A few years back, Kirby Dick was having dinner at a prestigious liberal-arts college when an administrative official timidly raised her hand and unwittingly launched the filmmaker on his next cinematic crusade. Dick was at the school for a screening of The Invisible War, his documentary about rape in the military. He wasn’t surprised by what the faculty member told him — that rape was a problem on campus — but by the way she said it. “There was a certain amount of fear in her voice,” Dick says. “I was like, ‘Really? In this liberal institution you are afraid to speak about this?’ That told me that there was a real, significant problem.”
Dick’s latest film, The Hunting Ground, tackles not just the epidemic of rape on campus — the film notes that more than 100,000 college students will be sexually assaulted in the coming year — but also the way in which universities cover it up. “By not supporting students who come forward, by not believing them, by suggesting that somehow their rape was their fault, by not properly investigating the crime, administrators compound survivors’ angst and trauma,” Dick says. Simply put, ignoring or undermining survivors keeps rape stats low, which not only helps maintain the school’s brand but also protects fundraising (a large percentage of which comes from Greek alums or is tied to the performance of sports programs). Which explains why one administrator allegedly dealt with a complaint by comparing rape to football (“If you look back on the game, what would you do differently in that situation?”), and another reportedly told a victim to “just drop out until everything blows over.” Just how bad is the problem? From 1996 to 2013, the 259 reported sexual assaults at Stanford led to only one expulsion, according to the film.
At the heart of The Hunting Ground are the stories of the survivors, each of which is hauntingly similar in its salient points: sexual violence followed by callous dismissal at the hands of a much-trusted institution. Erica Kinsman goes public for the first time to describe her alleged rape by Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston before he even played his first official game. It took nearly a year for her rape kit to be tested, and although Winston’s DNA came back as a match, no charges were filed. Winston, who maintains his innocence, won a Heisman; Kinsman dropped out.
Thankfully, The Hunting Ground also documents the rise of a heroic student-led movement to, as one survivor puts it, “force or shame [schools] into doing the right thing.” After a fruitless attempt to change UNC-Chapel Hill from the inside, Annie Clark and Andrea Pino now show survivors from schools across the country how to file federal Title IX complaints, which argue that allowing perpetrators to remain on campus creates an environment where all students do not have equal access to education. “Close to one in five women are being sexually assaulted on campus,” says Dick. “This may be the most important issue these schools should be facing.” With more than 90 colleges now under Title IX sexual-violence investigation — and thus at risk of losing their federal funding — maybe soon they will.