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Shame on universities that tolerate sexual assault

New documentary flips the script on shame and holds mirror up to a system that protects perpetrators

March 7, 2015 2:00AM ET

The documentary “The Hunting Ground” shines an overdue light on the prevalence of sexual assault in American higher education. Like any successful exposé, the film reveals not just a corrupt system but also the power structures and entrenched beliefs that allow it to go unchecked. Among these impediments is our nation’s uneasy relationship with public shame.

We may not always be comfortable with it, but we have seen how public shame can spur action in the upper echelons of university administrations. Last May, in response to popular pressure, the Department of Education released a list of the 55 colleges and universities with open Title IX sexual violence investigations. That spring, the department’s Office for Civil Rights threatened to pull Tufts University’s federal funding if it did not acknowledge its mishandling of sexual assault. Grudgingly, Tufts agreed to reforms that the department laid out.

But campus sexual assault is still widely tolerated, and even more shaming is needed. The film, directed by Kirby Dick and released on Feb. 27, makes a sprawling but compelling case for why: In order to keep campus rape statistics artificially low and maintain the image of universities as hallowed halls of learning rather than big businesses driven by profit, administrators repeatedly discourage or outright obstruct students from making assault claims — particularly against high-profile athletes — and often create a hostile environment if they proceed. Only by forcing the doors open can the public begin to hold universities accountable.

First-person testimony on the big screen helps drive this message home. The numerous women and handful of men who share stories of sexual assault on campus stare stoically into the camera, choke back tears or barely contain their outrage as they recount the violence done to them and their school’s shameful tolerance of it. Their sense of violation is palpable, and as viewers, we bear witness.

“The Hunting Ground” effectively flips the script on shame. By bringing visibility to a painful occurrence more associated with secrecy and self-loathing, the film holds up a mirror to our nation’s university system and rebukes the protection it too often offers perpetrators of sexual assault. It is a “shame on you” directed at the perpetrators, those who protected them and the infrastructure that is rigged to provide them impunity.

Reclaiming agency by inverting shame is a type of activism long used by sexual assault survivors and anti-rape groups such as SAFER and Know Your IX. It’s a tactic immortalized in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” When branded with the mark of adultery, Hester Prynne takes ownership of her shame, reflecting it onto the society that punished her and illuminating its hypocrisy.

The film’s synergy accomplishes more than what any individual survivor can do. It connects the dots, visually and emotionally, to reveal a startling nationwide pattern. Take the case of Jameis Winston, a star quarterback for Florida State University accused of rape in 2012. The film depicts not just Winston but also the coaches who protect him, the culture of college sports that elevates athletes to celebrity status and the students who believe his accuser just wanted to get in on the action as complicit in creating a campus culture of rape. In unearthing such a culture, the film demands accountability at every stratum of campus life.

Alma maters are a source of pride. That’s why publicly shaming such institutions feels very personal — and why it’s so effective.

The need for accountability in higher education was made strikingly apparent by “Carry That Weight,” the master’s thesis performance by Columbia University undergraduate Emma Sulkowicz that went viral last fall. For the project, Sulkowicz — who briefly appears in the film — carries a 50-pound mattress everywhere she goes on campus in objection to Columbia’s mishandling of sexual assault charges she brought against another student.

“Carry That Weight” is so jarringly effective because it breaks an unspoken rule: It brings an experience of private shame into a public space, making it highly visible to administrators and other students, including her alleged rapist. In doing so, she acknowledges their complicity in the burden she carries.

It was not long after Sulkowicz began receiving widespread praise for her performance that the backlash began. Though her target was Columbia, essays about the effects of her performance on her alleged rapist described him as the victim of a public-shaming pile-on. A mighty institution such as Columbia could handle it, but what about the student whose reputation as a rapist was national news?

In this particular case, public shaming may have reached unexpected, even disproportionate levels. But it’s still an outlier. The perpetrator-as-victim narrative is so compelling because it gives us a pass to ignore the underlying problem. It’s easier to focus on one alleged rapist thrust into an uncomfortable spotlight than it is to address the countless others who remain invisible and unpunished on campuses across the country. It is easier to let one woman privately carry her own weight than to watch her reclaim and leverage it to reveal a systemic flaw. But perhaps this is where we start — at a place where both institutions and individuals are raw, exposed and painfully seen.

When it targets individuals, public shaming has its drawbacks. One only need recall the Salem witch trials or McCarthyism to understand why public shaming is often equated with vigilantism. We know the court of public opinion is fickle, and when public shaming is motivated by schadenfreude, it can become more about drawing blood than demanding justice — particularly in an age of social-media-fueled outrage.

But ultimately, the benefits of public shaming outweigh the drawbacks, particularly when it is directed at institutions that sustain systems of oppression. It makes it far more difficult to write off rape claims as alcohol-fueled misunderstandings, as so many administrations do.

Also, when the sense of shame is diffused, it trickles its way down. Parents might think twice about putting their faith and their dollars in universities tarnished by sexual assault. Alums might be ashamed to wear a sweatshirt from their alma mater if it becomes known as a school that allows violence against women. For many Americans, our alma mater is a source of pride; it provides a sense of community long after graduation. That’s why publicly shaming such institutions feels very personal, even when it is directed at a system. This is precisely why it’s so effective. When shame becomes visible, it belongs to us all. 

Editor's note: A previous version of this article mistakenly identified the team that college quarterback Jameis Winston played for. We regret the error.

Alizah Salario is a freelance journalist and writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Daily Beast, The New York Observer, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions and elsewhere.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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