Sexual assault happens. On the street, in bars, in homes and for a lot of young people, it happens at their university. The Hunting Ground is a 2015 documentary that focuses on sexual assault and rape on American college campuses. Following numerous men and women who claim to have been assaulted on their college campus, The Hunting Ground has a central focus on the lack of support that college administrators provide during the traumatic experience and the arduous challenges these victims face from other students and, in particular, the university faculty.
The film provides a great insight into how American systems deal with sexual assault and raises issues that the students who are attacked face when coming forward about the assault. While there is a vast difference between America and Australia in regards to culture and the structure of tertiary institutions, the issues raised by the documentary remain prevalent in both societies.
The Hunting Ground raises many key focal points and issues surrounding sexual assault with college students and it is clear that in the case of American colleges, where the documentary obtained its statistics and participants, the college’s image was more important to them than the justice system. The Hunting Ground tears apart the colleges’ process (or lack thereof) with reporting incidents of sexual assault, and shames institutions that actively prevent victims from prosecuting their attackers for fear of tarnishing the college’s name.
It was found that in some colleges when a victim searched how to seek help and guidance after a sexual assault, the college website and other information providers only offered support and advice in the case of being falsely accused of a sexual attack. The college deliberately made it difficult for the victims to access a support network and report the incident, all the while spending their time and resources helping those who were accused of being an attacker whether this accusation be true or false.
Of course, it’s not only in America that we can see sexual assault claims being silenced. An Australian survey in 2015, Talk About It, asked over 1300 participants about their sexual assault experiences and how their university and police departments processed their claim and supported them through the ordeal. While many respondents were pleased with their university’s support network, the overwhelming majority were disappointed in the institutions which are meant to help them through such a hardship.
Both the universities and police departments have failed to help the victims and achieve an appropriate outcome, and are guilty of victim blaming with a NSW student being “told I was simply drunk and it [the attack] wasn’t worth investigating”. A number of comments focus on the victim’s feeling of uselessness and frustration in their inability to reach justice. A respondent in Sydney said, “I know that my rapist has since become a member of staff but I can’t do anything about it” and the majority of cases in The Hunting Ground have a similar result with the attacker remaining free on campus.
But aren’t things different here? Of course Monash says that it listens to all students equally and handles sexual assault claims with the utmost care, protecting anyone who is a victim of the horrible crime. Sadly though, I’ve discovered that Monash, like every other university, is predominantly concerned with itself.
After speaking with a number of Monash students about their own experiences, every report made the same
claim that our university swept the assault under the rug, and made little or no attempt to support the victim. One student was followed back to the Halls of Residence late in the evening following a night out. The man who was walking ahead of the victim repeatedly checked behind him to make sure she was still there and alone. She crossed the road several times, actions which the man mirrored, before calling campus security and hiding from the predator in a nearby car park.
Security acted quickly to her distress call and, even though they did not catch the man accused of following the victim, clearly acted under a fine protocol. However, the issue lies with the members of residential staff and their inaction regarding the near assault. The victim noted that “there is evidently an underlying problem with the attitudes towards it [sexual assault] present in major figures in the uni” after she was accused of having had too much to drink, and told that she shouldn’t have been alone in the first place by a senior member of the staff at her residence.
Do we still need to be fearful at night? Do we still need to walk around like we’re five year olds with a buddy system in school? Make sure you hold your buddy’s hand! Don’t let them wander off alone! I was once confronted by security while walking home in the dark being told, “It’s pretty dangerous around here; you shouldn’t be walking by yourself.”
“No, Mr Security Guard, there shouldn’t be rapists out on the street.”
Okay, I know he was only looking out for me, but regardless, everyone should feel safe enough to go the 500 meters back to their home without having to hold their car keys in one hand and 000 dialled on their phone in the other.
Aside from university faculty departments dismissing claims and not taking victims seriously in their need for support and justice, both the documentary and survey focus on the location of sexual attacks, and how this relates to the university or college under scrutiny. While most assaults on students appear off campus in private housing and public locations, over 12% of assaults in Australia are at student organisation events where predators have a whole pool of new victims to pick and choose from.
Another Monash student came forward about her assault that happened in O-week of her first year. At a Monash party (a party that still runs every O-week), where first-years, all other students, and sexual predators are welcome to attend, she was approached by someone who repeatedly made unwanted sexual advances. After mostly ordering water to drink all night, she began to notice feeling hazy, and knowing that she hadn’t had enough alcohol to be drunk, realised that her drink had been spiked. She quickly turned to a friend and ordered a taxi home when her physical responses became so slow that she was unable to stand on her own or form a single sentence. She was carried back to her on campus home by a number of close friends who notified the residential team before deciding to call an ambulance.
The following morning when the victim woke, instead of being assured that she was safe and that the university would make every attempt at justice, she was accused by residential staff members of heavy drinking and provocative or misleading actions towards her assailant. Even though the victim was certain of the attacker being the man who continually approached her, the Halls of Residence and societies who organised the o-week event failed to further investigate the claim, and dismissed the ordeal as a merely unfortunate evening, leaving the culprit free to attend more university events.
Instead of trying their best at supporting victims and punishing the attackers, universities are putting their time, money, energy, and resources into ensuring that current, future and past students aren’t aware of these assaults that occur all too frequently. This silencing of claims is a vital
focus in The Hunting Ground that clearly remains relevant in Australia. It’s also abundantly obvious in both American and Australian cases that student organisation events and other money making schemes for the universities are not condemned for their high sexual assault rates. Instead of truthfully branding them as events where attackers can seek out prey and warning future victims, these instances of assault are left unaddressed so that the universities can maintain their positive reputation.
It’s all about the university’s image. If potential students are aware of the immense rape culture at their dream institution, it won’t be their dream any more. If alumni learn about how their classmates were accused of sexual assault, they won’t donate. If the current students discover a predator in the class, they’ll switch. There needs to be an even ground whereby all universities must accept any and all sexual assault cases with equality and empathy. These issues should not be dismissed on victim blaming or fear in the university being tarnished.
If all colleges and universities administered the same policies, yes, statistics showing sexual assault among students would rise by a staggering amount and raise questions about rape and assault culture at the university. But this rise in statistics would only be a reflection of the truth, and encourage more men and women who are victims of such crime to come forward and further promote justice.