Editor-in-Chief Natalie Tipping speaks to Amy Ziering, the producer of the critically acclaimed documentary The Hunting Ground, which looks at the epidemic of on-campus sexual assaults in the US.

What was the reception of the film when it was first released in the US?

It’s been received extremely well, the reception’s been kind of astonishing for us. I’ve made a lot of films and we were doing 100 campus screenings a week in the spring after the film came out, which was pretty incredible. At those screenings we were getting standing room only crowds, and students were asking if they could keep the DVD because they were having to turn people away.

It’s actually something that our society is very concerned about and really hungry for more information on, because finally this issue is coming out after so many decades of silence it’s becoming something that more people are aware of. But still there’s a lot of confusion and not enough information on the issue, and there’s not a lot of transparency.

People are embracing the film and are watching it to find out and really understand the issue and are trying to figure out what they can do to help reduce the epidemic.

Why do you think this is such a big issue on university campuses not just in the US but also worldwide?

Well unfortunately sexual assault can and does happen everywhere in our society. What we’ve found is that certain institutions create environments that are much more hospitable for the crime to be committed successfully and repeatedly.

So for example when we did the film about the military [The Invisible War], those kind of institutions are just like campuses; it’s a target-rich environment, there are a lot of young people, there’s a lot of people who aren’t as sexually experienced or worldly, so don’t know the social codes, and there’s a party culture.

It’s not those things alone, but those are the environments where a predator, a sexual predator, someone who knows how to commit these crimes, can operate with impunity. There’s not really good investigative processes or adjudication processes.

So if you have that combination, it’s sort of a perfect storm of elements for these crimes to occur over and over and over again, and that’s why you see the epidemic numbers.

Do you think there’s something that can be done to educate people at a younger age, whether it’s with better sexual education or something else?

Yeah I think it does start at a very young age. I think our culture is responsible, we need a culture with much more egalitarian images of men and women, a culture that is much less sex shaming and misogynistic. I think those things would also change the perception of this crime. We need to educate our boys and our girls about what sex is, about consent, and how to trust your own boundaries and vocalise that, and how to respect each other.

We know in cultures where there is much more objectification of women, there is much more gender violent crimes because people are desensitised to seeing women as something other than objects and when you objectify people you feel like it’s okay to commit crimes because they’re not equal and you don’t empathise with them.

I’d encourage administrators to see the film and to understand the issue, to take it seriously, and to prosecute perpetrators. We’re not seeing this happening. All of the educational efforts go towards victims; “here’s what you can do and be careful”, but there isn’t a lot about how do we better investigate and adjudicate these crimes and go after the criminals? This is all part of the culture of victim blaming around this issue.

You mentioned another documentary you did called The Invisible War which was about a similar thing but in the military. Did you find that this had an effect on how the military handles these cases now?

Actually we really did. You know, it’s still a very big problem, I don’t want to undermine it, but what we did find, which was really incredible, was that the military leadership saw the film and embraced it, they weren’t afraid of it. They were thankful that it was actually coming to light in a way that they could better understand this issue, because they had the wrong optics (understanding of how it was going on). I think they had the same misconceptions of it being the culture and miscommunication and our film helped show them that.

They really took measures, after Invisible War came out we got a call from the Secretary of Defense, and he saw it and immediately held a press conference which he credited the film for and changed military policy. It’s used as a training tool on bases. So we would welcome schools likewise not to be afraid of this film, and to invite screenings, invite discussion, talk with survivors – on most campuses they don’t – find out about the issue and try to put better policies in place, because they can and should do better.

So what would you say to the Deans of Colleges and Universities in terms of what they can do to prevent this in the future?

Honestly it sounds self-serving, but see the film so that you get informed. There’s a lot of misunderstandings about this issue. People all too often think that it’s party culture, it’s hook-up culture. It’s not true – this has been going on for decades. If this is the case, why are these the same numbers from 20/30 years ago.

People need to understand this as a crime like any other, again, sex gets confusing for people, and they think ‘it’s he said she said, we really can’t know’, that we’ve also seen as untrue. Just because you’ve had alcohol – I’m sure you and I both have – just because I’ve had alcohol, it doesn’t make me jump on a stranger and make them perform sexual acts.

I’m not sure whether you can even align ‘hook-up culture’ with ‘rape culture’ because they’re just not the same thing, wouldn’t you agree?

Well exactly, but that is what it’s done in the States, and people just put it down to maybe people miscommunicate and the signals get crossed, but no, it’s actually more than people think. That’s why we called the film The Hunting Ground, it’s more than people think. It’s a calculated, premeditated crime. Alcohol is used to incapacitate a victim, it’s not used to make it unclear what the desire of the victim was. That’s what we want administrators to really understand.

We’ve seen in the States that there’s so much misunderstanding on this that people are willing to turn a blind eye and not take it seriously. I think that’s what’s allowed this crime to keep happening over and over again with such frequency.

Finally, what would you say to people who have experienced this in terms of coming forward if they feel like they can’t?

Well I would just say if this has happened to you, my heart goes out to you, I totally believe you, and whatever you decide to do is the right thing to do. There’s no judgement.

You have to really search within yourself and figure out what your comfort level is, and then I would 100% support whatever that comfort level is of yours to do whatever you wanted to do. If you felt strong enough to want to report, absolutely, find a network, find who the person to report to is.

Find someone, a close friend, a therapist, a parent, a relative to support you through the process. It’s not an easy one and you shouldn’t feel alone and you shouldn’t be alone. So seek out resources to help you emotionally, and whatever path you choose is the right one for you.