On May 13, California moved aggressively against rape on campuses, issuing a directive to all state colleges to “notify authorities when a sexual assault is reported.”
Attorney General Kamala Harris and U.C. president Janet Napolitano jointly issued a set of guidelines to encourage collaboration between campuses and law enforcement, in order to improve responses to sexual offenses. California schools must adopt policies implementing the directive by July 1st.
At the same time, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) is investigating 111 colleges and universities for “possible violations of federal law over the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints.”
The state’s action followed last year’s report by the White House Council on Women and Girls, “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action.” That study acknowledged that “one out of five women, or nearly 22 million, has been raped in their lifetimes.” A comprehensive look at rape and sexual assault with a focus on college campuses, the report describes the “most at risk” victims, the physical and economic costs of rape and the lack of response by law enforcement.
Reporting rates for campus sexual assault are very low; on average “only 12% of student victims” are willing to file claims. As a result, rape survivors suffer from a wide range of physical and mental health problems “including depression, chronic pain and anxiety,” the report said.
“The Hunting Ground.” Amid all the statistics and official statements, a new documentary puts a heartbreaking, human face on the epidemic of campus rape and sexual violence. I recently attended a screening of the film, “The Hunting Ground,” at UC Santa Barbara. When it ended, I felt sick, and angry.
“The Hunting Ground,” produced and directed by Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, begins with the images and sounds of several young women joyfully receiving their college acceptances, then follows them through their experiences of assault on campus, often in their first year, and their attempts to find justice and resolution.
The filmmakers use both data and personal narratives to tell their story. Statistics buttress the film’s thesis: women who are victims of rape and assault are mistreated or ignored when they seek help from the very institutions that are responsible for their safety.
The film focuses on educational institutions that enable rape culture on campuses to continue. Incident after incident in the film depicts the lack of response from college administrators, campus police and local law enforcement.
One key element: college sports teams are glorified in the American university system, and fraternities often encourage their members to pursue women students. When the perpetrator is a member of the school football team, the victim receives no help or support. Victorious college teams result in increased fundraising from alumni.
A Heisman trophy winner and first pick in the NFL draft by Tampa Bay this year, Winston signed a four-year contract worth $23 million. While attending Florida State University, Winston was charged by Kinsman with sexual assault. Cleared of charges, he has countersued for $7 million dollars for alleged false claims.
The film follows the extraordinary efforts of Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, two women (pictured above) from University of North Carolina, who move from being “victims to survivors to activists,” as they connect the dots of what is happening nationally and to bring attention to their cause.
Clark and Pino created an organization called “End Rape on Campus” that provides education and information about Title IX and how to file a federal complaint.
They began by filing federal discrimination complaints and holding press conferences, and their tireless efforts have brought more awareness to the issue and greater advocacy on behalf of victims.
A landscape of violence: As tragic as it is, rape on campus is just one element of widespread violence that pervades many areas of American society. Whether in the military, domestically within families, or on streets and campuses, women historically have been sexual targets – the hunted.
Historically, law enforcement agencies have not made a priority of rape and sexual assault. There long has been a lack of willingness to pursue cases, and insufficient resources to resolve the number of complaints filed.
Finally, a nationwide discussion is coalescing around these issues.
Before “The Hunting Ground,” Ziering and Dick’s 2012 film, “The Invisible War,” brought attention to rape in the military and helped result in hearings and legislation. More than half a million women have been raped in the armed services; according to the Pentagon, sexual assault has increased in the military by 35 percent between 2010 and 2012.
Efforts by Human Rights Watch have brought awareness to the national problem of untested rape kits kept in police storage rooms. The massive backlog resulted from inaction by police departments and other local and federal agencies.
Now, policy makers are increasing budgets to fund additional technical staff to do DNA analysis in an effort to eliminate the backlog; some progress has been made but thousands of kits still remain untested in the U.S.
In 2013, President Obama signed the third iteration of the Violence Against Women Act. This legislation approaches the issue of violence on numerous fronts. It creates tougher penalties for offenders, incentives for arrests and prosecution, and support for domestic violence response teams. The Act includes funding for direct services for victims of rape and sexual assault and training for sexual assault teams, law enforcement and criminal justice professionals
Despite all the activities, particularly on the federal level, sexual assault complaints on campus are increasing according to data released in 2014 by the Office of Civil Rights.
It is so far unclear from the data whether this is because women feel safer to file reports, or efforts to prevent sexual assaults are failing.
A search for solutions. What institutional changes must we make to protect our young women? Is it possible to create an educational system that respects women and makes their safety and well being a priority?
“The Hunting Ground” does not provide answers but leaves little doubt that great change is needed. Feminist filmmaking at its finest, it has brought national attention to violence against women; but young women are not any safer today on college campuses.
After a showing of the film last month this at The Feminist Majority Foundation in Los Angeles, Amy Ziering spoke about how she hoped to help bring more, and faster, changes:
We’ve already received well over 2,000 requests to screen “The Hunting Ground” at colleges and high schools across the nation. We are heartened by this response and hope it helps to transform our culture and compel institutions to more fairly adjudicate these crimes and better support survivors.
Violence against women has long been imbedded in our American culture. Making the issue of rape and sexual assault part of our national political dialogue is essential, but it will take years before the Office of Civil Rights completes their campus investigations.
We have the knowledge and the tools to turn this around, but do we as a society have the commitment to eliminate it? Change could occur nationally if college leaders are willing to step up their efforts and an educational curriculum that defines violence as unacceptable is implemented at all school levels.
California now has taken the first step. It’s a start.
Susan Rose, former Executive Director of the Los Angeles City Commission on the Status of Women, served eight years on the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors and is a board member of Emerge California, a Democratic group working to help women achieve elected and appointed office. Her last piece for Calbuzz reported on California legislation to end the state’s rape kit backlog.