How a Documentary Is Putting a Stop to Campus Sexual Assault

8682675829_555503a78f_zThe article below was first published in the spring 2016 issue of Ms. Subscribe today to read more about campus rape, along with a profile of Lupita Nyong’o, the women taking on climate change and much more.

When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo wanted to seal the deal last summer on his groundbreaking campus anti-rape bill, “Enough Is Enough,” he used a provocative documentary film to sway legislators that exposes the cover-up of campus sexual assault in the United States: The Hunting Ground. His plan worked. The bill became law in July.

And New York’s legislative move is not unique. Since its release in February last year, The Hunting Ground has inspired a spate of new policy proposals across the nation.

In 2015 alone, legislators in 29 states introduced bills to address campus sexual assault. In Illinois, for instance, lawmakers approved an affirmative consent law this past August after viewing The Hunting Ground. In Hawaii, where the film screened multiple times, the legislature passed a law creating an affirmative consent task force to review and make recommendations to improve the University of Hawaii’s sexual assault policy. Affirmative consent laws are also pending in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Indiana Rep. Pat Bauer (D) directly credited the film for motivating him to introduce legislation to make university police departments more transparent. And Virginia Rep. Eileen Filler-Corn (D) introduced legislation requiring the development of trauma-sensitive training for Title IX coordinators and investigators and campus law enforcement after hosting a screening of the film.

Filmmakers Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick attribute the flurry of policy activity to the film’s compelling evidence that school administrators are sweeping campus rape reports under the rug. Ziering also says the film is powerful because it challenges common assumptions that have inhibited action on the issue. Sexual assault, she says, is often “not he-said-she-said, it’s not gray, it’s not bad hookups, it’s actually often a calculated, premeditated crime.”

The Hunting Ground has also aided the student movement, which has been pushing for an end to campus rape for years. Annie Clark, cofounder of End Rape on Campus, uses the film to educate lawmakers and motivate them to do something about campus sexual assault. “The institutional betrayal and cover-up was surprising to a lot of lawmakers,” she explains. With “personal narratives and strong statistics to back it up,” she says the film has been a “wake-up call” for legislators.

“We’ve never had a tool like this,” Clark continues. “People can read articles, but to see it on the big screen, in a movie theater. People are talking about it. …Society’s consciousness is raised.”

Ziering and Dick report that law- makers have been present at many of the nearly 1,000 screenings that have taken place at universities, government offices and other locations in the U.S. Plus, all 50 governors have received a copy of the film. The Hunting Ground’s social action campaign director, Bonnie Abaunza, says she is working closely with government officials across the country, including in Pennsylvania, Delaware and Indiana, to make the film available for screenings on college campuses and in lawmakers’ offices.

Clark proclaims that we’re at a “cultural tipping point.” And while there’s a long way to go, it’s heartening to see many lawmakers finally taking concrete action—because enough is enough.

Photo from University of Oregon anti-rape demonstration courtesy of Flickr user Wolfram Burner licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

 

About

Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is a Professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. Her 2007 book The Women's Movement Against Sexual Harassment won the National Women’s Studies Association Sara A. Whaley Book Prize. Her second book, Fighting the U.S. Youth Sex Trade: Gender, Race, and Politics, tells the story of activism against youth involvement in the sex trade in the United States between 1970 and 2015. Baker is the President of the Abortion Rights Fund of Western Massachusetts.