Journalistic prudence would have me evaluate Kirby Dick’s incendiary college-rape exposé The Hunting Ground objectively, careful to consider opposing viewpoints and to always put the word “alleged” before “sexual-assault victim.” Journalistic prudence would in this case be an ass. Rape is not a partisan issue, and—Rolling Stone’s infamously botched University of Virginia story notwithstanding—there aren’t two sides to the problem of college sexual predators. They need to be swiftly confronted and, if guilty, thrown the hell off campuses (preferably into prisons) before they can prey on anyone else. Administrators’ astonishing tendency to do otherwise is a mystery that leads Dick and producer Amy Ziering to the dark heart of American higher education. What they find has little to do with protecting the rights of the accused or—surprisingly—discerning the supposedly murky line between “yes” and “no.” As with so many things, you just have to follow the money, honey.
The filmmakers’ techniques are not subtle, but neither is their subject. A prologue features a series of teenage girls and their families: delicate, expectant faces, one after the next, barely breathing as they refresh college-admissions webpages or tear open envelopes. Omigod, they’re in! Screams of joy, tears—the quintessence of youthful hope. Then the movie’s title fades in, as stark as any horror film’s: The Hunting Ground. It might as well be The Last Dorm on the Left. The faces of the young women that follow—not the same ones as in the prologue, but close enough—are shockingly aged, haggard, less angry than stunned. It’s not just the assaults that have upended their world. It’s what happened afterward, the ways in which they were stalled, ignored, belittled, shamed, and/or harassed. Contrary to their critics’ claims, they don’t seem like exhibitionists looking to profit from our “culture of victimhood.” I had a hunch there were places they’d rather be than trembling in front of a camera recalling the way their heads were slammed against bathroom tiles and trying to answer that inevitable question, “Why didn’t you fight back?”
“You just stay there, and you hope that you don’t die,” says a former University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill student named Annie E. Clark, who is, along with another UNC student, Andrea Pino, the filmmakers’ point of entry. Following Clark’s rape, her adviser counseled her to look back and ask what she “would have done differently.” I’d have said, “Go to a different school.” Other colleges figure prominently in the film, but UNC deserves a shout-out for its impressively consistent ratio of sexual-assault claims to expulsions over the course of the film’s time frame: roughly a hundred to—wait for it—zero.
Pino contacted Clark online, whereupon they decided to make themselves available to rape victims all over the country. We see them hit the road, visit other schools. Oh, the places they see and people they meet! Dartmouth, Harvard Law School, Columbia, USC, University of Oregon, UC Berkeley, Swarthmore … I was particularly moved by the sadness of Rachel Hudak, a St. Mary’s biology major and devout Christian whose buried rape case compelled the campus police officer who first helped her, Pat Cottrell, to quit in disgust. But the headline subject is Erica Kinsman, the Florida State student drugged and raped (allegedly) by star FSU quarterback Jameis Winston, who was lucky enough to have the entire city of Tallahassee on his side—including the detective in charge of the case, Scott Angulo, who didn’t take DNA samples, interview witnesses, obtain a reported video of the incident, or do anything to ensure a felony charge against Winston during football season, but who did find time to work for an FSU-athletics fund-raising arm. Kinsman was driven out of the university and the city. Winston won the Heisman Trophy.
In their last documentary, the Oscar-nominated military-rape exposé The Invisible War, Dick and Ziering began and ended with the military’s Neanderthal sexual culture, leading to the conclusion that women should be wary of joining a club in which the leaders are males accountable only to themselves. The filmmakers cover similar ground here, but it’s not big news that fraternities are hotbeds (literally) of sexual predators. (Two holy-crap scenes: One after another college girl saying “SAE” stands for “sexual assault expected” and the Yale branch of that notorious fraternity defiantly chanting, “ ‘No’ means ‘yes’! ‘Yes’ means ‘anal’!”) The surprise is that, given the number of female college presidents, professors, and students, victims are still so reliably blamed, punishments so reliably weak, and serial offenders (responsible for 91 percent of all sexual assaults) so reliably undisturbed.
Dick and Ziering believe that this plague (one in five college women will be sexually assaulted) remains unchecked for the simplest of reasons: the mother lode. College presidents, whose principal job these days is fund-raising, have a powerful incentive to keep the number of confirmed rapes artificially low. They especially coddle their revenue-generating student athletes, who are responsible for 19 percent of sexual assaults. And while “fraternity men are three times more likely to commit rape than other college men,” in 2013 “60 percent of donations to universities of over $100 million came from fraternity alumni.” Don’t expect any government regulation of frat-house misbehavior: Congress is lousy with bros.
The one bit of hopeful news—the place in the film where the music shifts to a major key—is that those UNC grads Clark and Pino have made themselves experts on Title IX, the federal civil-rights act that forces educational institutions to protect students from sexual discrimination, including violence. They’re on the road as I write this, spreading the Title IX gospel, building financially ruinous cases against schools that have previously had no economic incentive to do more than tell women to “be careful” or issue press releases that say they “take all reports very seriously.”
Let me admit to another reason for my lack of objectivity. I’m about to embark on a series of college trips with my daughter, a high-school junior, and have found myself jotting rape school next to several of the candidates. The Hunting Ground is an essential component of a college education.
*This article appears in the February 23, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.