Expanding The Hunting Ground - A Conversation About Consent
20 June 2017 at 8:47 am
As many as one in five women and one in 20 men in Australia have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15.
Of these, 75 per cent of women have experienced sexual violence by a known person, most commonly a boyfriend, girlfriend or date.
According The Hunting Ground Australia Project, it is time for Australia to have the tough conversations.
The project, led by campaign director Allison Henry, aims to engage the entire Australian university sector – staff and students – as well as the broader community, in a collaborative, comprehensive and unified campaign around the incidence of, and responses to, sexual violence on Australian universities.
The campaign builds on the momentum of the critically acclaimed US feature-length documentary, The Hunting Ground, which will be shown on ABC2 on Wednesday.
The film, one of six documentary films selected for the 2015 philanthropic GoodPitch2 Australia initiative, chronicles the personal stories of students who have reported sexual assault on campuses, and the failure of a number of American universities to respond effectively and appropriately to these reports.
The Hunting Ground sparked a national debate in the United States about rape culture, sexual consent and victim support.
It is now being used as a tool to start the conversation in Australia.
To date, the issue of sexual violence on Australian university campuses has not been subject to the same degree of attention in Australia as in the U.S.
In part this is due to a lack of coherent and specific statistical information about the incidence of sexual assault, sexual threats and sexual harassment on Australian university campuses, something which The Hunting Ground Australia Project and it’s partners are working to rectify.
Henry, who as a legal background and extensive experience in political, advocacy and strategic roles in government and not for profit organisations, spoke to Pro Bono News about the aims for the project, the prevalence of victim blaming and why The Hunting Ground is considered so controversial.
What is the aim behind The Hunting Ground Australia Project?
The aim behind the project is to use the film, which is obviously an American documentary, to open up a conversation here in Australia about issues of sexual violence at Australian universities.
So what we have been doing with the film is we have had a four pronged campaign. The first thing was to do campus screenings around Australian universities, so we’ve had a lot of campus screenings over the last 18 months.
We’ve also been involved with the Australian Human Rights Commission survey which basically will establish baseline data around the prevalence of sexual violence in Australian universities.
We’re doing some work with our partners at the Australian Human Rights Centre around policies and protocols about how Australian universities should respond and manage sexual violence. And finally we are doing some work around prevention with our partners at the Full Stop foundation and that’s around developing educational materials around sexual violence prevention and rolling those out across Australian universities as well.
So they’re kind of the detailed elements of our campaign but what we’re hoping overall, the whole aim of the project is to open up the conversation that ultimately leads to some cultural change around some of these issues.
Who is The Hunting Ground Australia Project targeting?
The first order is really university students and university institutions themselves, so obviously there are some cultural and behavioural issues around univeristy students that we’re trying to target and trying to raise awareness around, but there is also a really big piece of work around how universities respond to these issues. That’s what the film covers in quite a lot of details as well. So there is those issues as well. But we recognise there are 1.3 million university students in Australia at the moment so anything that we can do to improve some of these issues at university is going to help the whole of Australian society because it is such a large number of people who are at the university.
What do we know about sexual violence in Australian universities?
I’ll preface by saying that the Australian Human Rights Commission has done a nationwide survey of university students and their report is going to be coming out on the first of August and then we’ll have a really solid evidence base.
At this stage we don’t really have a clear picture of what is happening in Australian universities because there has been no data research done into that specific environment. What we do know is that across the Australian community one in five women experience sexual violence after the age of 18 and that the highest level of victims within that cohort are women aged 19 to 24 which are obviously the women who are at university so that gives you an ideas of what the issues are for university students. But we are really looking forward to the Australian Human Rights Commission report coming out because that will provide us with some data, that we haven’t had up until now, about what’s going on.
There are significant cultural, financial and structural differences between American and Australian universities and student life, how are the issues raised by the film relevant in the Australian context?
There are different things in terms of fraternities and big college sports and things that are not the same characteristic that we see in Australia. But the partying culture, some of the stuff that happens in residential colleges here in Australia is very similar and the issues that are raised, really there is a lot of similarity amongst what student life looks like in the United States and what student life looks like in Australia. So we think there are a lot of similarities there.
The other thing that is relevant is the response of the universities themselves, in how they respond to this. Universities in United States as demonstrated in the film have not handled this as well as they could, Australian universities have been fairly constructive over the last 18 months but there is certainly room for improvement among Australian universities in how they respond to these issues as well. So I think the relevance comes in the student experience and the institutional response.
