surveyed.

However, all this does not diminish the fact that too many institutions of higher learning are not taking accusations seriously enough and too many administrators cover up reported rapes.

According to a popup on the website of advocacy group End Rape on Campus, 28 out of the US News and World Report top 50 “Best Universities” are under federal investigation for their handling of sexual assault. A BuzzFeed article written by End Rape on Campus co-founder Andrea L. Pino claims that 76 colleges are currently under investigation (or have been in the past 5 years) by the Department of Education for how they deal with campus sexual assault.

That’s why Dick and Ziering have created a documentary to raise awareness, as well as to support survivors, invest in preventative educational initiatives, and advocate for meaningful policy reform.

Annie Clark, executive director of End Rape on Campus, wrote for CNN, “We need leadership from our college presidents, not reactionary task forces and external public relations statements. Presidents will not address this unpopular issue without pressure from alumni, students, and prospective students. I implore you to watch the film, educate yourself about Title IX and safe campuses– task yourself to ask the hard questions.”

The Hunting Ground may be inspiring policy changes already. According to the Center for Media and Social Impact, early this year Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) cited the documentary when discussing new legislation to address rape on campus.

“We need allies. We need you. We need parents, friends, families, and entire communities to face the violence that is being perpetrated on our campuses,” Clark wrote.

According to Clark, since 2013, EROC has reached over 5,000 students, aided hundreds of survivors, assisted in the filings of Title IX complaints against 30 of the colleges under investigation, reframed through interviews and media trainings campus rape as a national epidemic, and successfully advocated for legislative change on the federal and state levels, including California’s groundbreaking “Yes Means Yes” law.

Other groups working on the issue include SAFER, Know Your IX, Carry That Weight, and Callisto. If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, reach out to one of these groups for assistance. Also consider reaching out to the attorneys at Cory Watson. No one should be abandoned by their school’s leadership in their time of need. Let the attorneys at Cory Watson walk you through your legal rights at no charge to you. Our attorneys have recovered more than $1.5 billion for clients injured by the wrongdoing of others. For a confidential , free consultation about your legal rights , call (877) 562-0000.

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