Why Is ‘The Hunting Ground’ Driving a Campus Rape Activism Backlash?

Even as new documentary The Hunting Ground gets activists fired up to combat the problem of rape on campuses, there’s a backlash brewing. Emily Yoffe has published a long piece excoriating what she sees the film’s one-sidedness at Slate, in line with her longstanding efforts to brand anti-rape activists as hysterics. “Sexual assault is a serious problem on campus, and activists are to be applauded for bringing attention and resources to it,” she writes. “But the atmosphere of alarm that pervades The Hunting Ground does not serve accusers, the accused, or their classmates, young people who are still learning how to think about sex.”

And today, essayist and op-ed writer Meghan Daum praised the film, but qualified her praise with concern that there’s a growing “grievance culture” on campus that obscures the real issue with rape.

In grievance culture, sexual assault and victimhood exist as absolutes, independent of context or gray areas. The woman who gets drunk at a party and has sex she neither exactly consented to nor exactly resisted is just as much a victim as the clearly brutalized woman. The undergraduate at an elite college who continues to hang out with her alleged rapist long after the deed supposedly occurred is said to be suffering the same syndrome as the woman who lacks the resources flee a domestic batterer on whom she may be psychologically or financially dependent.

This latter example seems like a veiled dig at Emma Sulkowicz, who remained friendly with the student she later accused of rape after the alleged assault occurred. I find it a strange declaration that men don’t have the social capital in elite Ivy League circles that they do elsewhere. There’s nowhere men are more powerful.

Daum isn’t entirely wrong in her larger point. In ultra-progressive circles, a debate about behavior that’s “sketchy” either on campus or online takes an overly legalistic form; sometimes, insensitivity and minor infractions are treated as gross violations, fueled by call-out culture. Yet who is to blame for this atmosphere? There is no better way to fan a collective sense of grievance than to ignore, reject, or mishandle the genuine violations that occur in your community. And that’s exactly what college administrations have been doing, with impunity, for decades. In an environment of relative amnesty for known rapists, unwanted touching at a party is going to feel a lot more threatening than it might elsewhere.

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have a letter-for-letter solution for how universities should handle rape cases. Often, thinking about it gets me in an ethical muddle, which is why I’m glad serious thinkers are mulling it over. I do know this: two issues often get conflated when we talk about rape on campus. One is the miscarriage of justice issue: the abysmal way that universities, legal authorities, and even journalists mishandle rape cases, usually by victim-blaming. That’s the issue that The Hunting Ground and other recent exposés of campus rape attempt to address.

The other issue is our deeply warped dynamic around sex, fueled by rape culture, patriarchy, rigid gender roles, and prudery about young people’s sexuality. This creates a society in which many women are not brought up to verbalize their desires, their limits, and their genuine feelings about sex, and in which men are brought up to see sex as something they are entitled to. This is the world where the most commonly portrayed model of consensual sex actually resembles rape. On Valentine’s Day, when ads for jewelry stores explicitly say that a diamond gift will get men laid, that transactional view of sex is clear. It should be noted that these kinds of gender roles and expectations around sex are felt in queer, trans, and all kinds of non-heterosexual relationships and hookups too.

Our bombardment with cultural messages indeed gives rise to all kinds of regretted, or power-imbalanced sexual encounters that are neither criminal nor even non-consensual. Today in the Guardian, writer Monica Tan described a “sort-of rape” she experienced:  “It was not rape, but my reaction was too involuntary, and its intensity too high, to say that nothing bad happened.” She is publicly processing a gray area that once would have been shrouded in shame. So is Reina A.E. Gattuso, who wrote a column in The Harvard Crimson saying that beyond issues of “yes” and “no” power imbalances mean that “ethical sex is hard.”

Daum and Yoffe may not be aware of the fact that largely in tandem with the momentum of anti-rape activism, feminists themselves are instigating an honest conversation about differing levels of consent. Kat Stoeffel explained this well in her essay, “It Doesn’t Have to Be Rape to Suck.” She lists reasons women regret sex they might have consented to:

There’s baseline need (she had nowhere else to stay), physical intimidation (he was on top of her), and, most insidious, a deeply internalized sense of obligation. I know so many women who, late one night, decided it would be rude or un-chill to deny a guy sex after enjoying his company or drinking his alcohol or doing his drugs — or at least not worth the confrontation and social retaliation that could follow.

Daum tried to describe this phenomenon, but she made the mistake of arguing against a straw woman who sticks all regrettable sexual encounters in the same category. “Violent rape is not the same as psychologically coercive sex, which in turn is not the same as regrettable sex, which is not the same as fielding an unwanted touch” she writes. I personally don’t know anyone, even the most radical anti-rape activist, who would disagree with that statement, except for this part: “Violent rape” as a construction is redundant.

The backlash against campus rape activism seeks to turn one conversation (how can we get universities to become more responsive to victims?) into the other (how do we handle drunk or regretted sex that doesn’t rise to the level of rape but is very upsetting?). Of course, the two issues go hand in hand — women often drink, for instance, to gain social license to be sexually forward, or to avoid having to say “yes,” which can lead to their being too incapacitated to consent.

These thorny dynamics are real. But we can’t derail every single campus rape discussion by positing the hypothetical “drunken, regretted sex” scenario as a trump card, particularly when, as so many of the cases in The Hunting Ground show us, administrators have previously been inclined to treat every single rape accusation — even the most clear-cut ones, even the ones that are videotaped — as if it fits that “drunken, regretted sex” pattern.

Instead, we should continue to have a policy-oriented discussion about how to fairly adjudicate campus rape cases, protecting both survivors’ sense of well-being and the accused’s due process, while de-prioritizing universities’ money-making and reputation-preserving instincts. At the same time, we have to continue asking the bigger question: how do we start moving towards a model of enthusiastic consent, a language for talking about regretted sex that isn’t rape, and a new paradigm for talking about sex in general? And how do we do this long before, and well after, students set foot on campus? As Gattuso, the Crimson columnist, writes: “That’s a tall order, but we’ve got to get there. For all the confused queer kids and weird mornings after. For all of us to feel safe and valued and of worth.”