Disturbed, outraged, and alarmed; I had just finished watching The Hunting Ground, a new documentary that exposes universities across the United States for their failures to effectively respond to sexual violence on campus. I knew it was going to be painful from watching the trailer, but I did not expect to also feel overcome with feelings of isolation. As a staff administrator and instructor at an academic institution, it was incredibly upsetting to observe students navigating the aftermath of a rape while feeling disempowered and ignored by top colleges and universities across the country. These are my counterparts, I thought, that are perpetuating a cycle of violence at college that so often continues off-campus as well.
The film presented harrowing testimony by women who had experienced sexual assaults on campus and their university’s inability to effectively respond to the crisis. Students shared that when they brought their cases about being raped to the administration, often responses were to blame or shame the victim, to silence or dissuade them from reporting, or to accuse them of being dishonest. It is unacceptable that staff at academic universities would meet with a student that had experienced a most traumatic event, perhaps the most traumatic of their lives, and respond in these ways.
It is even more shocking to hear, both in this film and elsewhere, people’s inability to believe women. The film draws a compelling comparison between someone who claims to have been robbed and someone who claims to have been raped. They ask, would you ever consider questioning whether or not the person who was robbed had lied? Well, then, why would you question a victim of sexual assault? Statistically, research has shown that false rape accusations are quite low.
The film goes from case to case, university to university, with students expressing very similar ordeals with administration. Beyond the shocking cultural attitudes and individual responses about rape on campuses from officials, the important question about adjudication of these cases and the consistent lack of oversight and accountability from university administrations remains. At one point in the film, graphics illustrate the numbers of reported rapes at universities and the subsequent weak punishments of the perpetrators. This is severely troublesome, since we know that most rapists are repeat offenders.
One of the most empowering aspects of the film was watching courageous young activists take charge of the issue using a federal law, Title IX, to address their school’s failure to handle sexual assault on campus. They mobilized, gathered evidence, and built a movement of students across the nation to demand accountability from their universities and testify about their experiences. It was a monumental feat, but the students rallied together and became catalysts for change. It’s a chapter taken right from the women’s rights movement handbook and demonstrates to the world that feminist activism in the United States is thriving.
In the fall of 2014, Douglass Residential College (DRC), the women’s college at Rutgers-New Brunswick established Transforming Cultures Initiative: Douglass Residential College Responds to Gender-Based Violence. With strong partnerships in the local community and at Rutgers, including national leaders in bystander intervention; 2,200 women student leaders; and faculty and staff committed to women’s leadership, Douglass has committed to fostering dialogue, education, and awareness about gender-based violence locally, nationally, and globally. We envisage this new initiative deeply educating our student body and faculty/staff, changing the culture at Rutgers, and preventing and reducing the incidence of gender-based violence both on campus and beyond.
The Hunting Ground provided a devastating portrayal of injustice and unaccountability for students in the United States. Sexual violence does not exist in a vacuum and unfortunately it occurs everywhere. However, the prevention, education, and responses fostered at universities are all essential aspects of challenging the pervasive culture of rape. I know that there are faculty and staff at universities across the country working with students to institutionally and effectively respond to sexual assault on campus; I ask you to please continue, as we must strengthen our support to survivors and challenge a culture that accepts sexual violence and victim-blaming at college and beyond.
Margot Baruch is Director of Global Engagement at Douglass Residential College, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.
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