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Inside the Culture of Sexual Violence at America's Colleges

The long, painful process of reporting a sexual assault allegation often leads to nothing more than pain for the victim and a slap on the wrist for the accused.

by Jennifer Schaffer
Jan 27 2016, 5:45pm

In anticipation of the upcoming fourth season of our HBO show, which will premiere February 5 at 11 PM, we are releasing all of season three for free online along with updates to the stories. Today's installment follows up on a dispatch called "Campus Coverup," which explored the culture of sexual violence at US colleges. Watch the episode below:

It's easy to feel pessimistic about what many argue is a broken system that allows rapists to walk free without punishment on American college campuses. And it's even easier to suspect the situation cannot be changed. According to the latest research, roughly 20 percent of young women will endure sexual assault while at college; most will not report it, and those who do sometimes find themselves caught in a bureaucratic maze of campus tribunals and independent investigations. Often, the long, painful process of reporting a sexual assault leads to nothing more than an invasion of the alleged victim's privacy, a possible triggering of traumatic memories, and a slap on the wrist for the accused.

Last spring, host Gianna Toboni explored the epidemic of campus sexual assault with a new lens on VICE on HBO. Rather than focusing on the victims or the perpetrators, she chose to hone in on the dysfunctional institutions that fail America's students: probes led by poorly-trained professors, administrations that effectively evade responsibility, and disciplinary committees that mete out meek punishments for students deemed guilty. We spoke with her about grassroots movements to protect students, the possibilities for concrete nationwide reform, the importance of calling out colleges, and why it's a good thing that sexual assault is always in the news these days in America.

VICE: Obviously, campus rape cases have been a huge topic of interest across the US in recent years, but was there a tipping point that inspired you to film this documentary?
Gianna Toboni: Before The Hunting Ground or the documentary that we did, it didn't feel that there was a comprehensive film that covered [sexual assault on college campuses]. I've seen a lot of media organizations investigating other journalists instead of looking at the institutions and their mishandling of cases. I felt like there were a lot of journalists who were looking into picking apart stories and picking apart reporting instead of looking at the abuse of power that's still happening across the country. I thought it'd be good to do a story where we didn't really focus on the survivors or the perpetrators, but more on why these cases were not being adjudicated properly and why people weren't getting justice.

Did you face a lot of resistance from the universities you investigated? Sexual assault seems to be handled by many colleges as a touchy PR issue.
We reached out to, I couldn't tell you, up to a hundred schools, but we didn't receive a direct yes from any [university] president. We wanted to interview presidents and deans but we found that to be very difficult. In the end, we didn't talk to any of them.

There was a lot of pushback, even from campus police investigators and other university personnel. They were standoffish. That's no surprise to anyone who was working on this story. The first scene in the film, when we go to the protest at Columbia, you see me trying to talk to the dean there, and he just wanted nothing to do with it.

Was it also difficult to get students to tell you their stories?
When you talk to students who have been through something so traumatic, it's a tough thing to talk about, especially because they're young. In many cases, they haven't gotten any help—they haven't talked to therapists or anything—so retelling your story can act as a trigger.

The women we spoke to were great; they were very open to telling their stories. The reason they were telling these stories was not to get attention. It was clear that they understood the greater good. It was clear that they understood that something was wrong in the country, and they wanted to help in whatever way they could, even though it was a painful process for them to go through.

Many of the people you spoke to were women. Did you encounter many men who were working towards reform, too?
I didn't come across any all-men groups, but I did come across men who were speaking up on behalf of the issue. There was one school in Missouri where a lot of young guys—big, buff jocks, exactly who you don't expect to be standing up in defense of these women, and they were. It was really touching. When we were on this campus tour with Senator McCaskill, a few of them stood up and said, "We always have sober people at our parties who can make sure that nobody is being taken advantage of. This is as much a concern for us as it is for the sorority girls here."

It was cute—you know, they really cared about it. And truthfully, this isn't an issue that women alone can solve. We need men to be standing up and doing something about it, which I think is happening.

