While much has been written about the the Hunting Ground’s biased depiction of the Florida State and Harvard law cases of sexual assault, these stories represent but two of the film’s four central plots. I have heard little about the cases at UC Berkley and UNC Chapel Hill and decided to do some research and decide how well they actually support the film’s central thesis that college campuses are rife with sexual predators whose administrations turn a blind eye to sexual assault.
Let’s begin in sunny California, the liberal cradle of affirmative consent policies and legislation. Here, three UC Berkley students filed a joint lawsuit against the university under Title IX, alleging gender discrimination, negligence, and fraud. This piece will focus on plaintiffs Nicoletta Commins and Aryle Butler.
Commins’ dealings with the Berkeley administration began when she filed a sexual assault claim with the university’s Gender Equity Resource Center stemming from an incident involving a teammate on the university Taekwondo team. She claims that the teammate forced himself on her, performed oral sex without her consent, and tried to force her to perform oral sex on him. The next day she reported the incident to both the Berkley police and the University health center.
In response, the Berkley police commenced an investigation and ultimately offered her assailant a plea deal. The case never went to trial, due in large part to Commins’ refusal to testify. In the end Commins’ assailant took a deal, pleading guilty to felony assault. Per the deal he was placed on criminal probation, required to pay Commins restitution, and issued a no-contact order which prohibited any kind of communication with Commins.
Following the narrative of “The Hunting Ground” producers, one can safely assume that despite this ruling the university did nothing in response, or even went so far as to actively discredit Commins, right? Wrong. Berkeley responded by suspending Commins’ assailant until after she graduated, so as to minimize her risk of encountering the individual while on campus. Evidently, Commins found this very reasonable response on the part of the Berkley administration troubling.
“You get expelled if you plagiarize.” She said. “You get expelled if you deal some pot, and I don’t understand how an act of violence isn’t worth expelling someone.”
I can’t speak for every university, but I’ve known a few people who went to my school who were caught dealing some pot while in school, and a few more who were found culpable of some degree of plagiarism. Only those who plagiarized face sanctions, and even then, none were expelled. Is this the precedent Commins believes should be set? That any student who commits an act of violence should be summarily expelled? I suppose that’s one way to open up slots for transfer students…
She went on to say “I feel a lot of day-to-day anger. Being on campus makes me feel angry.” So angry in fact that Commins has decided to attend Berkley for grad school. Yes that’s right, despite having been accepted to 3 other programs, Commins elected to stay at the campus which causes her daily distress, citing what amounts to financial concerns.
Uhhhh… I don’t know which other programs she applied to, but if money is an issue Berkley is not the place to be. Many of my friends can attest to the exorbitantly high cost of living. Perhaps there’s more to the story but her explanation smacks of pretext to me.
So, to summarize, Commins reported a fellow student for (oral) sexual assault, the police conducted an investigation, issued an order barring her assailant from having any contact with her, forced him to pay her restitution (a sum of money damages), and placed him on criminal probation for several years. The University doled out a punishment of its own, suspending Commins’ assailant for the remainder of Commins’ academic tenure, and THIS is supposed to be emblematic of campus rape culture? Of universities’ indifference to students who are vitctimized under its watch? I’m not seeing it.
The Commins case reveals another oddity in sexual assault activists rally cry for administrators to take action to make campuses safer places: a great many of the examples of supposed campus sexual assault put forth didn’t even occur on campus.
In this instance, the sexual assault occurred in Commins’ apartment after she invited the teammate over. Not the quad, not the library, not the gym, not the student dorms. Her apartment. So I ask, how far is the geographic scope of Berkeley’s duty to protect its students from campus violence supposed to extend? 100 feet from campus? 1000? Anywhere within the Berkley city limits? Apparently the answer is fucking ALASKA.
Cue Aryle Butler, another UC Berkeley student mentioned in the film. In a legal complaint filed against Berkeley, Butler claims that she was assaulted by a guest-lecturer on multiple occasions while working for the university as an assistant to a Ph.D. candidate at the Wrangell Mountains Center in Middle Nowhere, Alaska. Butler claims in the suit that the lecturer on several occasions forcibly “groped her from behind,” “pressed up against her” and touched her in “inappropriate ways.” Now, this fellow certainly doesn’t sound like much of a gentlemen but I’d really love to see some video or more detailed descriptions because what she’s describing could either be an example of a handsy creep that just can’t take a hint or the impliedly consensual college party, nightclub behavior that occurs every weekend out on the dance floor.
Let’s go ahead and just assume dude is a handsy creep. Now explain this: rather than taking action to stop the harassment while Butler was in Alaska (you know, actually with her assailant), Butler decided to wait until AFTER she returned home to California to report the assault.
Perhaps Butler is suggesting that colleges should discipline its students who commit acts of sexual assault irrespective of where the acts take place, and that’s a fair argument, but here’s the thing: not only did these events take place thousands of miles off campus, but Butler’s alleged assailant isn’t even a student, or a Berkley faculty for that matter.
