Denying the Truth about the Epidemic of College Sexual Assault

This op-ed by Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick originally appeared in the Guardian. 

Much as there are people who deny the existence of climate change, or the public health value of vaccines, there are those who have tried to cast doubt on the incontrovertible: sexual assaults are rampant on our college campuses.

Deniers insist that key statistics on campus sexual assault are inflated or indeterminate – and some journalists who should know better are buying into this myth. We saw this most recently in Alia Wong’s article last month in the Atlantic, which claimed: “Every statistic about campus sexual assault seems to be contradicted or challenged by another one” as well as in a article by Emily Yoffe in Slate which alleged that “studies suggesting this [is an] epidemic don’t hold up to scrutiny.”

The truth is that studies over several decades have repeatedly confirmed that, though exact percentages may vary, there are extremely high rates of sexual assault on US campuses.

National studies – including one released this week by the Department of Justice – show as many as one in four women are sexually assaulted in college. This follows the Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation study from June of and the more than 150,000 students who responded last year to the Association of American Universities survey, both of which clearly established that sexual assault in college is a serious public safety problem.

Rape deniers try to dismiss these studies because they include some “lesser assaults” like groping and forced kissing in their numbers. But the truth is those assaults are crimes and many are felonies.

There is one outlier study that deniers invariably point to – the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), which found a much lower rate of sexual assault. What they never disclose is that this study has been severely criticized by the National Academies of Sciences, which – in a 278-page report - unequivocally concludes that the NCVS sexual assault prevalence numbers are unreliable.

Among other criticisms, the report found that the NCVS study failed to count sexual assault while incapacitated (which in one survey accounts for more than 50% of college sexual assaults). Moreover, it erroneously based its calculations on an average student attending college for 3.5 years, when the average student now takes nearly six years to graduate, resulting in a potential undercount of up to 40%.

Suggesting we cannot trust the science is an age-old tactic to distract the public from the truth. These attempts to manipulate public opinion and minimize the epidemic are reminiscent of misinformation campaigns waged around concussions in the NFL and around climate change.

In fact, some who deny the sexual assault epidemic also denied climate-change. In a article about An Inconvenient Truth, an Academy Award-winning documentary about global warming, Emily Yoffe wrote that it is “hard to believe assertions that the science on the future of our climate is settled,” and “just because something can be plotted on an X and Y axis does not make it the whole truth”.

The truth is that we can, and must, rely on scientists to provide us with information about the nature and extent of the problem, and denying their expertise is a sure path to tragedy.

Those who attempt to discredit the work of these scientists and claim sexual assault is too hard to quantify do much more than mislead the public; by encouraging our country to ignore this crisis, they contribute to the problem. It’s time we come together to move beyond these harmful misinformation campaigns, acknowledge this problem and create real and effective change for the sake of our nation’s college students.

Shoot the Messenger

We were warned that our film about campus sexual assault would prompt a backlash, and as filmmakers who take on challenging subjects, we were ready. Even so, we’ve been shocked by some aggressive and deeply personal media attacks on the young women featured in our film.

As noted in a ThinkProgress rebuke of those who continue to deny that rape is a problem, some of these attacks have come have come from people with powerful platforms, and their smear campaigns have become a second trauma to survivors. Kamilah Willingham, a key subject of our film, likened it to a second assault when a few of her own professors at Harvard Law attacked her personally in the form of a public letter. But those professors went further than spreading false information, they actually launched into victim blaming her. Casey Quinlan writes in Think Progress: “The writers of the letter are also betraying two common assumptions about what make a rape or sexual assault ‘legitimate.’ They imply that the intoxicated state of the victims is related to how responsible they are for their own sexual assault, and they also imply that force is necessary to sexually assault a victim.”

Quinlan has taken a hard look at the claims of our detractors, as well as the preponderance of evidence supporting us:

Despite extensive research showing that a significant number of college students are raped on campus, some people — including political figures, journalists, and college administrators — continue to imply it’s not actually a high-priority issue or that claims are already being handled correctly.

