Screened At The Picture House In Pelham, The Hunting Ground Shines A Light On Campus Rapes

A stifling silence filled the auditorium on the night when The Women’s Empowerment Club at Pelham Memorial High School partnered with The Picture House to present Kirby Dick’s documentary The Hunting Ground. The film explores what the filmmakers call an epidemic of rapes on US campuses, bureaucratic cover-ups that follow them, and the life-changing effects that survivors and their families grapple with as a result. The silence was broken by gasps as statistics flashed across the screen, tears were shed as young women relived their scarring encounters, and a tumult of anger surged through the crowd as parents and students alike called for change.

In the panel discussion that followed, four experts spoke about the changes that must be made to lower and, hopefully, one day stop, sexual assaults. Some estimates quoted in the film project approximately 100,000 rapes will occur on US campuses next year. The experts stressed change must begin within society to combat “rape culture:” societal factors that can lead to rape or sexual assaults and prevent survivors from getting justice. Rape culture is a complex topic, but is defined in broad terms by Cornell University as encompassing “all things that allow rape to seem normal and that prevent survivors from being able to speak up about their personal experiences of rape, sexual assault, and other forms of sexual violence and harassment.”

Fredric I. Green, a second deputy district attorney for Westchester County, commented that social media, videos, and especially movies, contribute to the “glorification of excess and taking advantage of people.” Green said “society’s objectification of women, and the culture of excessive drinking and wild partying” could lead to victim blaming, and that seeing schools mishandle sexual assault complaints can discourage students from even reporting cases in the first place. According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, 80 percent of female rape survivors who are college students never report their cases to the authorities.

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“Sexual assault and rape are very unique crimes in that people say, ‘that would never happen to me,’ ‘she was drinking more than I would drink,’ or, ‘she was wearing a short skirt,’” said Rebecca Dince Zipkin, a former Brooklyn assistant DA who represents sexual assault survivors and provides prevention education to high school students and administrators. “There’s this huge problem of victim blaming and I think that’s a huge issue. People have to realize that the only thing that causes rape are rapists.”

On a political level, recent studies featured in The Hunting Ground, like one from the National Institute of Justice that estimated one in five women will be raped during their time at college, and another that estimated 16 to 20 percent of undergraduates are sexually assaulted each year, have already facilitated action. (Other studies have reported a much lower occurrence of campus rape; the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2014 National Crime Victimization Survey reported the rate to be roughly 0.6 percent.)

“[New York Governor] Andrew Cuomo’s Enough Is Enough program is definitely on the right track, we just need to get it passed,” said Lisa Hofflich, a member of the National Organization of Women.

Cuomo’s proposal would take a number of steps to combat campus rape and sexual assault, steps that include: mandating that colleges inform students who have been raped or sexually assaulted of their rights; providing immunity for students who report rape or sexual assaults from being prosecuted under campus code of conduct violations if they are under the influence of drugs or intoxicated; the establishment of an affirmative consent standard when establishing fault in rape and sexual assault cases; and training programs for college administrators and staff.

“While campus sexual assault is not New York’s problem alone, it is a problem New York can help to solve,” Cuomo wrote in an editorial in May. “As New York has done so often, we can help turn the tide on a national issue that many still don’t want to acknowledge even exists.”

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