On May 13, Attorney General Kamala Harris and U.C. President Janet Napolitano took aggressive action to improve response to rape on campuses. They issued a directive to all state colleges to “notify authorities when a sexual assault is reported” and a set of guidelines to encourage collaboration between campuses and law enforcement.
California schools must adopt policies implementing the directive by July 1. This action followed the release last year of a White House Council on Women and Girls report ““Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action,” in which it acknowledged that “one out of five women or nearly 22 million have been raped in their lifetimes.” With an emphasis 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, the White House report said. 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.” 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 Hunting Ground
The Office of Civil Rights’ list of universities being investigated involves 10 in the University of California system. According to federal reporting requirements, the number of rapes reported rose by 50 percent in 2013 on California campuses, with UCLA and UCSB filing the largest increase.
A screening of the documentary The Hunting Ground was shown at UCSB, recently, which puts a very human face on the epidemic of rape across American campuses. It was heartbreaking to watch. When it ended, I felt sick, and angry.
Produced and directed by Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, The Hunting Ground begins with several young women joyfully receiving their college acceptances and follows them through their experiences of assault on campus, often in their first year, and their attempts to find justice and resolution. The filmmakers used statistics to document 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 is laser-like in its focus on educational institutions that enable rape culture on campuses to continue. College sports teams are glorified in the American collegiate system, and victorious college teams result in increased fundraising from alumni. Fraternities, which sponsored the first intercollegiate sports teams, 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.
Money is motivation for the players, also, as success on a college team can lead to a career in professional sports. The case of Jameis Winston and Erica Kinsman highlights how much is at stake. 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 accused of sexual assault by Kinsman. Cleared of charges, he is now counter-suing her for $7 million for false claims. The film shows the taunts Kinsman suffered; she dropped out of Florida State.
Two women from University of North Carolina, Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, who move from being “victims to survivors to activists,” are a rare success story in the film. They attempt to connect what is happening nationally and bring attention to their cause. They began by filing federal discrimination complaints and holding press conferences. Working together, 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. Their efforts have brought more awareness to the issue and greater advocacy on behalf of victims.
Violence Against Women Pervades America
In America, violence against women pervades many areas of society. Whether in the military, domestically within families, or on the streets and campuses, women historically have been sexual targets. Women are the hunted, but now a nation-wide discussion is occurring around these issues.
• Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick’s film The Invisible War, produced in 2012, focused on rape in the military and resulted in hearings in Washington and proposed legislation. More than half a million women have been raped in the armed services.
• Efforts initiated by Human Rights Watch has brought awareness to the national problem of untested rape kits kept in police storage rooms. Policy makers are increasing budgets to fund additional technical staff to do DNA analysis, 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 creates tougher penalties for offenders, includes funding for direct services for victims of rape and sexual assault as well as training for sexual assault teams, law enforcement and criminal justice professionals.
Despite all these efforts, sexual assault complaints on campus are increasing according to data released in 2014 by the Office of Civil Rights.
Is There a Solution?
The Hunting Ground is feminist filmmaking at its finest but does not provide answers. It sends a strong message that change must occur on our campuses and 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 this April in Los Angeles, Amy Ziering spoke about the possibility of change:
“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 have the commitment to eliminate it? Change could occur nationally if college leaders were willing to step up their efforts and implement an educational curriculum that defines violence as unacceptable at all school levels.
California has taken the first step. It’s a beginning.
A version of this op-ed first appeared at calbuzz.com.
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, an organization working to help women achieve elected office.