The Huffington Post
By Ariel Zwang
May 13, 2016
When The Hunting Ground came out about a year ago, it set the stage for a national debate on campus sexual assault. The film received enormous praise from survivors, advocates and others who saw this issue far too often swept under the rug, and commended the film for shining a much-needed spotlight. But there was also an intense backlash from critics who speculated that the survivors in the film were lying and who felt that the film didn’t do enough to highlight the perspective of the accused.
As I saw it, the airing of the film put real pressure on the White House administration and college campuses to address this issue immediately. On the state level, Safe Horizon helped lead a broad advocacy campaign to encourage lawmakers to pass the “Enough is Enough” legislation, a multi-tiered effort to address the prevalence of sexual assaults on New York’s public and private college campuses.
At Safe Horizon’s 21st Annual Champion Awards, I was able to stand alongside hundreds of attendees and applaud The Hunting Ground’s Director Kirby Dick and Producer Amy Ziering as they accepted the Voice of Courage Award for their work to bring attention to the epidemic of sexual assault and rape on America’s college campuses and the widespread failures of by college officials to support and protect victims.
“…I cry for my father. I cry for the college sophomore…who told me she didn’t want to tell her parents [she was sexually assaulted] because she didn’t want to make them sad. I cry for all the women and men I’ve met over the past five years who were met with silence and blame when all they did was report a crime in order to stop it from happening to someone else…” – Amy Ziering at Safe Horizon’s Champion Awards 2016
Before the event, I was fortunate enough to spend some time with both Kirby and Amy and delve deeper into the making of the film, the backlash and challenges they faced, what it was like to have the support of Lady Gaga, advice they have for survivors seeking justice, what we can do to help and what it meant to be honored by Safe Horizon.
Since the film first gained viewership, there has been some backlash attempting to undermine the credibility of the film and victims. What do you say to that?
AMY: It’s crazy to me that as a survivor of sexual assault, you report a crime and you’re attacked. You become re-victimized. The Hunting Ground has been vetted by lawyers. We have not had to retract any statements in the film and yet there is this white noise campaign to undermine it. It’s not terribly surprising, but upsetting.
…And this desire to protect male power and vilify women. You see it in our film: the incredible backlash that survivors face. And it’s not an accident that the film itself ignited something very similar.
KIRBY: What you’re seeing in this backlash is an attempt to try and silence survivors. This is something we have seen historically and has gone on for decades and decades: blame the victim. It’s a real reason that we continue to have this problem today because of this misunderstanding about survivor experience and aggressive behavior towards undermining that experience.
What did it take to create this film considering how challenging it has been for universities to be open about sexual assault cases and policies?
KIRBY: One of the things that we saw was the incredible fear of administrators who knew this was a problem, but were so fearful to speak about it. Many of these administrators were horrified by what was happening, but couldn’t come forward because of fear of repercussions. Those we did speak with on camera weren’t employed at the time. That was one of the major obstacles in making this film: Finding folks in the inside who can speak to how universities really respond to these assaults.
What does it mean to have people like Lady Gaga, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and Vice President Joe Biden support the film and its message?
AMY: It’s phenomenal. This is the first time in my lifetime that I feel that we are shifting the blame from victim to perpetrator and that’s a credit to not only the film but to all the organizations on the ground, the advocates, the work of the administration and supporters like Lady Gaga. Together we are demanding a new ethic in how we are treating survivors of sexual assault.
KIRBY: We are grateful to see these public figures step forward and boldly state: “This is an issue of national urgency.” The burden to demand change shouldn’t be on just survivors or organization like Safe Horizon. As a man myself, I also want other men to absolutely prioritize this as an important issue. This is not just a women’s issue.
At Safe Horizon we see many younger, college-aged sexual assault victims coming forward. We also advocate for a day when victims are believed, supported and assured justice. What advice do you have for victims?
AMY: First of all, whatever decision you make you should feel is 100 percent the right one for you. There is no right or wrong. If you want to seek justice, or don’t, do what you need to do to take care of yourself as a survivor of a traumatic event. But if you want to seek justice, it’s important to have strong support networks as the process can be very hard.
KIRBY: Every time a survivor comes forward, it is a courageous act that will hopefully change the way this country responds to survivors of sexual assault. And the reasons we are seeing a change in the debate around sexual assault is because of the courage of survivors in standing up and saying, “This is not right.”
After watching this film, many viewers were outraged. What can they do?
AMY: The first thing anyone can do is, if someone confides in you and tells you they have been assaulted, believe them. That’s just square one. Even if no one gets any justice, it would help the victim therapeutically. For survivors to not be second guessed, doubted or accused of causing their assault would be a game changer.
…I would also love for sex to be taken out of the equation. Sexual assault needs to be treated like a crime like any other. Ninety-two to 98 percent of the time when someone is reporting a rape they are telling the truth, and that is statistically consistent with every other crime in our society. Yet sexual assault is the only crime that prompts the questions: “What were you drinking? What were you wearing?” That just has to stop.
What does it mean to be honored by a victim’s services agency like Safe Horizon?
AMY: It’s a huge honor. We are grateful to this organization that does this work every day on the ground in a way we couldn’t imagine. We almost feel like Safe Horizon should get the award and not us. We are glad to contribute and stand on your shoulders.
KIRBY: Without organizations like Safe Horizon, many more lives would be destroyed. We are humbled and grateful to receive this award, but more grateful for the lifesaving work you all do.
If you want to learn more about The Hunting Ground, a companion book, The Hunting Ground: The Inside Story of Sexual Assault on American College Campuses, will be released on May 17, 2016.