The problem of sexual assault and rape culture on college campuses is a serious one, and an even greater one beyond college campuses. Nevertheless, the recent documentary film The Hunting Ground (2015) is at best problematic and at worst counter-productive in its approaches towards evidence and advocacy. Moreover, progressive journalist Amy Goodman’s persistent and uncritical promotion of the film on Democracy Now! has been equally problematic and troubling, both journalistically and politically.
The film exists in a moral and Manichaean world of its own, detached from the need for evidence and respect for possible complexity and contradiction in individual cases, as well as detached from more complex survey research, varied results, and positive historical trends which are not always useful for their shock and outrage value.
I don’t doubt that most (but certainly not all) of the subjects in the film are victims. I do doubt whether their stories—in the manner that they are related—help the viewer to understand the nature and scope of this problem in ways that might generate effective personal, relational, preventive, institutional, legal, and political solutions. The notion of rape culture implicitly dominates the film, but as a primal force and pervasive reality it is left undefined and critically unexplored. Moreover, the implication that campus administrators routinely deny or protect rape culture is both frequent and unbelievable.
The political right, exemplified by Reason magazine, has had a field day with this film and related issues, largely but not always motivated by anti-feminism of various ideological hues. But leftists, especially those critical of identity politics, should be equally skeptical. Yet I can find no clear instances of this, except perhaps from the two female Harvard Law Professors referred to below. The de-contextualized moral world portrayed by The Hunting Ground exists apart from broader struggles for social justice, even in the campus context, and is particularly problematic in terms of race.
It is hard to believe that any broadly critical leftist would not be highly resistant to the shamelessly manipulative cinematic and propagandistic techniques employed by the filmmakers, from beginning to end, in narrative structure, image, music, and song. In spite of its superimposed author/scholarly references, this film has nothing to do with above-board data-based and scholarly integrity, and banishes the notion of doubt from its relentless, mono-thematic narrative. These qualities are sorely needed in difficult and complicated struggles for gender equality and respect on campus, including in relation to sexual coercion and violence. They are also needed for a better understanding of the pitfalls of intimate relations and sexuality among young adults.
The Hunting Ground reflects and promotes what JoAnn Wypijewski, in response to the movie Spotlight and its unfounded accusations against some Catholic priests, has called moral panic:
By their nature, moral panics are hysterical. They jettison reason for emotion, transform accusation into proof, spur more accusation and create a climate that demands not deliberation or evidence or resistance to prejudice but mindless faith. They are the enemy of skepticism, which those on the left and near-left, liberals, progressives, regard as the sword and shield of journalism when it’s convenient or ideologically appealing.
Wypijewski has questioned the notion of “recovered memories” in relation to accusations against priests, as did the late Alexander Cockburn and others in relation to allegations of ritual sexual abuse at daycare centers in the 1980s. No damage done to innocent individuals by The Hunting Ground will measure up to these prior examples of collective hysteria professionally (journalistically, therapeutically) fabricated out of thin air. But the familiar McCarthyite/Red Scare tactics remain. Harvard Law Professor Jennie Suk, who along with 18 other HLPs defended Harvard Law student Brandon Winston against allegations made by his fellow student (and former friend) Kamilah Willingham, a case featured in The Hunting Ground, wrote in the New Yorker in December 2015:
At the Sundance festival première (January 2015), which I attended, when an audience member asked what people could do to join the fight against campus sexual assault, one of the survivors featured in the film responded, simply, “Believe us.” It is a near-religious teaching among many people today that if you are against sexual assault, then you must always believe individuals who say they have been assaulted. Questioning in a particular instance whether a sexual assault occurred violates that principle. Examining evidence and concluding that a particular accuser is not indeed a survivor, or a particular accused is not an assailant, is a sin that reveals that one is a rape denier, or biased in favor of perpetrators.
Amy Goodman also covered the Sundance première, interviewing Director Kirby Dick and Producer Amy Ziering. Seventeen months later, this past June 9th, Ziering appeared again on DN with Kamilah Willingham, the above-mentioned plaintiff in the now-famous if not notorious case against Brandon Winston. After four years of litigation in the criminal justice system, 2011-2015, Winston was convicted by a jury of a single misdemeanor, non-sexual assault and battery, against Willingham’s female friend; he was then allowed to complete his Harvard Law degree, 4 years after his original classmate Willingham.
Yet, in response to Goodman’s request to “Explain what you mean. Explain what happened, Kamilah,” Willingham boldly asserted: “I was sexually assaulted by a friend and classmate. He actually assaulted me and another girl on the same night.”
