CNN’s New Rape Documentary Relies On Myths, Not Facts
“The Hunting Ground,” a newly released documentary about sexual assault on college campuses, is earning rave reviews, drawing the attention of D.C. lawmakers, and could even have an effect on the upcoming NFL draft. Though currently showing in just a few theaters, it will reach reach a huge audience by the end of the year when it is shown on CNN. But the way the film handles sexual assault statistics and individual allegations of rape raises three crucial questions about whether the film warrants the effusive response it has garnered.
As its title suggests, “The Hunting Ground” presents America’s college campuses as hotbeds of sexual assault where predatory rapists can act with impunity because schools are unwilling to do anything to address the problem. The film’s strength is built on an almost overwhelming deluge of personal accounts by women (and a few men) who recount suffering violent rapes and then struggling to obtain justice.
Annie Clark, one of the central figures of the documentary, says she was told by an administrator that “rape is like a football game,” where she should think back on what she could have done differently to avoid the rape. Another girl, Lizzy Seeberg, is said to have killed herself after Notre Dame police moved too slowly in investigating her alleged rape at the hands of a football player.
A close watching of the film, however, shows that it relies on several questionable facts to make its case, and sometimes misleads the viewer in a way that calls the entire film’s legitimacy and reliability into question.
One In Five, Or 0.6 Percent?
Crucial to the documentary’s strength is the claim that rape is virtually routine on college campuses, and that its frequency calls for drastic action. Within the first few minutes, the documentary touts the statistic that “16 to 20 percent” of women are raped while at college. The stat is extremely popular among activists, and even the White House has cited it. Sometimes the number is pushed even higher: There is a national anti-rape organization named One in Four. John Foubert, an Oklahoma State professor and One in Four’s founder, appears in “The Hunting Ground,” where he emphasizes that college is an exceptionally unsafe place for women.
The one in five figure, however, is very shaky. It primarily comes from the Campus Sexual Assault Study, conducted from 2005 to 2007. In that study, researchers conducted interviews with 5,446 undergraduate women, and found that 19 percent of them had experienced a successful or attempted sexual assault.
Case closed? Not quite. First of all, the survey is based on interviews with students from just two large four-year universities, one in the South and one in the Midwest. That’s hardly a sample that can be generalized to every one of the country’s 4,000+ colleges and universities.
Second, the survey was conducted online and had a low response rate, clearly inviting the possibility that women who had actually been sexually assaulted were more likely to take and complete the survey in the first place.
Third, the survey covered not just rape and similar levels of assault, but all types of unwanted sexual contact, which could include unwanted kissing or fondling. Such activities are bad, but also far different from rape.
Fuzzy questions also allow for the number to be inflated. A big chunk of the supposed sexual assaults were classified as such because those surveyed said they had sex when they didn’t want to while under the influence of alcohol. While surveyors likely intended this question to only include those who were so drunk that they were incapable of understanding what was going on, the question leaves ample room for those surveyed to include any sexual encounter while intoxicated.
How common is sexual assault on campus, then? A more rigorous 2014 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics at the Department of Justice found that female college students between the ages of 18 and 24 were raped at a rate of 6.1 per 1,000 — or, about 0.6 percent each year. Not only that, but contrary to claims that college campuses are exceptionally unsafe for women, the bureau found that women of the same age who were not in college were about 20 percent more likely to be raped in a given year.
Are Only 11 Percent Of Reported Rapes True? By Their Logic, Yes …
The movie also engages in statistical sleight of hand when it comes to the thorny issue of false rape accusations. According to the film, only 2 to 8 percent of rape claims are found to be false, with the implication that between 92 and 98 percent are true, and that universities should be more willing to implicitly believe accusers. David Lisak, a retired UMass-Boston professor who is quoted as an expert several times in the film, authored a paper finding that about 6 percent of rape accusations at a particular university were false.
But the statistics are actually far less clear than that. Lisak’s paper, for instance, only classifies a rape as “false” if investigators, following a rigorous investigation, found clear evidence that a rape was totally fabricated (such evidence as a rock-solid alibi for the accused, or physical evidence that shows the accuser was lying).
A similar situation exists with FBI data, where research has classified about 8 percent of rape reports as “unfounded” (the highest of the eight crimes tracked in the FBI’s annual crime index). Police only classify a rape report as “unfounded” when strong evidence exists that no crime ever happened.
What these stats don’t account for are the huge number of cases where there isn’t substantial evidence that a rape claim is true or false. In Lisak’s sample, for instance, more than 50 percent of cases were investigated and then closed without pursuing a prosecution due to lack of evidence, an uncooperative witness, or other shortcomings. While not all of these cases are actually false, they also likely aren’t all true, or else they could be prosecuted.
The upshot: Saying that only 2-8 percent of rape reports are false is like saying that only 11 percent are true because that’s the number that ultimately end in a successful criminal conviction.
Selective Facts Driving Questionable Narratives
The film’s trustworthiness is also questionable for individual cases. Of all the personal accounts by alleged rape victims in the film, the most spectacular is by Erica Kinsman, who claims she was raped by Florida State football star Jameis Winston. In the film’s narrative, Kinsman accuses Winston of drugging her, dragging her back to his apartment, and then violently raping her even after a nearby friend urged him to stop. Then, the film suggests, he was allowed off the hook thanks to a bungled Tallahassee police investigation handled by a Florida State alum who worked on the side as a booster for its sports teams.
While the film does address a follow-up investigation by the state of Florida, it selectively quotes state attorney William Meggs, who in the film justifies his decision not to prosecute Winston by saying “I think I did not have sufficient evidence to prove he sexually assaulted her against her will.” Left out are statements by Meggs from his 2013 press conference, where he described Kinsman as an unreliable witness who had repeatedly changed her story and couldn’t be counted on by prosecutors should the case go to trial.
The film also ignores two separate drug tests that found no date-rape drugs in Kinsman’s system, and not much alcohol either. Nor does the film address direct flaws in Kinsman’s story, such as her claim that she was beaten so badly that doctors and police saw bruises appearing on her body at the hospital the next day. In fact, the nurse who examined Kinsman the following day found no bruises at all on her body.
Most of the cases in “The Hunting Ground” are far less famous than Kinsman’s infamous accusation, with little or no evidence for the public to access. The very questionable way the film handles the Winston case, however, calls into question the fairness of the many other accusations that make up the heart of the film.
“The Hunting Ground” has big ambitions, and every reason to think those ambitions might be fulfilled. Director Peter Dick previously directed “The Invisible War,” which addressed the issue of sexual assault in the military, and helped kickstart efforts in the Senate by Kirsten Gillibrand and others to substantially reform how the military handles sexual assault cases. The makers of “The Hunting Ground” want the federal government to be more aggressive in punishing schools if they are perceived as not doing enough to stop campus rape, and they want schools to be more aggressive in kicking even accused students off campus.
The many questionable facts of “The Hunting Ground,” however, raise the question of whether it is the appropriate vehicle for driving how the country responds to sexual assault on campus.
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