Dover Officials “Educate” Airmen with Controversial Sexual Assault Film

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I’ve been attempting recently to shine some critical light on the Air Force’s approach to sexual assault prevention. The dilemma for the service is not just how to effectively prevent assaults without creating a repressive, isolating environment, and it’s not just how to do this without obliterating due process for accused assailants. The problem is also how to demonstrate that everything possible is being done in order to defend against understandably zealous legislators seeking to fundamentally overhaul how command authority operates.

This ongoing campaign to carve sexual assault cases out of the military justice system is seen by the Air Force bureaucracy as a threat to its vital interests, and has led to a “kitchen sink” approach to sexual assault prevention. Everything that might help, might be perceived as helping, or is known to be favored by key legislators is being attempted, usually in the most visible way possible.

In some instances, this approach is leading to questionable decisions about how to appropriately train and educate airmen to actually prevent sexual assault.

Earlier this week, Dover Air Force Base made one such questionable decision when it encouraged airmen to attend an on-base screening of “The Hunting Ground,” an influential documentary film billed as a “startling exposé of rape crimes on U.S. college campuses, their institutional cover-ups and the devastating toll they take on students and their families.” The showing was presented by Dover’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) office, as noted in the flyer below.

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The screening is worth examining more closely for a few reasons.

First, the use of any movie to educate about a subject like sexual assault is a risky prospect. Movies are shorthand models for complex realities. They oversimplify, selectively amplify, and selectively downplay in order to effectively tell a story. The details left out are sometimes crucial to accurately comprehending the underlying phenomenon, and this means a movie is often not an appropriate stand-alone educational tool.

To the extent a movie might make a serviceable element in a training plan, the determination hinges on how closely the phenomenon it seeks to describe matches the real-world phenomenon about which education is sought. “The Hunting Ground” is a film about college campuses. The contextual, cultural, and circumstantial differences between college campuses and Air Force bases are so numerous and substantial that the movie’s “lessons” cannot be thought to translate effectively for an Air Force audience. At least not without considerable guidance and mentorship to make the translation effective.

But even if we accept that a movie, even one about college campuses, is an appropriate training tool for airmen, there’s still the question about whether this particular movie is appropriate. There are many reasons to doubt it.

“The Hunting Ground” doesn’t seek to just educate. It advocates. Filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering are self-labeled activists. They’re advancing a cause. Informed skepticism is a healthy accompaniment to education advancing on the rails of an impassioned cause. Indeed, “The Hunting Ground” is a film that should be taken with a grain of salt.

In a scathingly fact-driven critique penned in June, Slate columnist Emily Yoffe eviscerates the film, calling into question its basic commitment to factual accuracy, and thus, its credibility. Yoffe’s article, which I recommend be digested in entirety by anyone watching and/or recommending the movie (or simply interested in the competing narratives around the subject), paints a picture of filmmakers sufficiently blinded by advocacy that they deliberately blur the facts of one of the cases underpinning several of the movie’s core themes about campus sexual assault, its victims, and their alleged assailants. 

From the Slate article:

“The filmmakers present what happened between Kamilah Willingham and Brandon Winston as a terrifying warning to female college students and their parents, and a call to arms to government officials and college administrators. They offer the case as prima facie evidence that draconian regulations, laws, and punishments are required to end what they say is a scourge of sexual violence. But there is another story, which the filmmakers do not tell. It’s a story in which Willingham’s accusations are taken seriously and Winston’s actions are thoroughly investigated, first by Harvard University and later by the Middlesex County district attorney’s office. It’s a story in which neither the school nor the legal system finds that a rape occurred, and in which Willingham’s credibility is called seriously into question. It’s a story of an ambiguous sexual encounter among young adults that almost destroyed the life of the accused, a young black man with no previous record of criminal behavior. It’s a story that demonstrates how deeply the filmmakers’ politics colored their presentation of the facts—and how deeply flawed their influential film is as a result.”

Unarmed with this criticism, audiences are likely to walk out of a screening of “The Hunting Ground” consumed with righteous fury against the evil of sexual predators and an equally justifiable rage against the ineptitude of authority figures failing to keep such predators in check. Armed with Yoffe’s exposé, audiences are more likely to feel manipulated, angry toward the filmmakers, and appropriately skeptical about the accuracy of the film’s narrative.

Were Dover officials aware of problems with the film? If so, did they give airmen a proper grain of salt with which to responsibly digest “The Hunting Ground?”

Reached for comment, Dover spokeswoman Lt. Sarah Bergstein did not remark on whether SAPR officials or base commander Col. Michael Grismer knew of the film’s disputed accuracy. Bergstein said SAPR officials were available before and after each of two free screenings at the base theater, there to “answer questions about the film and provide their expertise.” 

Curiously, Bergstein also said that the film was “not officially sponsored and/or endorsed by the 436th Airlift Wing commander, Air Mobility Command, or the U.S. Air Force,” while conceding it was offered by the base SAPR office as an “educational opportunity” and that the showings were approved in advance by the Air Mobility Command SAPR office. The inconsistency of these statements translates into ambiguity for Dover airmen.

Several members of Team Dover contacted by JQP for this story reported that some commanders and supervisors made a strong push for attendance. Many had the impression the Air Force officially endorsed the film. Asked whether attendance was coerced or directed, Bergstein did not respond directly but characterized the screening as “volunteer-based.”

By showing this film to airmen during duty hours, using base resources, with wing staff sponsorship, and under the banner of “SAPR education,” base officials gave it an aura of approval. By resisting a formal statement of sponsorship, they were able to heave another kitchen sink toward the issue of sexual assault while shielding themselves against any adverse consequences of doing so.

Had anyone in a position of command authority openly endorsed the film, that person would have taken on the responsibility for its appropriate use as a training aid and would be accountable for the accuracy of that training. In other words, that person would have been responsible to lead airmen through the learning process necessary to make the movie useful.

Instead, this is another sexual assault abdication by the chain of command. In lieu of an honest discussion, airmen were given another distorted portrayal and more impassioned advocacy rather than practical, actionable knowledge.

None of this is to say “The Hunting Ground” has no value. It certainly does, and Yoffe’s criticism is not fatal to its overall argument or many of the dots it connects to make that argument. The finer point here is that whatever specific value the film holds for airmen requires a guided discussion rather than a quasi-endorsed, quasi-encouraged, quasi-official offering. Such a tepid approach reflects a desire to demonstrate more than a desire to accomplish, and that might be acceptable if such hollow demonstrations didn’t also misinform.

Similarly, none of this implies Dover officials are conspiratorially pushing a narrow SAPR agenda. But the situation does raise questions about whether anyone thought critically about the information being fed to airmen under the guise of education, and whether commanders asked any questions before airmen were exposed to controversial and dubious advocacy on an issue already suffering from a debilitating noise-to-signal ratio.

Affirmatively pursued truth cannot rightly be a casualty in the push to solve sexual assault in the Air Force (or anywhere else). Indeed, fooling ourselves about the nature of the problem will produce no solution at all.

Quoting again from Emily Yoffe:

“An allegation of sexual assault is a grave one. If proven true, it can rightly end a perpetrator’s education and send him to prison. Because the stakes are so high, it is crucial, in telling stories of sexual assault, not to be blinded by advocacy, but to fairly examine the assertions of both sides. Despite the filmmakers’ assurances, ‘The Hunting Ground’ fails in this regard.”

If there’s any truth to that, does is still pass muster as “SAPR education?”

For more on how the Air Force’s SAPR approach is distorting the problem and warping the social contours of Air Force squadrons, see Kayce Hagen’s blistering Op-Ed from May of this year.

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