The occasion for this interview—part of a series of interviews on June 8th and 9th, was the controversy and outrage over California Judge Aaron Persky’s minimal sentencing of Brock Allen Turner, a former Stanford student and convicted rapist. Yet Goodman seized the moment to re-visit what is, to say the least, a clearly more ambiguous case; and to promote an accusation that has been judged baseless in a court of law. I do not know enough law to know whether this can be judged as libelous. But I would think that the one-sidedly “leading” nature of this public interaction can be judged to be a violation of journalistic ethics, certainly including those that Goodman purports to be her own.
In fairness, when co-host Juan Gonzales asked Willingham and Ziering about the support of 19 Harvard Law Professors for Winston, viewers were told to go to the film’s website for the facts. But the facts on the website simply re-iterate that Winston was convicted of a (misdemeanor, unstated on the website) non-sexual assault in a Massachusetts court of law.
Former Florida State University football player Jameis Winston (no relation to Brandon), accused of rape by Erica Kinsman but not charged after extensive legal review, is also featured in The Hunting Ground. While Brandon Winston, Kamilah Willingham, and Jameis Winston are black, Kinsman is white. In the same New Yorker article, Jennie Suk stated:
The dynamics of racially disproportionate impact affect minority men in the pattern of campus sexual-misconduct accusations, which schools, conveniently, do not track, despite all the campus-climate surveys. Administrators and faculty who routinely work on sexual-misconduct cases, including my colleague Janet Halley, tell me that most of the complaints they see are against minorities, and that is consistent with what I have seen at Harvard. The “always believe” credo will aggravate and hide this context, aided by campus confidentiality norms that make any racial pattern difficult to study and expose.
What also particularly raised my critical antennae in the most recent DN interview was this statement by Producer Amy Ziering:
Well, Invisible War was the first film Kirby Dick and I made on this issue, and it broke the story of the epidemic of rape in our military. And like you said, Amy, it was resoundingly embraced and, you know—and not challenged, you know, sort of accepted. And what I really give the Pentagon credit for is that they saw the film as a critique, not an attack, and they started using it as a training tool on bases. They said, “Oh, my god, we have a problem, we really have to take care of it.”
And what’s so interesting is that the reception to The Hunting Ground was much more like what you see—you know, what we’ve seen played out with the Stanford case, not post-letter, but pre-letter, in that the focus and the concern was more on—was sort of questioning and challenging, “Oh, is this really going on? Is there really an epidemic? Could this be true?” as opposed to saying, “Oh, well, thank you for pointing this out, and let’s go take care of it.”
Ziering may or may not be an opponent of our military invasions and occupations in the Middle East and elsewhere. But if she were an opponent she might be less impressed with the Pentagon’s putative response to sexual assaults in the military. She might be more inclined to address one of the obvious contextual factors—our imperial and war-making policies. Such opposition seems unlikely. Perhaps predictably, President Obama makes a cameo appearance at the end of the film, in order to help us further compartmentalize our images of him as both a neoliberal warrior and an advocate for human rights and gender equality. The general support of our neoliberal establishment for a campaign such as that promoted by this film is all too predictably hypocritical.
Finally, I would note that The Hunting Ground is a CNN-produced film, and aired on that network in November 2015. In a June 9th interview with Stanford Law Professor Michele Landis Dauber, who is spearheading the problematic movement to remove Judge Persky, Goodman stated:
That’s the trailer for The Hunting Ground, very interesting. It premiered at Sundance Film Festival, got a lot of attention. CNN bought it. And when CNN runs a film, like they did Blackfish, you tune on CNN at any point, and you see this documentary, Blackfish, about SeaWorld and how killer whales were dealt with. I mean, ultimately, I mean, it led to a campaign that got the use of the whales in SeaWorld banned. But this film, The Hunting Ground, I believe it only aired once on CNN, yet they own it, so I don’t know if we can see it again. So this involves two issues: one, the power of what you just watched and heard, and also, though, what happens when a film is made, and do we get to see it.
Regardless of the well-known manipulative nature of corporate media outlets, Goodman is clearly reaching for a non-existent conspiracy here. The film is available in several of the usual streaming formats, and I obtained a copy from my local public library. Obviously she herself has publicized the film on several occasions over the past 17 months.
Those on the left in particular should check their identity politics at the door and see it. Many will conclude that while there is much work to be done in relation to rape culture and violence against women, including on college campuses, this film, with its shameless lack of intellectual and political integrity, curiously reinforces the status quo more than it challenges it.