Nothing is scarier than reality. A moment in which you realize you might possibly die is petrifying and immobilizing. That is what sexual assault survivors’ experience.

Stories try and capture the human condition, and films are a visualization of that. The only film I have seen that truly and realistically encased the fear that comes with sexual assault was The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. The film featured a whole 20-minute explicit rape scene. It is hard to watch as it can make viewers literally sick to their stomach with rage and disgust. Since rape isn’t the easiest thing for audiences to swallow, I was surprised but intrigued when I found out about  The Hunting Ground, a documentary on the sexual assault epidemic on university campuses.

The film was featured in the Sundance Film Festival and premiered to the public last Friday in select theaters. The team behind the film was previously nominated for an Academy Award for The Invisible War, a film about sexual assault in the military.

The Hunting Ground didn’t have an explicit scene like in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. It didn’t need to. The statistics  on university-related sexual assaults were horrifying on their own.

The film overflowed with sexual assault survivors courageous enough to share and relive their experience in order to propagate their message. They were sexually assaulted in an institution set up and paid to protect them but were instead fought by it when they wished to confront his or her rapist. Universities under-report sexual assault cases and largely do not take sufficient action against rapists. According to the Center for Public Integrity, in 2010 only 10 to 25 percent of students found guilty of this crime were permanently removed from campus.

The film centered on the efforts of two sexual assault survivors, Annie E. Clark and Andrea Pino from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, whose cases were mishandled by the university. They began to research sexual assault cases at other universities and found commonality with their own in the way they were handled. They decided to connect with other survivors, listen to their stories, help them file a Title XI lawsuit against the survivors’ university and created a nationwide network of activists to pressure for reform by legislation.

A Title XI lawsuit holds the university accountable by claiming that they did and does not effectively try to change how sexual assault cases are handled. Then, they are effectively discriminating against women. This puts the university in a position where they could lose federal funding.

Women are not the only sexual assault survivors. Men are too and the film effectively pays tribute to them as well. Just because you hear more about women being raped doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen to men too. In fact, male survivors  experience even worse verbal backlash when they try and report it.  People use the phrase “Be A Man” as a way to make the victim feel powerless in the face of his troubles. For a person who was violently attacked, this can push a person’s fight for recovery steps backwards.

The film hits every aspect surrounding sexual assault. Who is most likely to be your rapist? It’s usually someone you know. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, 73% of survivors knew their attacker beforehand. The film featured a young woman who was assaulted by an acquaintance while in Harvard Law School, the elite university with a reputation for not only outstanding students but also outstanding sexual assault cover-ups.

They were able to interview a rapist, who served prison time for the crime, admitted to his actions on camera and went on to say that a rapist is 100% likely to do the same crime.

Well what about fraternities? The film features interviews with young ladies from universities across the country answering the question of what the nickname of Sigma Alpha Epsilon is, “Sexual Assault Expected.” The film featured footage of pledges from a fraternity in Yale University chanting,–“No means yes! Yes means anal!”– outside a women’s dormitory. Rape can no longer be excused  as just  feminism exaggeration as an outcry against men. The numbers are real and the withheld tears in the voices of those sharing their stories are too.

The film didn’t forget about student athletes. The guys protected by athletic scholarships and their place on the team  aren’t  as bright and shiny as that coveted Heisman trophy.

It also featured a young woman who was given a date rape drug while at a bar near Florida State University and then assaulted at her rapist’s home and afterwards was dropped off by him at the doorstep of the university and couldn’t recollect her rapist’s name. She recognized him on the first day of class and found his name as the professor did attendance. It was the university’s coveted quarterback, Jameis Winston. This occurred before he became the youngest Heisman trophy winner in 2013 and now soon to be picked for the NFL draft.  The film showed the lack of police effort in investigating the quarterback and the allegations were put to bed without action against Winston. Even The New York Times looked into the case and found faulty police work.

There wasn’t a demographic that was unaffected in the film. It didn’t matter the sexual orientation, ethnicity and year in university etc. Sexual assault affects all.

Rape culture has been a popular topic for quite a bit recently. There is a fight against systematic injustice. Being asked by university police and officials “What were you wearing? Why didn’t you fight back? How much alcohol did you drink?” is unacceptable as the film shows. It was never acceptable before either but now the general public is  becoming conscious of this  fact.

On Twitter almost a year ago, an overwhelming number of survivors answered the question of what they were wearing when they were assaulted. A Columbia University student admitted to being sexually assaulted and did her senior thesis by carrying the mattress she was assaulted on everywhere she went until her attacker was permanently removed from campus. The university did not grant her wish but social media made it one long, hard fight to try and throw under the rug. Social media is making the reality of sexual assault impossible to ignore .

Closing the film was a version of a song by Diane Warren and Lady Gaga titled “Til It Happens To You.” Combined with the rest of the film and the final credits and the frustration and helplessness that the audience develops throughout the film; the score can move a person to tears.

“You tell me it’s going to get better,” sings Gaga and is answered with “Really? It gets better? No. You don’t know until it happens to you.”

The film finished with a written message telling friends, parents, alumni etc. to help with the push for legislation that pressures universities to establish systematic reform.

Since the premiere of the film, the filmmakers have received over 1,000 requests from universities to screen the film in order to make their campuses fully aware of the epidemic – specifically targeting freshmen and young men.

It’s a step for sure. Maybe one day my “Take Back The Night 1999” rape whistle will be irrelevant and of no use. Until then, I’ll keep watching about history being made.


“The Hunting Ground”
In select theaters – closest one to Long Island and New York City:
Angelika Film Center
18 W Houston St.
New York, NY

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