Did you come across any unconventional approaches to preventing rape on college campuses?
On campuses where young women felt their schools weren't doing enough to prevent these situations or adequately respond to them, they would come up with their own system. They would make lists of guys who had in some way violated students, and write all their names down, and post these lists in sororities and in girls' bathrooms, so that girls would see their pictures and names, and they would know to stay away from those guys. They would know which fraternities to stay away from. That was a grassroots thing that I thought was pretty cool.

How much do you feel reform will need to come through federal and state law, and how much reform can happen at the campus and grassroots levels? Could the system be fixed through Title IX [which bans sex discrimination in federally-funded education] alone, or does each school need to come up with its own creative solution?
I think it [differs on] a case-by-case basis. I really believe that there are administrators out there who want to protect their students, who have their hearts in the right place. And then there are schools where they do not care about protecting their students, especially if it's going to taint their reputation or be a hit to their business. So for those schools—and I don't think it's one or two schools, I think there are a lot of schools like that—I think they need the pressure of the federal government and the threat of losing a percentage of their funding, and I think it's working.

When you're at these schools and you hear Senator McCaskill talk to the dean and other administrators, it's clear that they don't want this press. They don't want the federal government investigating them. If it's some sort of public shaming like that, that's going to cause these universities to change, which it seems it is, I think that's a good thing.

Is it possible that some of these universities—the Ivy League, for starters—are so closely linked to the government that there's a risk of officials turning a blind eye to their own alma matters?
I'm not sure. I'm hopeful that change will come anyway. I always expect that there is going to be some sort of corruption or abuse of power in these situations, but overall I really do think that there are senators who are committed to cleaning the system.

Looking more closely at the campus tribunal system, did you find common, basic errors that allowed offenders to walk away without punishment?
I wasn't an expert going into this story, and I was listening to [an] adjudication hearing in real time. As I was listening, I was thinking "Oh, that's a strange question. That's sort of rude." I didn't really know if that was the protocol, if that was how people were trained to conduct these hearings. Then, when I showed the footage to Senators McCaskill and Gillibrand, I said, "What do you think? How did those panelists do?" And they were horrified. They couldn't even believe that I asked the question; they were so appalled by how that hearing was handled. So it's clear that even when these faculty members are trained, they're not handling these hearings in the way that a sex crimes prosecutor or investigator would. That's problematic, because you won't come out the most just results, and you could trigger some sort of trauma in the person you're talking to [in the process].

Recently, there have been discussions around universities that allow rapists to graduate, and to enter the workforce without any disciplinary marks on their record indicating that they've committed sexual assault.
That's one of the biggest problems. Even in these adjudication hearings, even in this small percentage of cases where somebody is held responsible, that's exactly it: They graduate or they don't graduate, but they leave the school, and they don't have anything on their record. They can go to their workplace or to bars or to clubs or wherever. Some psychiatrists say that the grand majority of these cases on college campuses is done by a small percentage of people who are serial rapists; if an individual is a serial rapist [and they don't have anything on his record], then that's a real issue. Half of society is at risk of being assaulted by this person. Honestly, it's going to be a long process. If that system changes, it's definitely not going to be tomorrow.

Consent courses are one of the more recent moves universities have made to protect their students. Did the students you spoke with feel these were an effective way of preventing assault?
While we were doing this story, the "yes means yes" legislation passed in California. At the schools I visited, I asked students about that, and they seemed to be discouraged by [consent lessons] being put forth as a model for change. Because at the end of the day, it's still one person's word against the other's. I'm not sure how much change that's going to create. The students I talked to didn't really think [consent lessons] were the answer.

You've reported all over the world with VICE. How does the US stack up in terms of protecting students from sexual assault?
I think to a lot of people it may seem like we're not doing as well because [sexual assault] is in the media all the time, but I actually think that's a positive sign. It means we're talking about it; it means that finally women are comfortable coming forward and reporting their assaults. In other countries, if you're not hearing about it, it's not because the assaults aren't happening.

I don't think we have a higher percentage of sexual perpetrators [in the US]. It's a healthy thing that [sexual assault] is being discussed in the media and that it's exploded like this. We are finally able to put pressure on those who need pressure put on them. We're finally addressing the issue in a small way.

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