November 23 2015
Last night, CNN aired The Hunting Ground," a controversial documentary that purports to deal truthfully with the issue of rape on college campuses. It was the talk of the Sundance Film Festival where it was first shown to audiences. Screened at the White House, the film, which portrays the national leadership of fraternities as fostering a predatory culture, is a key document in discussions of the so-called rape culture on college campuses.
I have to confess that I didn't watch it and so can't comment on the film. But CNN is an important outlet, and I do just want to get it on record in the blog that the veracity of documentary, which will influence how many viewers now see this issue, is being challenged. In particular the work of David Lisak, a psychologists who claims that the majority of rapes on campus are by serial rapists, a key argument of the film, has been consistently challenged by serious investigators.
New York Magazine, hardly a bastion of conservative thought, said in an article before the show aired on CNN that it was based upon "a striking statistic about campus rape that's almost certainly false." New York's Jesse Singal writes:
This claim marks an important tone-setting moment in The Hunting Ground, and it's important to understand its ramifications. If Lisak, who is presented in the film as an authority on the subject of campus rape, is correct and the "core" of the campus-rape problem is serial offenders, then addressing campus rape mostly means targeting a very small slice of hardened predators who are committing an astounding proportion of the assaults that occur on a given campus. Obviously, attacking a rape problem like this would be different from attacking a rape problem in which assaults are distributed across a wider set of perpetrators.
Singal doesn't quite say it, but the Lisak serial rapist theory probably is used to justify the elimination of due process for the accused in handling rape allegations on campus. Administrators who buy the serial rapist theory may be more likely to automatically treat the accused as guilty before there is an investigation.
"Hunting Ground" highlights two cases. One is the story of Harvard Law student Brandon Winston, who was accused of sexual misconduct by then-fellow student Kamilah Willingham. Willingham gave a lengthy interview to the "Hunting Ground" filmmakers. “He’s a predator. He’s dangerous,” she tells CNN's audience.
But maybe not. Winston was defended by nineteen Harvard Law professors, who denounced the way he was portrayed in the film. Investigative reporter Emily Yoffe of Slate also punched holes in Willingham's story.
The accusation put Winston’s future on hold for three years. A young black man with no history of criminal activity had to suspend a promising education at Harvard law school while both university administrators and the court system adjudicated the accusations against him.
“Three good years of his life have gone solely to this,” said Harvard Law Professor Janet Halley, who also rejects The Hunting Ground’s narrative, in an interview with Reason. “It’s not right for the filmmakers to extend it out to yet another trial in the court of public opinion, when the underlying claims have been so conclusively rejected. It’s bad for the overall effort for justice, and it’s bad for this young man.”
The second story highlighted in "The Hunting Ground" concerns Jameis Winston (who is not kin to Brandon Winston), a former Florida State quarterback, now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A woman named Erica Kinsman accused him of drugging and raping her. Winston has threatened suit and it is likely that this one will play out in court, too.
The film also included an interview with an anonymous offender who had gone to jail because of sexual assaults, interspersed with commentary from Lisak. According to Soave, the interview bears interesting similarities to one conducted by Lisak ten years ago.
Moreover, Lisak's theory has been repeatedly question by serious investigators.
But a lot of people probably had their views on college sexual assault shaped by what CNN aired last night.