What Movie Did You See? A Response to Emily Yoffe’s Review of “The Hunting Ground”

March 3, 2015, 5:53 pm

Students protesting rape at Dickinson College, Carlyle, PA.

Students protesting rape at Dickinson College, Carlyle, PA.

Last night I went to see The Hunting Ground, a documentary by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering about rape and anti-rape activism on college campuses that debuted in New York and Los Angeles last Friday. Full disclosure: I was interviewed extensively for this movie, and appear in two clips in the first half hour.

Let me begin by saying that it isn’t an easy movie to watch, even if you have heard all these stories before. Maybe especially if you have heard them before. Some of the cases are notorious. For example, there is the Notre Dame football player who played two games and went to practice every day while the Notre Dame police claimed they couldn’t find them. Then there is  the rape and assault accusation against a star FSU quarterback and Heisman trophy winner who will be a top pick in the NFL draft that remains unresolved because the district attorney will not take it to court.

Other cases are less famous, and but are familiar to me (and perhaps to you) because they have happened to women I know, women who were my students or women whose cases were publicized in some way. The elements of these stories often include several of the following elements: a fraternity, physical violence, a woman being isolated in some way, a woman who is unconscious and wakes up as some guy is pawing her or actually inside of her. Sometimes there is something that is referred to as a “rape room;” sometimes there are frat pledges involved who either deliver women to older guys to rape, or sometimes there are pledges who simply make it clear by word and deed that women are meat. One college student becomes an anti-rape activist because she was lured into a bathroom, beaten and sexually assaulted, while the party continued in the next room. Then there is the Harvard Law student who was drugged and sexually assaulted, along with her friend, by a single man who undressed them, fondled them and penetrated them digitally. Harvard thought this was a credible enough case that they expelled the man.

Then — incredibly — let him back in the following year. As I said, in some form or another, I have heard some version of all of these stories before, most of them on one residential campus where I taught for over fifteen years and which recently paid a very large settlement to a woman who was raped and beaten at a frat six weeks after she matriculated. We know this happened because the man who did it is in jail.

What The Hunting Ground does is that is important and different is to put a face on sexual assault: women’s faces. Which is why it is more than puzzling that Emily Yoffe, who writes the Dear Prudence column at Slate has decided that it does not “tell the whole story” about campus rape — and then proceeds to tell a very selective story herself about the documentary, and the campus rape problem, characterizing the filmmakers as “unfair” to colleges and to universities. Dick and Ziering are also unfair to college men, she argues, and are inciting “alarm” about sex on campus when in fact we need not be alarmed about the rape situation at all.

In fact, Yoffe demonstrates none of these things. What she manages to accomplish, however, is to demonstrate irrefutably that she has never spent any significant amount of time as a faculty member or an administrator on a college campus. Here are a few selections from her review:

Yoffe: “The Hunting Ground opens like a horror movie: We meet a suite of innocents who have no idea they’re heading off to hell.” There’s nothing more appropriate than sarcasm when reviewing a movie about rape, is there? I guess that if the women speaking out about sexual assaults on campus are not innocents, they are guilty, right? Guilty of lying, guilty of having agreed to sex that they later regretted, guilty of acting sexy and not putting out, guilty of wearing clothes that are too revealing, guilty of drinking too much, guilty of….OK, you get the picture. Congratulations, Emily, for reinforcing every stereotype about women that is used to discredit every female and male student on campus that reports a rape. Unless you absolutely do not believe any of the women who testified to their experiences in the movie, this is a horse shit thing to write.

Yoffe has no grounds not to believe them, or at least she doesn’t cite any. Actually, I’m not sure what you would call the experiences these women describe on film but a horror movie. Here’s the scenario they all describe: You are an honors student, maybe a valedictorian. Early in your college career, you go to a party. You meet a guy who maybe drugs you, or maybe just asks you to step outside, where he can drag you into the shadows. Maybe he bangs your ahead against the wall or floor, and as you are saying “no” and “please stop” and wondering if he is going to kill you, he strips, rapes and beats you. Then maybe he dresses you again (oddly, rapists seem to like this, perhaps because it contributes to their fantasy that they didn’t do anything wrong.) In the subsequent days and weeks, you then are unable to sleep or concentrate; you go to the college authorities and they act as though you are insane, or that nothing really happened. Or maybe they let the athletes who raped you finish the season, and then when you sue them they hand the records of your sessions with a university counselor over to their corporation counsel to discredit your testimony. Then, the fact that no one at the college or on the local police force is interested in investigating the case means that a columnist from Slate who knows nothing about you or what happened presumes that there is an even-up chance you made the rape up just to get attention. Or hurt men. Or both.

Sounds like a horror movie to me.

Yoffe: “let’s examine this assertion that colleges would rather leave perpetrators unpunished than acknowledge there are any.” To counter the evidence in the movie that makes exactly this argument (and that anyone who has ever advocated for sexual assault victims on a college campus knows is true except in the most egregious and irrefutable cases) Yoffe cites exactly one data set, from an insurance group. Examining “305 sexual assault claims they received from 104 member schools for the three years ending in 2013,” the insurance group asserts that “when a formal complaint is brought against a student, in 45 percent of the cases he is found responsible. When that happens, more than 80 percent of the time he is given the most severe penalty available—either expulsion or suspension.” Yes, and those are the cases that make it to the insurance company, not all the sexual assaults that happen or even all the sexual assaults that are reported. In addition, if Yoffe had paid attention to the movie she supposedly watched, she would have known that The Hunting Ground  cites numerous academic studies, and the idea that there are  3 rape cases a year reported at any college  is a joke.

