If you’ve been following the national conversation about campus sexual assault, you need to see the new documentary “The Hunting Ground.” You need to see it not because the prognoscenti — my portmanteau word for left-leaning members of the chattering classes — haven’t been this fired up about a documentary since “Bowling for Columbine,” but because the film shines a light on something that is often glossed over if not ignored about “rape culture.”
That something would be rape culture.
FOR THE RECORD:
Campus rape: Meghan Daum’s March 5 column said the woman who accused Jameis Winston of rape at Florida State University “bore physical signs of violent rape.” The nurse who examined her said at a university hearing that the physical signs could have been caused by sexual assault or consensual sex.
Like everyone else, I hesitate to say actual rape culture, given how easily and queasily the distinction veers into Todd Akin-style “legitimate rape” territory. Besides, the idea that all sexual assaults are created equal — and deserve equal treatment in the court of public opinion — has become an article of faith in the liberal gospel.
But at the risk (the guarantee) of being branded a rape apologist or worse, I’m going to say what many reasonable people have been thinking for a while: Violent rape is not the same as psychologically coercive sex, which in turn is not the same as regrettable sex, which is not the same as fielding an unwanted touch or kiss at a party.
None of these things are good; many of them are quite bad. But insofar as they do fall along a spectrum ranging from truly horrific to merely annoying, some demand legal or punitive action, and some simply do not. Some are crimes and some are the inevitable fallout of social obtuseness. Some desperately require more attention, and some — I’ll just say it — are getting too much attention.
“The Hunting Ground,” perhaps not entirely on purpose, clarifies the distinction. The film traffics in enough ambiguity and loose statistics (such as " 1 in 5 women will be raped during college,” which has been disputed by the very researcher from whose data it was drawn) that it belongs more in the realm of advocacy than journalism. But it does an extraordinary job of revealing a deeply troubling overlap between rape culture and fraternities and big-time college sports.
It explores the case (already well-covered but never before with public testimony from the accuser) of Jameis Winston, the Florida State University Seminoles quarterback who was accused of raping a female freshman in 2012, possibly after drugging her. Though the woman identified Winston as her assailant and bore physical signs of violent rape, which she reported to police, Winston was asked no questions by either the university administration or by local law enforcement until he’d finished the football season and led his team to a national championship. (Winston, who denies the rape, was never prosecuted, and Florida State cleared him of violating the school’s code of conduct; the woman has filed suit against the university.)
The documentary identifies many outrages — star athletes so valuable to the university that they effectively have immunity from accusations of misconduct, no matter how serious; a fraternity system that, thanks to powerful, deep-pocketed alumni, gets a free pass from universities that depend on big donors. In a particularly memorable sequence, the filmmakers ask a series of female students what the initials of the fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, stand for. Matter-of-factly and without hesitation, they all answer “Sexual assault expected.”
So, message received: Rape culture is not a myth propagated by entitled young feminists who wage their battles behind the scrim of social media and in the ideological vacuum of gender studies departments. Rape culture is terrifyingly and appallingly real.
But here’s the rub: Rape culture is also competing for attention with something we might call grievance culture.
What are we to make of activists who say things like “All women should be believed unconditionally”? How are we to respond to students who insist they don’t “feel safe” when others give voice to views that challenge their own? What do we do with stories like the one recently described in the Harvard Law Review, in which a male student was ordered by college administrators to stay away from a female student simply because he reminded her of a man who’d raped her months earlier and thousands of miles away?
In grievance culture, sexual assault and victimhood exist as absolutes, independent of context or gray areas. The woman who gets drunk at a party and has sex she neither exactly consented to nor exactly resisted is just as much a victim as the clearly brutalized woman. The undergraduate at an elite college who continues to hang out with her alleged rapist long after the deed supposedly occurred is said to be suffering the same syndrome as the woman who lacks the resources flee a domestic batterer on whom she may be psychologically or financially dependent.
The activists say that it’s wrong to “privilege” one kind of trauma over another. But as ludicrous as it is to compare a dating college student to a battered wife, it’s downright insulting to diminish the fight against rape culture with the petty skirmishes of grievance culture. It’s insulting to those who’ve been harmed by rape culture and to those who have a stake in eliminating it — which, of course, should be everyone.
That’s why grievance culture is so dangerously counterproductive. By shaking so many individual trees, its adherents create distractions from the perils of the big, terrifying forest. And we can’t afford such distractions any longer.