Did We Lose It At The Movies?

Kelly Oliver, Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from The Hunger Games to Campus Rape

Columbia University Press, 216pp, £22.00, ISBN 9780231178365

reviewed by Claire Potter

Since the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States a few weeks ago, feminists in the United States, along with most liberals, have been in a state of collective vertigo. A boorish and offensive man with no political education, Trump has opened the door to the nation’s most misogynistic and racist id. No one is sure what will happen next, but we can be confident that books like Vanderbilt University philosopher Kelly Oliver’s Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from The Hunger Games to Campus Rape will not be on the syllabus in a Trump administration. But it probably should be. On a 2005 audiotape released to the public on 8 October 2016, he explained to the host that he never controlled himself around women he was attracted to. ‘I just start kissing them,’ he said. ‘I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.’ Anything? ‘Grab 'em by the pussy,’ Trump crowed. Subsequently, a dozen women asserted that Trump had ogled, kissed, and groped them. Rumours that he had physically assaulted and raped an ex-wife resurfaced, as did a lawsuit, since dropped, by a Jane Doe who asserted that Trump had raped her at 13.

In response, candidate Trump mocked his accusers. He insisted that his daughter, executive Ivanka Trump, would never act like a victim; she would ‘find another career or find another company.’ Much later, Ms. Trump issued a strong public statement that sexual harassment was ‘unacceptable.’ Nonetheless, like the thousands of college men charged with ‘sexual misconduct’ every year, candidate Trump seemed to have little awareness of what sexual violence is and why it hurts women. However, Trump’s portrayal of Ivanka as sexually tough may resonate with his audience. In film and television, Oliver argues, female heroism is defined by women’s ability to protect themselves from eroticised physical abuse, normalising ‘violence towards girls and women, including sexual violence.’

The links between popular culture and what appears to be an epidemic of rape on college and university campuses are the central theme of this short book. Oliver, an expert on women and violence at Vanderbilt, has been enmeshed in this conversation. Four football players at her university are currently being retried for a gang rape that is, sadly, now somewhat typical in the contemporary United States, but atypical in that two of the four accused men have already been convicted and sentenced to serious prison time. In the end, the accuser will have had to endure more than six separate judicial procedures over five years. She is also likely to have been punished for reporting the encounter as a crime: ‘women who do report sexual assault are often harassed and face retaliation on campus,’ Oliver reminds us. In addition, these crimes are often difficult to prosecute because the woman herself is often unconscious at the time, a phenomenon that, in Oliver’s view, has reshaped the crime of campus rape. Women who are disabled by drugs or alcohol are now the prey of choice for rapists who, according to Oliver, have an erotic fixation on copulating with ‘dead girls.’ Often women do not know, or are not fully aware, that they have been assaulted until they see images of their own rape on social media. Thus, ‘there are very few consequences for the perpetrators of sexual assault,’ Oliver writes, ‘especially if they are well-respected fraternity brothers or college athletes.’

Why, after decades of anti-rape activism, is sexual assault so hard to prevent, prove or prosecute on college campuses? In their award winning 2015 documentary The Hunting Ground (full disclosure: I was interviewed for the film), producers Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick argue that administrators are more concerned about the bad publicity than they are about rape victims, particularly when a high-profile male athlete is accused. Because of this, students who file charges do so in a climate of scepticism and administrative obfuscation. Student bullying also serves administrators’ preference for suppressing public knowledge about campus rape. While the fetish of students’ circulating digital images of sexual assaults on social media has been used to prosecute these crimes, more frequently it shames survivors into silence. In a fetish related to rape, also powered by smart phones, amateur pornographers circulate ‘creepshots’, photographs of women’s body parts taken without their knowledge. Aggregated on subscription-only platforms, creepshots cater, as one such site boasts, to the ‘voyeur’ who craves ‘sexy asses, boobs, cleavage, legs, yoga pants, short skirts.’

Circulating stolen images is not unrelated to a burgeoning Internet market for amateur and professional porn. Oliver sees this constellation of sexual materials as a ‘pornutopia’ that dovetails with mainstream media culture to persuade young men that women want violent sex, even when they are unconscious and saying ‘no’. In fact, Oliver argues, violence marketed as entertainment may also confuse women about whether a given encounter is rape or sex. Depictions of girl heroines in The Hunger Games and Divergent series have delivered a strange sort of gender equality, in which teenage girls are both hunters and hunted, enduring violent sexual couplings that end in romance. Thus, ‘rape culture,’ a phrase common on American college campuses that embraces everything from misogynistic speech to sexual violence, is an effect, not just of unlawful porn or male violence, but also of ‘legit’ corporate sexual fantasies sold to millions of teens.

Oliver’s arguments emerge from critical readings of films that have clearly not attracted enough sustained feminist attention. However, her argument that popular culture promotes and rationalises violence against women is not new. It has been a foundational theme in American radical feminism since Andrea Dworkin’s Woman Hating (1974) and Susan Brownmiller’s 1975 bestseller Against Our Will: Men Women and Rape. Surprisingly, the anti-pornography activism of Dworkin and her collaborator Catharine MacKinnon go unmentioned in Hunting Girls, even though Dworkin was perhaps the first feminist to write about rapists taking trophy pictures; at the time everyone but her closest political allies dismissed this observation, and Oliver’s work suggests that they were surely wrong. Brownmiller is relegated to a footnote; controversies over censorship and free speech that anti-pornography activists set into motion are also missing.

