Introducing The Next Generation Of Leaders And Thinkers

An Interview with Kamilah Willingham of “The Hunting Ground”

Rape Culture is an institutionalized issue that we must remember we are battling. As a generation we must be aware and I am lucky enough to have scored an interview with a brilliant person who will tell us how we can help. One of the creators of the groundbreaking film “The Hunting Ground” struck a chord with me. She is an intelligent woman of color who was raped, fought her case and watched her attacker be allowed back on campus. Black women are consistently ignored in the conversation surrounding rape culture, especially trans women of color. Which is what makes the hunting ground so beautiful, it regards sexual assault for almost everyone (except transgender women) and educates Americans on an issue that is so ingrained in our culture. Below is my interview with Kamilah.

1. Thank you so much for this interview. Can you define what rape culture is for our readers?
There are lots of ways to describe rape culture. I define it as a network of attitudes and values that justify, excuse, and normalize sexual violence.
For example, the notion that any bad behavior can be explained away with “boys will be boys,” or that anyone is ever “asking for it,” is absolutely rape culture. The idea that sex should be treated as a kind of conquest or something to be “scored” rather than as a mutual experience between equals — that’s rape culture, too. Rape culture is media or behavior that treats access to anyone’s body as a given or taking their availability for sex for granted because of their gender, race, clothing, job, or for any reason.
Rape culture is also the endorsement of myths like the idea that women are prone to lie about rape or that people commonly report rape due to regretted sex, vindictiveness, the quest for “attention” or for any reason other than that they were raped. We don’t treat victims of robbery or hit-and-run accidents the same way we treat rape victims — we don’t reflexively doubt them or look for ways they might be responsible for what happened to them the same way we do to people who speak up about sexual violence. Rape culture is the reason that rape and other forms of gender violence are treated unlike almost any other crime.

2. Your documentary “The Hunting Ground” has made public waves and has made the issue of sexual violence and rape culture on college campuses more relevant to the mainstream eye, what do you say to that?
We still have a very long way to go, but you can’t fight something that you can’t or aren’t willing to see — and The Hunting Ground made enormous strides by bringing survivor’s experiences and the injustice of campus sexual assault into the spotlight. I think we were all afraid that the attention and long-overdue conversations it stirred up would be short-lived, but I’m glad that has not been the case.

3.What can we do to stop rape culture in our communities?

We need to hold our friends, our families, and our institutions accountable. We need to hold ourselves accountable. Speak up against rape culture wherever you identify it, as often as it’s safe for you to do so — call it what it is and let your community know where you stand.
Many people have told me that I’m the first survivor they’ve met, but I almost never believe them. Statistically, it is very likely that we all know at least one person who has been personally affected by sexual violence. If no one in your life has disclosed to you that they are a survivor, perhaps it’s because they don’t know if it’s safe to talk to you. Think about ways you can establish yourself as someone the survivors in your life can feel comfortable opening up to, and as someone they might feel supported by even if they never disclose.
And finally, no matter how much you think you know or how “woke” you are, stay open to constructive criticism and go out of your way to seek out, listen to and prioritize the voices of people who may have a harder time making themselves heard. Understand that rape culture is engrained in American culture and is bound to affect all of us, and it’s something that we all have to work un-learn. Staying woke is hard work, so don’t be afraid to examine your own privileges or the role even you might play in perpetuating rape culture. We all play a part, and it’s okay to admit that because no one is perfect! The goal is not perfection, but critical awareness, compassion, and resistance.

4. How has speaking up against rape culture affected you?
I got a lot of negative attention when I first started speaking out, in part because I did so in such a public way (in The Hunting Ground) and spoke out against such a powerful institution (my alma mater, Harvard Law School). It’s scary and really painful to know that there are people who are willing to believe and say terrible things about me just because they don’t want to believe what I’m saying. But continuing to speak out has shown me that I’ve always been strong, and I’ve always been brave, I just didn’t know it.
Since I started speaking out, people I’ve known for years as well as complete strangers have disclosed their own sexual assaults to me and have shown me that there are a thousand different ways of being brave, and that there are as many ways to fight back as there are survivors. People have told me that seeing me speak out against rape culture has helped them find their own strength and more confidently fight back in their own lives. I can’t tell you how amazing it is to know that I’ve helped affirm even just one other survivor’s strength and worth. It’s super inspiring!
When I started speaking out, I was afraid I’d lose friends and I did, but I survived and my life is better for it. I was afraid speaking out could lead to some awkward conversations, and it has, but it’s been worth it. I still get intimidated and I’m still afraid sometimes (because I’m human!) but I’m not about to let that stop me.

5. Why should our viewers watch “The Hunting Ground”?

It’s difficult to watch but it is such a powerful film. You get to see many survivors sharing their painful and traumatic experiences, and you also get to see their individual and collective strength. When you watch the film you will probably feel outraged and heartbroken, but you will also feel energized and motivated to do something about it — at least that was how I walked away from the film, and it’s what I’ve heard from some of the thousands of students, teachers, parents, school administrators and other community members who have screened the film.

6. Any final touches?
To every victim and survivor of sexual violence who reads this: I want you to know that you are not alone. I want you to know that no matter where you were or what you did before or after the fact, what happened to you is not your fault. Finally, and most importantly, I want you to know that there is more than one way to be brave. Even if you are not as vocal as I am, even if you didn’t report it or never told anyone about it, don’t think for a second that that means you are not strong or courageous. Making any kind of decision in the aftermath of such an intimate violation of your agency is an act of courage and defiance. Continuing to love and take care of yourself as a survivor can be radical, defiant, and revolutionary. You are believed, you are valued, and you are enough. xo

To see the current status of the sexual assault cases mentioned in “The Hunting Ground” click here. Thank you for reading, I hope that these words stay with you and that we can work together to break down rape culture.

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