The Hunting Ground bills itself as a documentary about the campus sexual assault crisis in America. But as more of the film's premises are debunked, it looks less like a documentary and more like a film in search of a problem.
The latest evidence of the film's attempts to ignore the facts in order to fit their preconceived narrative comes from Emily Yoffe of Slate, who looked into one of the film's central cases.
Yoffe found that the filmmakers, who claimed the vast majority of campus sexual assaults are "a highly calculated, premeditated crime," either willfully ignored or failed to fact-check one of their central stories because it was anything but "calculated" or "premeditated."
That case, involving an accuser named Kamilah Willingham, was actually the case I thought was the most compelling when I saw the film. That comes from how the filmmakers presented her story: Willingham and a female friend (named "KF" in Yoffe's article) passed out after a night of drinking with an unnamed male friend (identified as Brandon Winston by Yoffe) who then sexually assaulted them. Willingham says in the film that Harvard University, where the three were students, had an "extreme reluctance to believe" her. The school eventually (several months after Willingham made the accusation) found Winston responsible and suspended him.
The film makes it seem as though Winston was almost immediately allowed back on campus after being found responsible. In reality, he was barred from campus for a year. After that year, Harvard faculty dismissed the charges and allowed Winston back on campus. Willingham was told of the decision, and made it seem like a defeat in the film.
The Hunting Ground then mentions that Winston was later indicted for sexual assault. When I first saw the film, I thought this was evidence that Harvard messed up and allowed a really bad man back on campus. However, the indictment stemmed from the same accusations Willingham and her friend made to police. Since the film was released, the charges against Winston were mostly dismissed — he was found guilty of "misdemeanor touching of a nonsexual nature."
Why did he receive such a minor charge? Because the evidence wasn't there, and Willingham was not a credible witness. She had told Winston she found a bloody condom in her room that he used to rape KF. It turns out the blood was actually Willingham's and the male DNA in it did not belong to Winston. Nor is it clear that Winston did anything that was premeditated or calculated. He was apologetic for what was ultimately ungentlemanly behavior — he had woken up a passed out KF in order to kiss her, and they had been kissing earlier in the night.
Willingham's is not the only accuser on film to have her story called into question. Though her story isn't told in any detail, Emma Sulkowicz — who carried a mattress around Columbia University for the past year — also appears in the film. Her story has been seriously called into question.
As was Erica Kinsman's story. She's the woman who accused former Florida State University (full disclosure: my alma mater, which is why I've avoided writing about this case in the past) star quarterback Jameis Winston of rape. But as Stuart Taylor, who co-wrote the book about the Duke lacrosse rape hoax, discovered, Kinsman's story was anything but conclusive. The filmmakers allowed Kinsman to claim she was drugged by Winston, even though two different toxicology reports found no trace of any date-rape drugs. Kinsman also claimed that Winston's friend realized she was being raped and told him to stop (his friend testified just the opposite — that the sex was consensual and he wanted to join in on it).
Presenting questionable stories of sexual assault as cut-and-dried attacks was not the only way the filmmakers ignored or distorted evidence to fit their narrative.
The filmmakers claimed they gave accused students and universities a chance to comment but that none responded. It appears, however, that they only gave those parties a chance after the movie was completed.
Brandon Winston told Slate's Emily Yoffe that he didn't hear from anyone involved with the film until February, a month after it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. His attorney said he hadn't heard from the filmmakers either.
The film originally concluded with an on-screen claim that more than 35 schools "declined to be interviewed for this film." This too, was untrue. The film included quotes from the president of Trinity Washington University and the filmmakers taped an interview, which they didn't use, with the president of Amherst College. (The filmmakers updated the end claim.)
Florida State University President John Thrasher claimed the university did not receive an inquiry from the filmmakers until Dec. 18, 2014, long after the film had already been submitted for Sundance consideration. And even when they were contacted, the inquiry was very vague and only asked for comment about how the school was handling sexual assaults — there was nothing specific about the Winston case in the request.
The filmmakers do not deny any of this but claim they "kept the film open (for edits) until Feb. 19 in the hopes that President Thrasher and other presidents would come forward." Basically, the filmmakers waited until after their film was complete and submitted before bothering to check what the accused had to say. The lack of specifics in the inquiry, coupled with the lack of any appropriate request for comment from the other side, sound very reminiscent of the problems that brought down Rolling Stone's gang-rape article.
This is how the filmmakers came up with something resembling an activist propaganda film. They also peppered it with numerous flawed statistics as the base assumption that college women in America are being preyed upon at every turn by their male friends.
The film lists multiple "studies" that have found that nearly 20 percent of women have been sexually assaulted while attending college. Each study referenced in the film suffers from a set of similar flaws. For one, the studies use small sample sizes from just one or two schools to achieve their headline-grabbing statistics. The author of the most recent study, which surveyed a small percentage of women on just one unnamed campus, acknowledged to the Washington Examiner that the study was "not nationally representative."
Emily Yoffe over at Slate received a similar response from Christopher Krebs, the lead author of a highly-cited study known as the Campus Sexual Assault study. "We don't think one-in-five is a nationally representative statistic," Krebs said. Other studies purporting to find that one-in-five college women have been sexually assaulted suffer from similar sample problems.
They also suffer from suggestive questions that often lump together stolen kisses and rape to increase the incidence of sexual assault.
The best evidence we actually have — that is, a study created not by sociologists trying to confirm their worldview — is from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which found that just 6.1 out of every 1,000 female college students were raped or sexually assaulted each year.
The assumption that so many college women have been raped leads inevitably — in the film and elsewhere — to charges that only 2 percent of rape accusations are false. This statistic traces back to a 1975 book by Susan Brownmiller in which she overheard a police officer talking about a study (that has never been found) purporting to show the low incidence of false accusations. It's also difficult to classify a false report, as there are a large percentage of accusations that simply can't be proven one way or the other.
The Hunting Ground also relies heavily on testimony from David Lisak, who appears throughout. His supposed expertise in this subject is based on a study he did that suffers many of the same methodological problems as the others — a low sample size that renders it useless as a nationally representative sample. Another expert relied on for the film is Danielle Dirks, a sociology professor at Occidental College. This is the same "expert" who said men who fit the profile of campus rapists are students who have a high grade point average, belong to a sports team and are "from a good family."
In short, The Hunting Ground relies on false statistics and twisted accusations in order to convince its audience of a preferred narrative that rape is around every corner of college campuses. This wouldn't be necessary if the problem was as real and as rampant as they claim.