With sexual assault at American universities in the news in recent years, The Hunting Ground summarizes not only the collective outrage at its occurrence, but also the weak response by university administrators to the continuing crimes. The film’s best asset is its strong emphasis on institutional factors that lead to sexual assault, and the cover-up and avoidance of dealing with those assaults. Unfortunately, the analysis inadvertently neuters itself, stymieing the ability to truly grapple with the problem of assault on campuses.
Campus police fail in a variety of ways to respond to assault allegations and to encourage safer conditions for students. University administrators often join police to protect major power players on campus, who enjoy a disproportionate influence upon policy, especially related to the long-term economic viability of a campus and its brand: athletes and fraternities. Not only are these two student demographics more likely to be involved in sexual assaults than the general student population, but they are more protected by universities, too, due to their economic, social, and political power. (Of course, one reason for assault in the first place, is the existence of greater power on the part of perpetrators.) Universities are particularly concerned about a loss of their prestige if assaults become publicly and widely known, and they fear a subsequent drop in enrollment and potentially alumni donations.
The film interviews a lot of survivors, who painfully describe not only their assaults, but also the indifference they experienced when they reported the crime to others, including university employees. Two of the survivors—students at University of North Carolina—become activists and create a network of student survivors across the US. Most of the film’s interviewees are at prestigious universities (almost no one is at a state college or community college) and these activists clearly have social and cultural capital that they can employ, as well as a legitimate belief in the righteousness of their cause. They are successful in raising a significant ruckus by filing a Title IX complaint with the US Department of Education and even get news coverage in the New York Times. One of the nice characteristics of the film is that it shows these survivors and others organizing and being pro-active, working with other survivors who come forward with their own experiences.
Unfortunately, The Hunting Ground‘s directors fail to present an analysis that would help to more systematically interpret and solve the problem, which of course has been around for generations at coeducational universities. For example, certain helpful phrases are not mentioned anywhere during the film: rape culture, patriarchy, masculinity, and misogyny. It is difficult to know how a film focused on rape culture can so studiously avoid identifying rape culture. Indeed, the film doesn’t even attempt to define “rape” as a crime of power, rather than one of sexuality (of course, it doesn’t do the latter either, though). Further, the film is saturated with a certain liberal indignity that these educational institutions have simply failed to do something that people would otherwise expect them to do. But, if we understood rape culture as a manifestation of patriarchy, would we really expect a patriarchal institution like the American university to respond positively to allegations of sexual assault? This a-systemic analysis prevents us from comparing universities to other institutions that have had similar problems, like the Catholic Church and the US military (the latter of which was featured in an earlier documentary by the same directors, entitled The Invisible War). Consequently, viewers may naively conclude that these institutions may simply need to “work better”.
Some other immediate absences are apparent. Where are the second-wave feminists to help these current college students? Surely each campus has a handful around who could be (and likely are) advising not only survivors, but also activists. Indeed, a radical feminist analysis in the film would have helped to contextualize that this is not just a problem in higher education, but a general problem in society, due to patriarchy, masculinity, and rape culture. It affects universities disproportionately since universities are major, powerful institutions, where lots of young people are and thus lots of potential victims (especially young people just out of high school).
The film’s prioritization of elite American universities and their students is not surprising, but unfortunate. As mentioned above, no state universities or community colleges are shown in The Hunting Ground. Is this because the film makers and other upper-middle class people automatically privilege elite universities or because the problem is less severe at lower-tier schools (this is an honest question)? If so, perhaps less entitlement and fewer untouchable male students are enrolled at these schools to do the assaulting?
Who the perpetrators are is dealt with appropriately: known men, usual acquaintances, rather than random strangers. Still, most cases described in the film seem to be of randomly-met men at parties—in other words, the commonly-believed, but non-realistic perpetrators. Also, the film appropriately notes that it is a minority of men who are doing this crime upon a sizable number of sexual assault victims. Contextualizing who does these crimes would seem to lead to very easy advice to male viewers of The Hunting Ground. However, much more could have been done to lay out a challenge to college men. While the film does say “most of you men will not rape anyone”, it leaves unsaid that “you have the ability to influence the culture of misogyny that contributes to assaults and to condemn your fellow males for their endorsement or participation in it.” As it stands, many male viewers will have a sympathetic, but impotent, reaction to the film: I’m not doing these bad things and I won’t in the future, but there’s nothing else I can do. As Michael Messner writes in his book Some Men, only a small minority of men are rapists, but also only a minority of men are anti-sexual assault activists. The great majority of men stand-aside or quietly endorse this rape culture by failing to openly confront it. Consequently, the gauntlet needs to be thrown down more forcibly to college men to be active amongst their fellow males in disrupting sexual assault.