The most prominent example of this backlash came from Emily Yoffe, who criticized Willingham’s account in Slate, saying it was simply a “spontaneous, drunken encounter,” and Stuart Taylor of The National Review. Willingham said she received the worst harassment shortly after Yoffe wrote about her.

“Some of the criticism is from people who really don’t understand the issue and who really don’t understand the experience of survivors,” Amy Ziering, the producer of The Hunting Ground, said in an interview with ThinkProgress.

Ziering and her colleagues interviewed over 100 sexual assault survivors over the course of making the film. She noted that a lot of the sexual assault survivors who were interviewed for The Hunting Ground didn’t agree to appear on camera because they “didn’t want to go through the trauma of publicly claiming this happened to them” and face the subsequent backlash.”

This article strikes a blow to the many rape deniers who have attacked our film and the survivors we feature. Read the full text here.

Survivor Victory: Erica Kinsman Wins Historic Settlement Against Florida State

Today, Erica Kinsman settled her lawsuit against FSU for $950,000 and a five-year commitment to programs that promote sexual assault awareness, transparency and prevention. FSU must report on these efforts every year for the next five years. It’s the largest settlement of its kind in U.S. history. Erica’s allegation of sexual assault by Jameis Winston is one of the centerpieces of our film and one of the reasons powerful interests like Florida State University have been trying to silence and discredit us.

This settlement is a win for survivors everywhere. Through her bravery, resilience and integrity, Erica was able to transcend her traumatic experience, stand up to FSU’s institutional betrayal and show other sexual assault survivors they no longer have to remain silent.

As the filmmakers of The Hunting Ground, we are proud to have shared Erica’s moving and courageous story, which has helped raise awareness of sexual assault on college campuses across the country. It is our hope that FSU and other schools learn from this ordeal so that other student survivors are not put through the anguish that Erica has endured.

But this is just one case of many. As a community of survivors and advocates, we must continue to bring sexual assault out of the shadows, hold accountable those responsible and end the epidemic of sexual assault on campuses across the country.

Today and everyday, Erica and other survivors deserve our support and our care.

Erica’s powerful story was seen by millions online when we posted it earlier this year and it continues to inspire supporters who #StandWithErica. Watch it below:

Announcing Til It Happens To You: Sing for Survivors

The Hunting Ground’s original theme song, “Til It Happens To You,” is a rare piece of popular music. It was created by two powerhouses in music industry: Diane Warren and Lady Gaga. It has climbed the charts. And it’s a song about surviving sexual assault.

This month, “Til It Happens To You” was nominated for an Academy Award. This is a groundbreaking platform for a song that has broken the silence about the culture of sexual assault. The buzz around this song has turned into a public discussion about how commonly women and men face sexual violence and, as a result, often experience trauma, shame, and silencing.

“Til It Happens To You” has become an anthem for survivors everywhere. It’s personal to countless individuals, some of whom even created their own versions of the song.

To elevate this song and the crisis of sexual assault even further, The Hunting Ground, in partnership with the It’s On Us campaign and ROK Mobile, is launching Til It Happens To You: Sing for Survivors, an a cappella contest in which college students are invited to record their own a cappella versions of the song to strengthen the movement and change our culture around sexual assault.

By bringing together students and the music community, we will be able to engage new allies in the fight against campus sexual assault and expand the reach and scope of our collaborative advocacy efforts.

Sing a song, spread the news, and change the world.


Lady Gaga’s Oscar Nomination Propels Campus Rape Awareness

This article by The Hunting Ground filmmakers, Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, was published by The Huffington Post on January 15:

We are thrilled that “Til It Happens To You,” The Hunting Ground‘s original song, has become the fifth song from a documentary ever to receive an Academy Award nomination.

We are grateful to Lady Gaga and Diane Warren for their inspiring and moving contribution to the film. Viewed more than 24 million times online, the song’s video debut sparked a 34 percent increase in calls to the National Sexual Assault Hotline and has become an anthem for survivors of sexual assault around the world. This recognition is about more than awards; it’s about the long overdue change it will help bring.

