A major new film claims that American college campuses are “hunting grounds” where cunning serial rapists prey upon vulnerable female students. Does it offer an actual picture of college life? AEI Senior Research Associate, Caroline Kitchens, takes a look at the facts.
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The Hunting Ground has been praised by critics, screened at the White House for staff and legislators, and nominated by the Producers’ Guild of America for “best documentary film.” But here’s the problem: the Hunting Ground is not a “documentary”—it is an agenda-driven propaganda film, created by activists. Critics have pointed to so many faults, it’s impossible to cover them all. But here is a brief overview. First, the film uses flawed statistics. It repeats over and over the massively discredited claim that 20% of female students will be sexually assaulted during their time at college. This estimate is based on non-representative surveys of college students that use vaguely worded questions. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, the correct number is not one in 5, but more like 1 in 53. That is still far too many, but apparently not enough to sustain the Hunting Ground thesis. And here’s another fact the filmmakers left out: women who are not enrolled in college are far more likely to be victims of sexual assault than college women. We also learn from the film that less than eight percent of college men commit more than 90% of the sexual assaults. This comes from David Lisak’s research on repeat offenders, which had long been accepted uncritically in anti-rape circles. But recently, Lisak’s serial predator theory has been questioned by both academic researchers and investigative journalists. His study that originated this claim surveyed men who may not have even been college students, and the researchers didn’t ask about crimes committed on campus. The theory has never been corroborated or replicated by other studies. Yet Lisak’s research is presented as settled science in the Hunting Ground, and Lisak himself takes center stage, warning America about the scourge of hardened, serial predators lurking at frat parties across the country. But the film’s most egregious fault is not its careless use of social science research, but its reckless disregard for the truth when it comes to accusations of rape. The film showcases several disturbing testimonials from alleged victims of sexual assault. But many of the testimonials central to the film have collapsed under scrutiny. The filmmakers appear to have done no fact-checking. For an in-depth look at the glaring omissions and inaccuracies in the Hunting Ground’s portrayal of specific sexual assault claims, see Emily Yoffe’s detailed investigation of the accusations against Harvard Law School student Brandon Winston in Slate and Stuart Taylor’s take on Florida State’s Jameis Winston in National Review Online. The film’s portrayal of the Harvard Law School was case is so unfair and misleading that 19 Harvard Law professors wrote and signed a statement publicly denouncing the film and defending the accused student, Brandon Winston who, in their words, “was subjected to a long, harmful ordeal for no good reason.” Winston’s case had been extensively investigated and he had ultimately been deemed not responsible by the Harvard Law School Faculty, the grand jury who refused to indict him on the serious sexual charges against him, and a jury trial (who only found him guilty of a lesser charge of a “nonsexual nature”). According to the Harvard Law professors, “This purported documentary provides a seriously false picture both of the general sexual assault phenomenon at universities and of our student.” How did the filmmakers respond to the Harvard Law School professors’ critique? By accusing them of “victim blaming” and implying that their letter could be a Title IX violation—it creates a “hostile environment” for victims.
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