So, to summarize, a female UC Berkley college student is assaulted in ALASKA by a guy who is neither a Berkley student, faculty nor staff, and then proceeds files a lawsuit seeking to hold the school responsible. Just wow. This doesn’t sound like a school that, through its “deliberate indifference” allows sexual predators to run amuck on its campus for fear that its brand will be tarnished. It sounds like a school that didn’t punish an individual because it had no power to do so. But this wouldn’t be the only time a university has taken heat over a sexual assault when the facts clearly illustrate that the school is simply unable to offer meaningful recourse against a perpetrator.
Cue Annie Clark at the University of North Carolina, another sexual victim featured in the film. As a freshman in 2007 Clark reported to the school that she had been raped at a frat party (again, off campus) by someone she “couldn’t identify.” I’m not sure what exactly Clark was expecting the school to do, but she seems to recognize the logical impossibility of punishing an assailant who has yet to be identified, admitting that she “knew UNC couldn’t do anything about her attack.” Yet, this crucial fact hasn’t prevented Clark and others from lambasting the administration’s response. Clark’s chief grievance seems to concern a university staff member’s remark in response to her reporting the assault.
According to Clark “a staff member [to whom she reported the rape] likened the rape to a game of football and asked her, ‘You’re the quarterback and you’re in charge, is there anything that you would have done differently?'” The implication is that this statement is yet another example of the heinous act of “victim-blaming.”
I suppose the staff member’s characterization could come off as a bit trivializing, but I think the thrust of the statement and its logical extension are quite reasonable: “We can’t punish the assailant if you can’t identify him, so instead let’s reflect on the situation and think of what you could have done differently to prevent something like this from happening in the future.”
I’ll save my diatribe on the perils of the movement against sexual assault victim-blaming for a later post, but the above interaction is portrayed as a quintessential example of how school administrators impose some sort of moral culpability upon victims for their own assault.
I, however, find this to be yet another instance of the media and social commenters confusing what is better described as “victim-shaming” with the urging of women to take common sense precautions to prevent being victimized. Advice like “don’t walk home alone late a night”, “carry mace”, “don’t get shitfaced drunk/high at a frat party” (or better yet, don’t go to frat parties), and ‘p]”don’t agree to go back to some rando’s apartment alone”, comes to mind.
And here, here is where the irony pours on thick, for comments like these (don’t walk alone at night, don’t get smashed drunk) – comments which feminists regularly denounce – amount to precisely the sort of advice the Berkley girls lawsuit claims that Berkley failed to provide: “warn[ing], train[ing], or educat[ion] . . . about how to avoid [the risk of sexual abuse].”
Let’s take a moment to appreciate universities’ bind: tell women to avoid consuming copious amounts of alcohol in order to stay safe and you’re a victim-blaming misogynist; fail to do so and you’re an administration who has allowed misogyny to fester on campus by abdicating its duty to enforce Title IX on campus “on campus.”
Make no mistake, I’m not claiming that the universities are blameless. My sources (below) make clear that Berkley did a poor job of keeping Ms. Commins apprised of the pending case against her assailant, the UNC staff member could’ve benefitted from a better choice of words. Students deserve better. However, these incidents provide less-than-compelling support of the film’s central thesis, and left me wondering “Are these really the best stories they can find?” I don’t doubt that sexual assault is a problem on college campuses, and I’m not saying this problem should be met with inaction. But with the supposedly “record high” incidence of sexual assault on college campuses I’m genuinely surprised that in the whole of America filmmakers couldn’t find more illustrative examples of the out-and-out sexual predators that supposedly pervade college campuses.
So what are the takeaways here? Universities are only so equipped to prevent and respond to cases of sexual assault involving its students, which are in truth probably best left to law enforcement. They aren’t the hotbeds of sexual violence the film makes them out to be, though there are certainly a few things universities could do better. As described so brilliantly by Emily Yoffe, “The Hunting Ground” is a propaganda piece designed to foment a sexual assault policy revolution both behind ivory tower doors and in the halls of the general assembly. In doing so I fear we risk compromising the due process rights of those accused to sexual assault: individuals who happen to be disproportionately male.
Hysteria often serves as a catalyst for action, but it is a poor driver for equitable policymaking. A reevaluation of university policies and procedures surrounding the reporting and handling sexual assault cases involving its students calls for sober, deliberate reflection, rather than the sort of knee-jerk moral panic “The Hunting Ground” seek to instill.
“As we endeavor to wash away the stain of moral turpitude from our society with a flood of justice, let not the innocent be caught in the torrent.”
 One of the articles mentions that her accused assailant had been a guest lecturer at Berkeley. Obviously this individual should not be invited back to speak, and I’m going to assume based on the author’s use of the word “was” (past tense) that this is the case.