So, too, is The Hunting Ground.

This past year marked a major turning point in the fight against campus sexual assault. Since The Hunting Ground premiered at Sundance last January, we’ve challenged powerful institutions that have covered up the problem on their campuses for decades. Together with our partner organizations and student activists, we have started a national conversation about the culture of campus sexual assault in America and how to stop it.

Almost a million people watched the film on CNN, while more than four million people have watched The Hunting Ground online. We’ve taken our message to diverse and influential audiences to spark change — from Washington, D.C. to ESPN Headquarters and the most powerful corporate executives in the country. This outreach, along with the work of our partners, including the White House’s It’s On Us campaign with Generation Progress, has helped foster a rising tide of action to prevent sexual assault on college campuses nationwide. In Delta Airlines will continue to show It’s On Us PSAs on all flights and 6,000 radio stations across the country will play PSAs featuring “Til it Happens to You.” The Hunting Ground has also hosted events with governors and state legislatures, the Department of Education, Department of Justice and the Office of Violence Against Women.

Policymakers are listening. In dozens of state legislatures introduced bills tackling campus sexual assault. This included “Enough is Enough,” a bill in New York that was signed into law last July following The Hunting Ground screenings to the New York State legislature. As Governor Cuomo said during his State of the State Address on Wednesday: “We were right when we passed the most aggressive law stopping sexual violence on college campuses in the nation.”

At the federal level, Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill introduced the Campus Accountability and Safety Act with broad, bipartisan support.

Academia is listening. There have been nearly 1,000 screenings on U.S. colleges. More than 50 schools have conducted sexual assault climate surveys, a critical first step for administrators to understand to prevent harmful trends assault on their campus, and hundreds institutions have begun reforming their policies. And as of this month, there are 197 open investigations for colleges in possible violations of the federal Title IX law.

Naturally, change does not come easy. We have been met with naysayers, including those who go so far as to attack the scientifically established statistics and the documented accounts of survivors in our film. Not surprisingly, these attacks are coming from schools whose wrongdoings the film exposed, like Florida State University and Harvard Law School, which have decided to attack the messenger rather than the problem on their campuses. Whether they want to hear it or not, the fact is that if we don’t make changes, 1-in-5 women will continue to be sexually assaulted while in college, as confirmed by multiple studies.

As filmmakers, we strive to focus on urgent, complex topics that will generate awareness and discussion. Our documentary, The Invisible War, lifted the curtain on the crisis of sexual assault in our military, spurring Congressional hearings and dozens of successful reforms. The Hunting Ground, too, has shone a light on some uncomfortable truths. And in challenging the status quo, we have exposed those powerful institutions that are the most afraid of change.

This awards season also marks a new year, and with it an opportunity to bring the conversation around sexual violence to new audiences on campuses, in the media and in the halls of Congress. We will continue to do just that in standing with and for the survivors in The Hunting Ground - including Kamilah, Erica, Annie, Andrea, Rachel and Sofie - and all those whose voices have yet to be heard. The safety of millions of young women and men depends on it.

How Harvard Law Professors Retaliated Against An Assault Survivor

The following op-ed by The Hunting Ground Filmmakers, Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, was published by the The Huffington Post on January 5th:

We were warned.

At a public discussion following the premiere of our film The Hunting Ground, which is about sexual assault on college campuses, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) predicted: “The power on that status-quo side, you’re going to see it in response to this film… Believe me, there will be fallout.”

She was right.

Two powerful universities whose wrongdoings were exposed in the film have gone to great lengths to attack the accounts of survivors: Harvard Law, which protected an assailant who was repeatedly found to have committed assault, and Florida State University, which covered up a rape investigation of its star quarterback. Both have mounted aggressive disinformation campaigns to protect their reputations, only to be proven wrong as more facts about these schools have come to light.