Perhaps Oliver did not want to have her own work overshadowed by the complexities of the 20th-century ‘sex wars,’ but the similarity between her own approach and these earlier feminist analyses is remarkable. Oliver, for example, argues that modern movie heroines are sexualised versions of the fairy tale princesses that little girls fantasise about, a subject Dworkin takes on at length in Woman Hating. In chapter 10 of Against Our Will, Brownmiller also shows that fairy tales prepare women to accept the likelihood of rape by promoting a sense of ‘catastrophe that seems to befall only little girls.’ Like Oliver, feminists who organised around these texts and others found similar ideological danger not just in porn, but also in mainstream culture: advertising, rock n’ roll, television and film.

The connection 20th-century feminists made was intuitive, and so are Oliver’s. While she does not assert a causal connection between media violence against women and rape culture on college campuses, Oliver infers it. It seems logical. No one has ever conclusively linked violent fantasies to rape but, as Lionel Trilling wrote, while ‘censorship is always indefensible,’ some forms of erotic art ‘tend to humanize, others to dehumanize us.’ Yet Oliver steps on a few landmines that show how perilous such an inference is. Her statement that access to Internet porn drives a need for escalating stimulation which can only be satisfied by non-consensual sex is entirely unsupported by the evidence she cites: one study was done prior to widespread use of the Internet, and two others speak only to the question of why fantasies about rape are stimulating. That rapists ‘get off on debasing women’ seems uncontroversial (otherwise, why would they do it?), but if media are so powerful, one might reasonably ask why millions of male consumers of porn, or The Game of Thrones for that matter, are not out hunting girls.

These flaws speak to the hazard of writing a short book on a big, complex topic with many moving parts. Focusing on a very few high-profile cases at private universities, Oliver overuses and repeats the evidence she has so that she can hammer home some rather dubious propositions. You only have to read the chant that the Delta Kappa Epsilon pledges at Yale were ordered to perform – ‘My name is Jack, I’m a necrophiliac. I fuck dead girls’ – once to get the point, and yet this exact phrase is repeated numerous times to underscore Oliver’s belief that young men are finally being honest: the only sexy woman is a dead woman.

Perhaps even more troubling is that Oliver fails to mention the fact that the women of Yale – faculty, students, administrators and alumnae – responded forcefully to this event, and the fraternity chapter was closed for five years by the administration. My guess is that Oliver views such accomplishments as partial victories at best, and they may be. In her view, women’s agency is so thoroughly undermined by the rape narrative that ‘the best stopgap solution’ for college women is ‘to hold men responsible for consent.’ She admits that this not perfect, ‘insofar as it gives men the primary responsibility,’ but it is ‘pragmatically necessary.’

Oliver is clearly uncomfortable with her own proposal, as any sane feminist would be. So why not explore other solutions that empower women and decent men? Is the pornutopia as patriarchal as the pornography industry that feminists like Dworkin fought to shut down? I wonder. There is no doubt that the Internet is dripping with revenge porn, creepshots, and filmed rapes. But young women are also demanding cock shots from their lovers in exchange for pictures of themselves and starting their own feminist porn shops. Oliver also underplays the fact that women are not always the good guys in campus rape cases. It is a generally under-discussed feature of such accusations that not just male, but also female friends of accused men treat sexual assault like a ‘spectator sport’, mobilising myths – regret sex/break-up sex/bad sex – which slut-shame the survivor and exonerate the accused.

Oliver doesn’t grapple with these complexities, though it would strengthen her cultural argument if she did. Female students, who are possibly relieved when somebody else is chosen for rape, or disdainful of women who aren’t tough enough to take it, may be part of the problem, while men – like the two empathetic passersby who halted a rape in progress at Stanford in 2015 – can be part of the solution. Furthermore, thanks to the anti-sex education conservatives who are in power around the United States, 18-year-olds now arrive at college campuses with less knowledge about sex and sexual pleasure than any generation since the 1930s. Contemporary sex education, where it exists, is almost entirely focused on the prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. In contrast to earlier generations of educators inspired by Alfred Kinsey who viewed sex as a learned art, 72% of American schools promote abstaining from sex as the most effective way to prevent pregnancy (there’s a no-brainer), while 50% of American schools teach an ‘abstinence-only’ curriculum. It’s no wonder that, as the Alan Guttmacher Institute reported in 2014, more than half of college students will receive their only sexual education from the Internet, and many watching whatever porn they come across. Yet Oliver imagines a similarly reductive form of sex education. ‘Several studies show that education can help prevent sexual assault through eradicating rape myths,’ she writes, ‘most importantly the pornutopian idea that women enjoy rape.’ What about pleasure, ethics and mutual respect?

Sex requires practice, judgment, self-restraint, knowledge and a capacity for emotional resilience. It isn’t a complex thought that sex should be consensual and fun for both parties, but it may be beyond the immediate grasp of young people whose ignorance about real bodies has been encouraged. Yes, violence in popular culture and in pornography is a topic feminists need to return to with fresh eyes. But why devise ever-more elaborate insights about sexual assault, or wring our hands about epidemic levels of college inebriation? As Oliver notes in her conclusion, by viewing sexual consent less as a contract or a legal ritual, than in ‘its more originary meaning, feeling with, or journey with,’ we could promote honest conversations with the young about why sexual pleasure requires empathy, skill and a capacity to listen with our bodies as well as our ears.
Claire Potter is professor of history at The New School, New York City.