‘The Hunting Ground’: Why the Campus Rape Epidemic Is All About the Money

“Rape is like a football game, Annie,” a UNC administrator allegedly told a student filing a rape report years ago. “If you look back on the game, and you’re the quarterback and you’re in charge, is there anything that you would have done differently in that situation?”

This oft-repeated anecdote helped turn student survivor Annie Clark into a leading national activist against campus rape. She relays it in the early minutes of The Hunting Ground, the new documentary from the creators of the military rape exposé The Invisible War. And in some ways, Clark’s experience with administrative indifference, even derision, serves as a motivating incident for the entire film.

As early reviews have noted, the documentary provides an extraordinary look at the “epidemic” of campus rape, from Ivy League law schools to major sports-oriented public schools to Catholic all-women’s colleges. Just as producer Amy Ziering and director Kirby Dick explored the way culture and cover-ups and chains of command prevented justice in the military in The Invisible War, they reveal, here, how the essential financial and therefore administrative corruption of American universities prevents genuine safety for female students. It make sense then, that dozens of schools are now under investigation for Title IX violations — by refusing to take care of survivors, they’ve threatened those students’ equal access to education.

So yes, viewers may leave the film thinking about the horrors of rape, given that it features dozens of survivors telling stories about being slammed against walls and onto floors, drugged and left bleeding.

However, in all honesty, and indeed as many survivors explicitly say throughout the film, their treatment by universities may resonate as even more frustrating than many of the crimes perpetrated on those lush, landscaped grounds. The anger I felt as the credits rolled — scored by a mournful Lady Gaga/ Diane Warren collaboration — was mostly at the callousness and ineptitude of coaches, administrators, deans and donors.

Over and over throughout the film, experts had these sorts of things to say: “administrators discourage reporting”; “it’s seen as a PR problem”;”the first campuses to tell the truth will be called ‘rape campuses.'” In the meantime, we are introduced to a security guard who quit working at Notre Dame because he was tired of the school ignoring the victims whom he’d assisted, and quite a few anguished fathers and mothers who sent kids to their dream school, perhaps their own alma mater, only to realize that the school simply did not give a damn about their child’s welfare.

At times I felt almost ill watching the film, because the filmmakers do such a good job of juxtaposing stunning promotional images of campuses which are designed evoke genuine nostalgia in anyone who remotely enjoyed her college years (guilty as charged!) with painful truths about how well protected students actually were during that era. Particularly agonizing is a segment in which a handful of survivors speak about the choice between telling and not telling their parents — who sent their offspring off to improve themselves, full of hope and trust — the truth about what happened to them. Regardless of their answer, nearly all the interviewees broke down in tears.

In essence, The Hunting Ground reveals schools’ claim to be acting in loco parentis to be a bald-faced lie. Most, if not all, of the universities in the film come across as money and prestige factories with intellectual and moral window dressing. Fraternities, athletics, alumni giving — colleges rely on all of these donation machines to fill their coffers. As a result, top-level administrators may hold their noses and feel bad about it, but they will likely never truly take a stand on rape if it means making a dent in these traditions. Over and over again, The Hunting Ground proves this. Student athletes accused of rape are allowed to stay on campus until their seasons are over; repeat-offender fraternities are let off with a warning; convicted rapists are allowed to appeal and return to campus; and, more commonly, victims (including several men) are told it was their fault.

The Hunting Ground ends with a plea for viewers to take actions like “supporting survivors” and “putting pressure on college presidents.” But my thoughts soared to bigger and more radical heights: banning all fraternities, ending television contracts and all monetary compensation for college football and other athletics — or how about abolishing private education and redistributing the endowments of the wealthiest schools in a major socialist coup?

Of course, none of these actions, even the most extreme, would end rape culture or patriarchy. Much of the work that needs to be done has to do with the way we educate young people to communicate about sex and think about sex and power dynamics. But on campus at least, there’s an inextricable tangle of cash flow with rape culture; even cops and prosecutors are part of alumni communities. Assisting survivors with speaking up is certainly the most vital step we can take. But we also have to put our money where our mouths are.

As I was writing this review, I received a friendly email solicitation from my alma mater (which, it should be noted, was featured heavily in the film) asking what my undergraduate experience meant to me. Presumably, all alumni are gently showered by these letters and emails and Facebook invites from the institutions we attended, whose swelling bank accounts are filled with our tuition, much of it paid in the form of loans.

Everyone concerned about campus rape should publicly withhold donations from their alma maters until the problem is addressed in a substantive manner. And the government should be fearless about removing funding from universities found in noncompliance with Title IX. Universities have proven themselves to be venal and self-interested, so activism has to hit them where it hurts.