When I was 17 years old, my much older neighbour tried to assault me in my own home. It wasn’t rape, in the strict sense of the word, but the incident left me feeling ashamed, violated, confused and upset. In the last two decades, I have thought of that day often, but the actual assault is almost secondary to my feelings about the aftermath of it.
We lived in a crescent in a quiet, middle-class neighbourhood and the area was full of young families, which meant that my assailant had plenty of potential victims in the neighbourhood. At 17, I was one of the oldest “kids.” I have a younger sister and younger brother, and almost every house on the block had kids.
In the hours and days that followed the attack, I went on an emotional rollercoaster, first by struggling to figure out if I’d imagined what happened, what it meant, and whether I should tell anyone. I ended up telling my mom and my (then) stepfather, and later learned that the same man had preyed on my sister. We had an acquaintance who was a member of the police force, and reached out to him to figure out what to do next. His response has stayed with me ever since.
It’s your word against his and it will be almost impossible to prove that anything happened. You also shouldn’t tell anyone in the neighbourhood because you could be charged with slander.
And that was enough to scare us into silence.
Now that I’m an adult, I understand how damaging staying silent is, but I’m also aware of how pervasive this “advice” is.
So that the same advice is given to thousands of college students across the U.S. comes as no surprise. It’s one of the main issues surrounding rape culture that “The Hunting Ground”, a 2015 documentary directed by Kirby Dick, confronts. That rape occurs on college campuses in staggering numbers isn’t, oddly, the most alarming revelation in “The Hunting Ground.” What is truly offensive and frightening is the lengths that campus administration and others will go to to cover up allegations of sexual assault.
This shouldn’t be a film that discourages parents from sending their daughters (and sons) off to college, but it should be one that encourages open, honest discussion about what constitutes sexual consent. It should also be one that encourages students and their parents to demand that their tuition money not go to an institution that is complicit in covering up crime statistics on their campuses to facilitate an image.
If there’s one area that “The Hunting Ground” glosses over, it’s sexual assault allegations made by male students, as well as the impact that such assaults have on them. To be fair, if females report sexual assaults in dramatically low numbers compared to what estimates of such assaults actually are, one can only imagine how few are reported by males in comparison. That “The Hunting Ground” even acknowledges their presence is at least a start.
I’d like to see an update to this documentary in a few years, once the Title IX challenges have worked their way through the judicial system, but the fact that one of the most “famous” alleged perpetrators named in the film has gone on to a successful athletic career doesn’t give me much hope for a sea-change in the way that society reacts to allegations of sexual assault.
“The Hunting Ground” is currently on Netflix and is rated PG-13.