The documentary film “The Hunting Ground” exposes the systemic problem of campus sexual assault. Through harrowing narratives of student-survivors, we see the profoundly devastating effects that one act of sexual violence can have on a victim’s entire educational trajectory. It is all too prevalent on college campuses and represents a massive deprivation of women’s civil rights to educational equality.
Those who argue that sexual assault cases involving college students should simply be handled by the criminal justice system are missing the critical point that schools have legal obligations to enforce the civil rights of students. Title IX protects the rights of students to equal access to educational opportunities. Sexual harassment, of which sexual assault is an extreme form, can create a hostile environment at school and deprive a student of her or his rights. “The Hunting Ground” attests to the alarming prevalence of precisely this deprivation. A recent study conducted by the American Association of Universities confirms the staggering statistics — 25 to 30 percent of female undergraduates surveyed had experienced nonconsensual sexual conduct involving force or incapacitation. If we do not act, hundreds of thousands of additional young women will be sexually assaulted at college this year.
The narratives in the film expose a pattern that can be best described as “target rape.” In contrast to the stereotype of rape as an act committed by a dangerous stranger, target rape describes the situation where men, often with support from their male social group, intentionally incapacitate women through the use of drugs or alcohol and have sex with them. Target rapists do this knowing that a victim’s incapacitated condition may enable them to camouflage the rape as a drunken hookup or regretted sex.
The term “target rape” also shifts the focus of the behavior to the perpetrator’s actions and away from the victim-offender relationship. It replaces “acquaintance” or “date” rape, which seem to blind us to our ability to judge a case, believing that a “he said/she said” credibility contest is unresolvable. It helps us move past the victim-blaming frame where we question the woman’s behavior rather than focus on the person committing the assault. Rape shouldn’t be a risk of socializing or partying with other students from your school. The worst thing that should happen to a young woman who parties at school is that she wakes up with a hangover.
So what are we to do? Schools have a threefold obligation under Title IX to prevent and address campus sexual assault, and within this obligation comes our answer. The requirements of preventive education, a trauma-informed response, and prompt and equitable resolution of a case are the essential components of an effective approach to sexual violence at school.
While schools might not be able to prevent all rapes through strong preventive education and bystander intervention, they can and must prevent all “second rapes.” Countless survivors have described the institutional betrayal they experienced by their schools as comparable and sometimes even worse than the initial assault. A school’s indifference or botched response to a student reporting rape can derail the victim’s entire educational path, compromising their future economic opportunities. But schools can offer academic accommodations to help a student retain an educational foothold and prevent a downward spiral. Schools can learn from “The Hunting Ground” how to listen to survivors and respond in a compassionate way.
Finally, schools must hold perpetrators accountable in order to protect all students and to send the message that such behavior is not tolerated within their campus community. If a student found responsible for sexually assaulting another student is allowed to remain on campus, it can create a hostile environment for the student who has been violated and may put others at risk for future assaults.
“The Hunting Ground” has broken the long silence of rape survivors on campus by connecting the dots of systematic denial of the problem. And although the courageous survivor-activists who are leading this movement endured extremely painful experiences both in the assaults and the subsequent betrayal by their schools, the take-away from the film is a message of hope. Our country is witnessing a transformative moment in how we address campus sexual assault. Let’s not keep defending practices that silence survivors at the precise moment they are finding their voice. Let’s instead keep focused on how much we can change the culture that supports this damaging and predatory behavior and envision a new one of sexual respect and mutuality.Diane L. Rosenfeld is a lecturer on law and director of the Gender Violence Program at Harvard Law School.