Controversial subject matter is nothing new for us. We previously made the award-winning documentary The Invisible War, which lifted the curtain on the crisis of sexual assault in our military and spurred five Congressional hearings and the passage of dozens of reforms. The Pentagon, rather than attacking the film, began extensively using it as a training tool to address the problem. Many colleges and universities are doing the same with The Hunting Ground, and to date there have been nearly 1,000 screenings on college campuses.

Unfortunately, FSU and Harvard Law are outliers, attacking the messenger rather than the problem. Before the film’s broadcast debut on CNN, FSU President John Thrasher released a statement condemning both the film and CNN, claiming, “FSU does not tolerate rape. Period.” The following week, a New York Times story contradicted that claim when it reported that FSU’s former victim advocate director testified that 40 football players had been accused of either sexual assault or intimate partner violence and only one found responsible.

More recently, a group of Harvard Law professors launched a public campaign to discredit an assault survivor. In doing so, they ignored the facts of the case: Kamilah Willingham was a third-year Harvard Law student when she reported to the school that a fellow student had sexually assaulted her and a friend while they were unconscious and incapable of consent. Her assailant admitted to committing assault in both text messages and a tape-recorded interview.

Harvard Law’s Independent Fact Finder undertook an extensive three-month investigation and found Willingham to be credible and her assailant not credible, in part because he had changed his story multiple times. Harvard Law’s Administrative Board and Appeal Hearing Officer agreed, and found the accused student responsible for sexually assaulting both women while they were incapacitated, and recommended his dismissal. Then, a group of Harvard Law faculty overturned that finding and allowed the accused student to return to campus, using a secretive process that the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights later determined was biased toward the accused and violated the civil rights protections of students under Title IX. The truth is that if that process had followed OCR guidelines, the Harvard Law faculty would not have legally been able to overturn the finding.

Rather than acknowledging their involvement in this unfair process, these Harvard Law faculty have instead tried to publicly discredit Willingham, even going so far as to team up with the assailant’s defense attorney to build a biased website against Willingham. It is wrong for professors who have adjudicated a case to side with one of their former students against another in this way. These aggressive actions send a very chilling message to all current and future students at Harvard and Harvard Law: if you report a sexual assault, your professors may come after you publicly. What student would report a sexual assault if they know this might happen? Very few—and when fewer assaults are reported, rapists are free to continue to assault, and the school becomes a more dangerous place.

Students and other faculty at Harvard Law, and attorneys who specialize in campus sexual assault, have strongly and repeatedly criticized these professors. Despite this, the Harvard Law faculty continue to retaliate against Willingham. Even more troubling, in all their attacks, these Harvard Law professors have neither acknowledged that their school has a sexual assault problem, nor expressed any genuine concern for the hundreds of survivors who’ve been sexually assaulted at Harvard Law over the past decades.

Oddly, Harvard Law’s attacks on Willingham did not begin until November 11, nearly 10 months after the film premiered. But they did come just eight days after Harvard launched a $305 million fundraising campaign. The disturbing irony is that Harvard Law is doing exactly what The Hunting Ground shows universities have done for the past 50 years: discrediting survivors to protect their own reputations and funding, all at the expense of their students’ safety and well-being.

Despite the aggressive tactics of these few schools marked an important year in the fight against campus sexual assault. Dozens of schools conducted surveys of their students, revealing how pervasive the problem is, and legislatures around the country began developing reforms. After Governor Cuomo screened The Hunting Ground twice for members of the New York State legislature, they passed the bipartisan “Enough is Enough” legislation reforming how all colleges in New York address sexual assault. Meanwhile in Congress, Senators Gillibrand (D-NY) and McCaskill (D-MO) have reintroduced the Campus Accountability and Safety Act. The bill has gained 34 cosponsors, including Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio (R-FL).

As filmmakers, it is always our goal to focus on topics that will generate awareness—and this film has achieved far more than we ever hoped. As we start the New Year, it’s on all of us to continue these critical gains in the fight against campus sexual assault—and to refuse to bend to powerful institutions that protect the status quo by shaming and silencing the courageous young women and men who are trying to change it.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.

