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(Youtube/The Hunting Ground)

Assault epidemic

Campus rape film, “The Hunting Ground,” punctures American moral superiority

By Zainab Salbi on December 22, 2015

It’s surprising to many that The Hunting Ground, a film addressing rape on American college campuses has proven so controversial. When troops or militias rape and don’t acknowledge the act as rape — from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Rwanda — they are unanimously condemned by Americans. Rape in the streets of India is also an open-and-shut case in America’s eyes, if not always in India itself, where, just this week, the youngest convict in the 2012 Delhi gang rape was released from a correction center. Rape and sexual harassment in the streets of Cairo is also a non-controversial matter in America, where it is viewed from afar as unforgivable under any circumstances, while in Cairo itself it is a subject of debate: Egyptian police cannot be counted on to intervene to stop severe harassment and molestation of women in public places.

The vast majority of Americans are horrified by the impunity that is all too common in some other countries. So why is rape and sexual violence on college campuses in America a controversial issue?

In The Hunting Ground, directed by Kirby Dick and produced by Amy Ziering, interviews with victims of alleged incidents of rape on college campuses all over the U.S. make clear that young women’s complaints are too rarely taking seriously by college administrators. One after another, the women on camera describe being asked what they were wearing, whether they gave a positive signal to the man that may have created confusion, and if they had been drinking at the time of the incident.

I had been under the impression that these questions were typical of another era, in which the victim was blamed for causing her rape. I believed that America had evolved to the point where a woman’s attire, alcohol consumption and behavior no longer could be interpreted, by any stretch, as permission to rape. And yet, here are young women in 2015 echoing the complaints of American women in the 1970s.

It seems as if America hasn’t progressed as much as it thinks it has. Some university staff members have written articles contesting the movie itself, accusing it of bias in favor of the women who appeal to be “believed” when they first report alleged incidents of rape. Of course it’s true that officials, police and the universities themselves have the right and the obligation to investigate every claim. No one, not even the alleged victims themselves are asking for any more than that. But the investigation and handling of every claim must respect victims from the outset.

When any woman, especially a young woman in college, has the courage to report so intimate a violation, the least any college administration can do is respect the integrity of her claim at that moment. It is not easy for any raped woman, or man for that matter, to report on the act of rape. The reporting itself is traumatizing, scary and humiliating. Dismissing the integrity of an alleged victim’s story by asking what she was wearing or if she misinterpreted the act, as happened to some of the alleged victims in the film, is a violation in itself.

(Youtube/The Hunting Ground)
(Youtube/The Hunting Ground)

There are, of course, those who falsely accuse men of rape. These incidents do happen and are a grave matter, but rape accusations must be weighed on a case-by-case basis. It’s safe to assume, however, that most women wouldn’t want to be subjected to the humiliation of being interrogated and possibly vilified in the small community of a college campus. It takes true courage even to speak out loud about such an ordeal. Outrage should not be aimed at accusers but at the discomfort and procrastination surrounding cases that involve the football stars or fraternity leaders who often generate big donations from alums. The outrage is that in 2015 college administrators, police and staff won’t face the epidemic of campus violence against women.

America loves to claim moral superiority regarding the societal evolution of women’s rights. But this story forces America to look inward and reckon with its own women — promising young women at the peak of their potential — feeling unprotected on what should be the safest possible ground. If college campuses cannot address this issue with the seriousness and urgency it deserves, then they have no credibility in their claims to be moral leaders who espouse human rights.

Justice does not always come easy. And sometimes we need to look hard at the most uncomfortable aspects of our own systems or lives — even those that impact our pockets. Are American colleges willing to do that?

Every time we fail to acknowledge injustice in front of us, we invariably legitimize it and allow for the corruption of our own values. The Hunting Ground leaves us all with this question: Can American college campuses fulfill their moral promise? The answer is not yet clear.

For more information on the movie and how you can view it on college campuses, visit their web site

Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work


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