SO IF CAMPUS RAPE IS SUCH A BIG PROBLEM, HOW COME ALL THE FAMOUS EXAMPLES TURN OUT TO BE LIES? Emily Yoffe looks into The Hunting Ground, finds it wanting.
The recent documentary The Hunting Ground asserts that young women are in grave danger of sexual assault as soon as they arrive on college campuses. The film has been screened at the White House for staff and legislators. Senate Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, who makes a cameo appearance in the film, cites it as confirmation of the need for the punitive campus sexual assault legislation she has introduced. Gillibrand’s colleague Barbara Boxer, after the film’s premiere said, “Believe me, there will be fallout.” The film has received nearly universal acclaim from critics—the Washington Post called it “lucid,” “infuriating,” and “galvanizing”—and, months after its initial release, its influence continues to grow, as schools across the country host screenings. “If you have a daughter going to any college in America, you need to see The Hunting Ground,” the MSNBC host Joe Scarborough told his viewers in May. This fall, it will get a further boost when CNN, a co-producer, plans to broadcast the film, broadening its audience. The Hunting Ground is helping define the problem of campus sexual assault for policymakers, college administrators, students, and their parents. . . .
Willingham’s story is not an illustration of a sexual predator allowed to run loose by self-interested administrators. The record shows that what happened that night was precisely the kind of spontaneous, drunken encounter that administrators who deal with campus sexual assault accusations say is typical. (The filmmakers, who favor David Lisak’s poorly substantiated position that our college campuses are rife with serial rapists, reject the suggestion that such encounters are the source of many sexual assault allegations.) Nor is Willingham’s story an example of official indifference. Harvard did not ignore her complaints; the school thoroughly investigated them. And because of her allegations, the law school education of her alleged assailant has been halted for the past four years.
The Hunting Ground does not identify that man. His name is Brandon Winston, now 30 years old. Earlier this year, he was tried in a Massachusetts superior court on felony charges of indecent assault and battery—that is, unwanted sexual touching, not rape. In March, he was cleared of all felony charges and found guilty of a single count of misdemeanor nonsexual touching. Following the trial, the Administrative Board of Harvard Law School, which handles student discipline, reviewed Winston’s case and voted to reinstate him. This fall, he will be allowed to complete his long-delayed final year of law school.
Like most journalists and critics, I first wrote about The Hunting Ground on Feb. 27 of this year, the day the film made its theatrical debut, and did so unaware that, the same week, the unnamed man Willingham calls a rapist was standing trial in Middlesex County on the charges stemming from her criminal complaint. I learned of Winston’s trial when a juror contacted me after it concluded to express dismay that Winston had been forced to stand trial—and had faced potential jail time—for what she saw as a drunken hook-up.
“Regret rape” isn’t rape, but rather a symptom of immaturity and an unwillingness to take responsibility for one’s own actions, which appear to be far too common among American college women these days.
Related: Central Allegation in The Hunting Ground Collapses Under Scrutiny: Undermines entire documentary.
Of the details Yoffe reported, I was must struck by the fact that Willingham had offered Winston—an old acquaintance who had come to Willingham’s apartment to rekindle their friendship—cocaine, which they both consumed. The night eventually included a trip to a bar in the company of a female friend of Willingham’s. All three drank copious amounts of alcohol, and Winston and the friend (“KF”) made out on the dance floor. If there was an initiator in this encounter, it seems to have been KF.
The trio returned to Willingham’s apartment at 2 a.m. And guess what? Their recollections of what happened aren’t that great (alcohol and cocaine tend to have that effect). All collapsed on a bed at various points; there was some kissing and sexual contact, but no intercourse. There’s not a shred of evidence that Winston did anything criminal to either of the girls, aside from Willingham’s error-riddled assertions that he did. Some of her claims border on parody: she insisted that Winston had raped KF and a bloody condom in her wastebasket was the proof. But according to a lab test, it was Willingham’s blood on the condom, not KF’s, and no traces of Winston’s DNA were found.
Yoffe wrote that Winston “was hardly a perfect gentleman” on the night in question, and perhaps that’s true. But only if one assumes that all men, by nature of their physiology (or perhaps because of rape culture), are always the instigators in sexual encounters, and that women have no sexual agency whatsoever, could it be said that he was a rapist.
For his non-criminal ungentlemanly conduct, Winston’s academic future was put on hold for years. He was prosecuted, and eventually acquitted of felony charges but convicted of a misdemeanor, “touching of a sexual nature.” The Hunting Grounds holds this up as a travesty of justice, and it is. But, as Yoffe persuasively argues, that victim in this case was the accused, not the accuser.
Yes. Willingham’s career is the one that ought to suffer here. She is not a victim, but a perpetrator.