Watch: Lady Gaga’s Live Performance of “Til It Happens To You”

“Til It Happens To You,” the song written for The Hunting Ground by Diane Warren and Lady Gaga, has become an anthem for survivors of sexual assault and has made tens of millions of people aware of the crisis. The song has been nominated for several awards, including a Grammy Award nomination for Best Song Written for Visual Media and it has made the shortlist for the Academy Award for Best Song.

Lady Gaga was honored as Billboard’s Woman of the Year and during the ceremony she performed a powerful rendition of “Til It Happens To You.” Watch the video of her acceptance speech and performance.


A TimesTalks Conversation with The Hunting Ground Filmmakers, Lady Gaga & Diane Warren

On December 10, Frank Bruni of the New York Times hosted a TimeTalks Conversation with the co-writers of “Til It Happens To You,” Lady Gaga and Diane Warren, and The Hunting Ground Filmmakers, Director Kirby Dick and Executive Producer Amy Ziering. The five guests discussed surviving sexual violence and the need to change our culture of silence and shame around sexual assault.

Watch the full video of this fascinating conversation:

Watch this: Annie and Andrea

Despite what others say about it, at its core our film is about the triumph of activism. It’s about men and women who—totally abandoned and at great personal risk—found a way to challenge the most powerful institutions and confront years of misogyny and mistreatment of sexual assault victims. These women, men and allies have come together and started a new student movement to stop sexual assault on campuses.

This is the story of Annie and Andrea:

We hope that you see the humanity of the women and men around the country who refuse to stay silent and accept a culture of sexual violence. Think about them when the deniers, pundits and powerful interests try to silence survivors. Think about them when you see the mistruths and false arguments. Think about their strength to stand up and fight back. Then share this short clip as an act of defiance.

Campus sexual assault is real. But if we have the courage to speak up, we can stop it.

Fact check: The Hunting Ground and Wikipedia

On 11/19, opinion columnist Ashe Schow claimed that a member of our crew was “caught” editing Wikipedia to “make facts conform to the film.” In fact, our colleague was working, with full disclosure and in accordance with Wikipedia policy, to correct errors in Wikipedia articles and to expand articles in reference to high quality source materials. Here are the facts that you should know:

Schow’s headline is inaccurate: Our colleague was not “caught.” He disclosed his connection from the beginning (and not just from September as her column claimed).

The Hunting Ground and its crew have taken great care to respect Wikipedia’s principles and values. As documentary filmmakers, prior to our colleague’s engagement, we agreed that the goal was to improve Wikipedia according to its own standards, not to boost the film. We sought the advice of a qualified Wikipedia agency before beginning.

Our colleague’s approach not only met but exceeded Wikipedia’s standards for disclosure (which call for only a single statement). He has followed best practices by introducing high-quality, independent source materials, and by proactively seeking consensus with other Wikipedia editors. This is all according to our understanding of Wikipedia best practices.

The Jameis Winston article in particular was skewed, by Wikipedia’s own standards and by any other reasonable measure, before our employee made his edits. As a top draft prospect, Winston was covered extensively; nearly every article (in mainstream, sports, and entertainment media) centered on his off-field behavioral problems, and whether they would prevent him from becoming the #1 draft pick. A Pulitzer Prize winner covered it in depth in the New York Times; so did USA Today, the Washington Post, ESPN, and Sports Illustrated. But the Wikipedia article gave very little attention to his off-field issues. As of today, and resulting from Schow’s column, Wikipedia editors have largely disregarded that coverage, deleting several such citations as they restored the extraordinarily biased version to Wikipedia.

As one example of our colleague’s efforts to work in a collegial manner with other Wikipedia editors, he responded to the following comment by adding two independent sources indicating the significance of the New York Times report: “Yes, Items about the draft seem to be long standing information. In addition The New York Times investigation should be cited from a separate source, it is self-published information.”

Ashe Schow, in criticizing our conflict of interest, doesn’t acknowledge her own conflict of interest: She is an alumna of Florida State University, an object of The Hunting Ground’s criticism.