- A screen shot from Vice’s “Campus Cover-up” segment airing Friday on HBO.
- Screen shot from Vice’s “Campus Cover-Up” segment
- John Hockenberry and Gianna Toboni
On Wednesday night in New York City, Vice on HBO held an advanced screening of its new segment “Campus Cover-up,” at Columbia University, which has been a center of media attention regarding the college rape epidemic. It is at Columbia that a student, Emma Sulkowicz, used performance art to shame a fellow student she alleged had raped her. Sulkowicz lugged a 50-pound dorm mattress with her from class to class and everywhere she went on campus beginning in September of 2014. The controversial mattress made its final appearance at Class Day last month, when both the accused and accuser graduated.
While that protest, widely covered by news organizations, certainly succeeded in dragging the issue of campus rape out of the shadows, and while Wednesday night’s screening itself suggests a climate of open debate at Columbia, the Vice episode investigates the steps some American universities have taken to hide the prevalence of sexual assault on their campuses.
Vice correspondent Gianna Toboni interviewed students all over the country for the documentary. She filmed student protests at the University of Missouri, Columbia University, and the University of Michigan, and a student hearing at the University of Arkansas. After the screening, Columbia students and other guests participated in an interview with The Takeaway’s John Hockenberry and Toboni.
The episode explores how universities that prioritize institutional image management over students’ wellbeing have garnered the attention of U.S. politicians, who appear on screen: Senator Claire McCaskill, a former sex crimes prosecutor, comments, “The Title IX process is a way to have some accountability to protect the young woman on campus so she doesn’t have to be in the same class, she doesn’t have to be in the same dorm, she doesn’t have to see the person who assaulted her day in and day out.” However, many cases of sexual assault on college campuses never reach a prosecutor’s office due to the proof required for prosecution.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand adds, “I think there are many cases where a school would rather cover up a rape or a sexual assault than endure the bad press or be known as a rape school. And any time you have an institutional bias where it prefers to protect the institution over the individual, that’s when justice is not possible.” The two senators hope to pass the Campus Accountability and Safety Act through the Senate this year, which requires a survey to be conducted every two years at every university that receives federal funding. Toboni discussed the bipartisan support for the bill, with 32 senators already on board. If the bill gets passed, the statistics on sexual assault would be on the Department of Education’s website and each university’s website.
In following the protests on various campuses, Toboni captures the students’ trauma. One Columbia student says, through tears, that she had been on campus for only a week before being raped. A student in the University of Michigan notes, “You’re more likely to have someone look into a stolen laptop than a rape.” The Sulkowicz case remains unresolved, with public opinion divided on the legitimacy of the rape claim and some saying the accused was the true victim. But more generally, the voices united against campus rape have not quieted and the fallout only continues.
During the discussion with Toboni and Hockenberry, a male audience member became a glaring example of how rape is often perceived by asking why one of the girls in the documentary didn’t fight off her rapist. He asked, “Why doesn’t that woman know her strength? Doesn’t she know she could fight off someone stronger than her?”
Yet, despite such disheartening scenes. the film ends with a hopeful message: “This era of benign neglect when it comes to sexual assault on college campuses is over.”
“Campus Cover-up” premieres on Friday at 11 p.m. on HBO.