I have two young children, so I don’t get out to the movies much anymore, so I haven’t yet had a chance to see “The Hunting Ground,” the documentary about sexual assault that has been generating a lot of buzz. It’s playing in a handful of art theaters around the country. I’ll watch it when it airs on CNN. Judging from the alarmist title and the hysterically ominous trailer—I’ve seen Saw trailers that were more subtle—I think I’ll have some things to say about the film. But the early reviews are telling—both about the film and about the media.
Jezebel’s review of the film is, frankly, idiotic; so great is the reviewer’s credulity, you might as well have hired a parrot to type with its beak. Every statistic is gospel truth; ever interview subject is exactly right; every allegation, both against alleged rapists and universities in general, is assumed to be true.
The documentary underscores the most persuasive reason for the dearth of campus rape convictions: college is a business. Universities, the documentary explains, rely on the powerful networks of sororities and fraternities, and on the “multibillion dollar” college football industry for profit. If a school—from big public universities like UNC to small liberal arts colleges like Occidental College to religious institutions like the University of Notre Dame—is labeled as dangerous, it’s assumed their profits will suffer.
This is, frankly, nonsense. There are certainly reasons why university bureaucrats don’t like to talk about sexual assault on campus, and some of those may not be good reasons. Others have to do with federal law and the importance of discretion when handling sensitive matters—for all the parties involved, not just the alleged victim. But universities, with the possible exception of some with big time sports programs, do not think of “profits.” The sources of their revenue—tuition, alumni giving, federal grants, some money from science research, and returns on endowment investing—would not significantly be affected by the disclosure of a sexual assault on campus. In fact, the opposite is far more likely to be true; the cover-up of a rape on campus and its subsequent disclosure would likely be far more damaging to alumni giving and federal grant making than the mere disclosure of an incident.
But no, The Hunting Ground and Jezebel insist: If a school—from big public universities like UNC to small liberal arts colleges like Occidental College to religious institutions like the University of Notre Dame—is labeled as dangerous, it’s assumed their profits will suffer.
Oh, for God’s sake. I used to get this paranoid when I smoked pot (not very much, just for the record) in high school. And claims like that would seem credible under those circumstances.
The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis is a little more skeptical of the film, but primarily because of its, shall we say, creative journalistic techniques. The gist of her review is this:
As Ms. Pino, Ms. Clark and the other interviewees share their lives on camera, their voices underscore that publicly talking about rape isn’t just an act of political radicalism, but also a way for survivors to reclaim their lives. By speaking out, they are asserting that they, rather than their assailants, are the narrators of their own stories, the agents of their destinies. Mr. Dick doesn’t specifically address this openness, but it’s impossible not to think — as woman after woman speaks — that it is female empowerment itself that is driving some of the backlash directed at rape activists. Mr. Dick addresses that backlash rather obliquely, as in a section in which interviewees swat away the issue of false rape claims.
Alas, this too is silly, just with a slightly more sophisticated veneer. I’ll grant that there are probably some men who are made uncomfortable by all the attention women (mostly) are bringing to this issue. But there are a lot of people, male and female, who don’t believe that there is an “epidemic” of campus sexual assault and worry about the trampling on individual rights that’s taking place in the name of eradicating a bogus epidemic.
And, to be fair, Dargis does then write, “It’s too bad that [director Kirby Dick] doesn’t dig into whether the new guidelines to protect (mostly) women are infringing on the civil rights of men, as Emily Yoffe argued in Slate last December.”
Which brings us to Emily Yoffe’s review in Slate.
Yoffe, who has written so smartly about sexual assault, is far more skeptical about The Hunting Ground.
The Hunting Ground, Yoffe writes,
… is a polemic that—as its title suggests—portrays young women as prey, frequently assaulted and frequently ignored by their universities and law enforcement when they try to bring charges. The movie, from director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering, features numerous interviews with women who describe horrific experiences, and their testimony has raw, emotional power. But good policy about the lives of young people—female and male—needs to be based on prudent assessment. The film traffics in alarmist statistics and terrifying assertions, but fails to acknowledge both the recent changes in the way the government and universities approach sexual assault charges and the critiques that those changes go too far. By refusing to engage the current conversation about this issue, the film does its subjects—and us all—a disservice.
I have to get on a plane to San Francisco in a couple of hours—work trip—so I’m going to leave it at that. Except to say that I hope Yoffe’s review has some impact. This film is going to be shown on campuses all over the country, and it probably will have some impact. I doubt it’s going to be constructive.