Exposing the rape problem

A woman on a college campus in “The Hunting Ground,” a new film by Kirby Dick (below) and Amy Ziering.
A woman on a college campus in “The Hunting Ground,” a new film by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering.

Count to 107. One American has likely been raped in that period of time, and chances are, that person is between the ages of 18 and 24. Chances are, that person is in college.

The odds of being sexually assaulted on a college campus — a mind-blowing one in five — have at this point been quoted almost to the point of dangerous irrelevance. The nearly 20 percent of college students who have been sexually assaulted somehow became a number without a face, a truth presumed inevitable and thus unworthy of much attention. For these survivors, the memory of sexual assault doesn’t fade — and the struggle continues past the closed door or rape kit.

In the beginning of Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s latest film, “The Hunting Ground,” students are opening acceptance letters from universities across the country: They erupt in tears, in squeals, hop and scream and hug their parents and friends. Once these students arrive at their dream school, the nightmare begins: If one of these students is raped on campus, in all likelihood, his or her school won’t do a thing.


Dick and Ziering’s documentary inundates its audience with heartbreaking, infuriating statistics: 40 percent of colleges reported zero sexual assaults in 2012. Of the 135 rapes reported to Harvard between 2009 and 2013, only 10 resulted in expulsions. Eighty-eight percent of women raped on campus do not report the crime.

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The two filmmakers, who received a best documentary feature Oscar nomination for “The Invisible War” (2012), about rape in the US military, followed University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill alumni Andrea Pino and Annie Clark, who founded the campus advocacy group End Rape on Campus. The two activists travel the country helping survivors file Title IX complaints, while Dick and Ziering profiled other survivors from public universities, private ivys, tiny liberal arts schools, and religious institutions. The most unsettling pattern they noticed: Victims came forward, and the universities failed to respond adequately.

(Note that the 94 schools currently being investigated under Title IX include Boston University, Emerson College, Northeastern University, Harvard College, Harvard University Law School, Berklee School of Music, and Brandeis.)

In their film, Ziering and Dick try to get at why rape is so rampant on college campuses, and why schools continue to protect student rapists. They speak with survivors, campus police, administrators, advocates, and activists, all of whom put forth a similar thesis: Universities cannot risk the public relations disaster, potential lawsuits, and financial losses that might result from being associated with a “rape problem.”

Dick and Ziering recently spoke to us by phone. “The Hunting Ground” premieres at the Kendall Theatre in Cambridge on Friday.

Kirby Dick (left) and Amy Ziering.
Matt Sayles/Invision/AP
Kirby Dick (left) and Amy Ziering.


Q. In your film, you structure an argument that colleges and universities fail to support students because they are, in essence, money-making institutions.

Kirby Dick: Obviously, schools are concerned about their reputation, and this is true of any institution. In a sexual assault on campus, one that’s become publicly known, or multiple sexual assaults on campus — that’s obviously going to damage a school’s reputation. It could hurt them in terms of the number of applicants they get, perhaps their donations. There’s no question that there’s an incentive, when people report a sexual assault at a college, to keep this under the radar.

Amy Ziering: And this isn’t our opinion per se, this is what we heard time and again when we spoke to administrators.

Q. In your film, survivor Andrea Pino says, “Rape is a scary word. You don’t want to fall into a category. You don’t want to be called a victim.” Why do you think that is? Why do you think identifying as a rape victim is so scary, so dangerous for students?

AZ: As we saw time and again when we spoke with students, when they did publicly come out and talk about their assault, they did get a lot of retaliation and blowback, and very aggressive responses from their community.


KD: Also, in this society as a whole, there’s a shame associated with it. There should be no shame at all with reporting a sexual assault. The shame should be completely put on the perpetrator.

Q. Choosing to come forward about your rape is a big deal, and many of your subjects hadn’t even told their parents. How did you persuade them to come forward, and have you tried to protect them in any way from possible backlash of the movie itself?

AZ: We don’t persuade anybody. Only if they feel it would be a positive experience do I want them to sit down and engage with us in an interview. The people who ended up speaking with us were the people who had the courage to come out and publicly speak, so no one else would have to experience the solitude and the pain and the misunderstandings they encountered.

Q. What did you discover about the internal investigation processes of the universities you covered?

KD: In most cases they’re inadequate. In fact, what we advocate is that these investigative and adjudicative processes be professionalized. For situations where people have assaulted or raped someone, there would be a more robust system in place to find the facts and then hold them accountable, find them responsible and expel them, which will make the school safer. That same system will be better able to protect those who are falsely accused. The Campus Accountability and Safety Act [a bipartisan bill] is actually calling for these standards.

Q. There seems to be a pattern within many fraternities supporting ritualized sexual assault. An argument made in your film discusses how universities need fraternities for donations, possibly political power in Congress. Why wouldn’t a fraternity with a history of sexual violence be seen as a liability for a university, as opposed to a benefit?

KD: Well, I think it’s both, actually. People in fraternities have had very positive experiences and have done a great deal to advance the educational goals of those institutions. We feel that the school has a responsibility, in cases where houses are known to be dangerous to women and men, to step in and let the public know. Most fraternity men would never commit a sexual assault. These assaults are caused by a small minority of men who are assaulting again and again. We’ve been finding, as we’ve started to screen this film, that people in fraternities are actually supportive of the film because they know the problems that exist, even in their own specific fraternities, and they’re actually ashamed of it. They see the film as a venue for that to change.

Q. In many of the clips in your film, you show university administrators saying that they are adequately approaching rape on campus. How do universities justify the simple statistical fallacy there?

AZ: These institutions aren’t monolithic or homogeneous. I think many of them would be able to use this film to help transform the institution’s perspective. A lot of times higher-level officials in the military didn’t feel they were as well informed about the issue as they might have been. I hope people who have misperceptions and misconceptions regarding what these kind of crimes are about will go, “Oh, OK, it’s actually a serial predator problem, it’s not just hookups gone bad.” Now we can really take the measures to address it.

Interview was condensed and edited.

Brooke Jackson-Glidden can be reached at b.jackson-glidden@
. Follow her on Twitter @bjackgli.