Furthermore: women are discouraged and blocked from reporting. No college official, not one, was willing to speak to the camera and say this was not so. As one activist reported, women who decided to report their rapes at UNC-Chapel Hill had to go to Google to find out what to do because there was so little information available to them. When they did report, they were belittled by university officials and told that there was nothing the university could or would do. Women who report rapes, particularly those accusing popular students, frat brothers, and athletes, are hounded, stalked, receive death threats and are written about in vile ways on campus Anonymous Confession Boards. Everyone who knows anything about campus rape knows that this is true. In fact, the movie has abundant evidence that if there is anything that has a better chance of ruining your year at college than being raped, it is reporting one.

Yoffe: writing about Lizzie Seeberg who, after being assaulted by a Notre Dame football player, killed herself: “Seeberg had long been treated for depression and anxiety and that her therapist noted she’d previously had ‘suicidal thoughts.’ And fairness would require them to acknowledge the accused’s differing version of the evening.” Just out of curiosity — why would including the accused rapist’s account — always assuming he would provide one to the filmmaker — constitute fairness? What’s really unfair is what happened to all these women. In the name of fun and games, some guy beat and raped each one of them and treated them like pieces of trash rather than human beings to be treasured. Furthermore, if you go to the link that is supposed to make Seeberg’s mental health a big question mark in the case, it doesn’t do that. Instead, the link will take you to an excellent piece in The Catholic Reporter that criticizes Notre Dame officials for: covering up the alleged rape, insinuating that Lizzie was the sexual aggressor, and asserting that her mental health — not the alleged rape — was the real cause of her suicide. It also weaves Seeberg’s story into a far bigger institutional story about Notre Dame consistently covering up rape accusations and caricaturing women who fight back.

There’s more. The fundamental thing that Yoffe does not get about this movie is that it is not about sex. It’s about rape. In fact, the only theme Yoffe seems to care about is the tired old question of whether actually addressing rape on campus will ruin sex for everyone by producing an epidemic of false accusations (one study, of the numerous studies, cited in the film said that fewer than 5% of accusations are false.) More importantly, in Yoffe’s desire to infer that Dick and Ziering are lighting a fuse for a new sex war, she fails to mention the important and powerful role that men play in campus anti-rape activism, a role that is well represented in the movie. Men appear as rape survivors, feminist researchers and as advocates against sexual violence; there is one admitted rapist, who explains what sexual predators do.  One imagines that this close attention to men might trouble Yoffe’s view that The Hunting Ground is an anti-male polemic, so she simply left it out.

Now who is being unfair? Commenters, go see the movie and let me know what you see.

Update: In an earlier version of this story, I misspelled Emily Yoffe’s name. It has been corrected, as have numerous typos.

Additional Update, March 18: On March 6, The Chronicle was contacted by Dennis Brown, Assistant Vice President of News and Media Relationships at Notre Dame, claiming inaccuracies in the two sections of the post that refer to Notre Dame. I responded in this way:

In relation to Brown’s characterization of the post as being “about sexual assault,” the post was about Emily Yoffee’s review of The Hunting Ground, a movie about sexual assault on campus.

In relation to Brown’s assertion that “Specifically, [Potter] writes in the second paragraph that multiple football players were accused when it was one,” I have changed the post to reflect that the other student (who was also not interviewed by Notre Dame police) may not have been a football player. I would also not be shocked to learn that, despite being a key witness to what led to the events in question, he was not sought out by Notre Dame police. However I mention no specific crime that the football player was not being promptly questioned about in that paragraph, hence there is no accusation of rape.

Brown’s second assertion, “More egregiously, she calls the accused student a “rapist” toward the end of the article. As the county prosecutor reported in December 2010, rape was never claimed, nor was there a rape.”  Although I did not call the student a rapist, I have added “alleged” as a modifier several times to remove any doubt about this. As to Brown”s statement: “nor was there a rape:” the whole point of this part of the film is the allegation that Notre Dame interfered with the investigation. This interference is consistent with university policies that Notre Dame police may not contact an athlete while he or she is at an athletic facility, and other instances in which the university ignored or failed to investigate what had happened to Seeberg, including being threatened by her alleged assailant subsequent to whatever happened. A campus policeman at Notre Dame resigned because of the sequence of events between the alleged assault and Notre Dame’s defense of itself, which was organized around emphasizing Seeberg’s history of emotional illness.

Brown  supplies this link, the County Prosecutor’s report, which addresses alleged sexual battery, to bolster his assertion that there was no rape. And yet not all the information is there: only the information that was collected, long after the fact, and long after Notre Dame had mounted its campaign against Seeberg.  No physical evidence in the case was collected, and Seeberg’s own testimony was never heard.  The Catholic Reporter cites witnesses that Lizzy Seeberg was shattered by what happened to her, and Notre Dame’s unwillingness to deal with it; and her father testifies to that in the movie. There are numerous inconsistencies in the story, as well as gaps, because no one ever listened to Lizzie’s full story except her friend and her parents, and the assault was never investigated prior to her suicide. Just as there is no evidence that Lizzie was forced to have intercourse or perform other sexual acts, there is no evidence that there was no rape, and Brown’s statement — “nor was there a rape” — has no basis in fact.

As a footnote, Brown has a personal connection to the Notre Dame Athletic Department: his wife is the head coach of women’s volleyball.

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