There is no Australian equivalent of the Title IX mechanism which is utilised by student activists in the film. What actions can Australian students take?
At this stage there is no corresponding mechanism, as you say. There are a number of places that Australia university students can go to. So they can report an incident to the police, they can report an incident to the university, but there is no mechanism that can hold universities to account in the way the Title IX can in the United States. And part of the work that has been going on over the last 18 months, with our project and some of the associated projects, we’re looking to what mechanisms can be put in place in the future in Australia that will actually provide that oversight and transparency. And we’re hopeful that after the commission’s report comes out on the first August and the Australian Human Rights centre report comes out on the third August we’ll be really interested in the conversations that happen after that, once we have got that baseline data around what sort of responses and what sort of processes can be put in place to better deal with these issues that we do now.
Why is victim blaming so commonplace?
It is really interesting because lots of people who work in sexual violence and sexual assault services, and deal with these issues on a daily basis, will talk about how it is the only crime where the victim is expected to explain themselves. It is not like you ever see this sort of thing happen in a bank robbery. The victims of a bank robbery aren’t asked what were they wearing? Or had they been drinking? Or what time they were out until? Or any of those sorts of questions. It is a really peculiar phenomenon that when it comes sexual violence it is the victims that somehow are questioned instead of the perpetrator and I think that is a reflection of broader society unfortunately at this time. That these issues have not been given the attention that they need and that within the broader Australian community and society, these issues are not given the importance that they should have.
Critics have questioned The Hunting Ground’s accuracy and objectivity. To what extent do we need to consider the rights of the accused?
Obviously it is important that there are fair and transparent processes in place for perpetrators as well as victims of these incidents but it is also pointed out in the film that there is a very small proportion of false reports and that false reports on these sorts of incidents are exactly the same as false reports on other crimes. There is no reason why you would expect there in a higher level of false reports in this space. So as much as you obviously need to ensure that there is a fair process in place and alleged perpetrators are treated fairly, it is also important that the victims are taken on face value.
The ABC, which is set to show the film this week, has been criticised for its scheduled showing of the documentary. What makes the documentary so controversial?
I think that there is a couple of different things, I think one is that the film really challenges institutions to step up and do better and I think some of the institutions that are focused on in the film are powerful institutions that are being challenged. So I think that means there is a response from them protecting their name and their reputation, I think that is the first thing.
I think there is a really concerning level, like with the victim blaming at large, of belittling people who step up and have the audacity to say no, you’re not allowed to do that. There is some really strong and quite misogynistic undercurrent I suppose in Australian society that this film touches on and shines a spotlight on and some people who quite like the way things are now don’t like that this is happening, that people, students, are standing up and saying: “No enough”.
The film’s central premise is that whistle blowers on campus sexual violence are demonised and delegitimised, how does the criticism the film attracts fit into this?
I think it demonstrates what they are up against, that there are powerful institutions that don’t want to deal with these issues and the fact that the student activities that we see in the film are coming out and making it clear that they want things to change, is proving quite threatening to some institutions. The fact that it is critiqued the way it is, is just an indication of how those dynamics are working.
The issues raised in the documentary are not new but this film seems to have really struck a chord, what is different about this particular film?
I think there are a couple of things. I think the quality of the documentary itself is a really important point. The filmmakers are awarding winning filmmakers, they have received awards for their journalistic integrity, I think the environment in which the film has been put together is a really important factor.
I think the courage of the students who have come forward in the film to tell their story means that there is no interference with their stores, you are seeing straight up front what their stories are and what their experiences have been and I think that is incredibly powerful.
I think the film came out at a time in the United States when student activism around this area was already starting to build and certainly the filmmakers Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, were there at the time that activism was already starting to build and I think it certainly snowballed.
In the United States you also had some high level attention on these issues. This is something that the former president and former vice president stepped up and started speaking out on. So I think all of those factors came in together and then I think the film has had an impact internationally in part because of the response of the United States and in part because in Australia the time has come to deal with those issues.
There have been plenty of reports over the years, as you say the issue has been going on for decades, at some point last year there was an article last May in the Sydney Morning Herald where Fairfax themselves said we have been reporting on this for four decades. The media themselves were saying we have been reporting on this for decades. So I think the time has come to start dealing with some of these issues and I think in the Australian context, things like the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse, the country has been moving towards starting to deal with some of these issues and I think that is part of the broader picture as well.
I don’t think you can look at this in isolation, it is part of a broader movement that started in the United States and also in Australia.
The Hunting Ground will be shown on ABC2 at 8.30pm on Wednesday 21 June.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au – in an emergency, call 000.