Panoramas of idyllic towns, white church steeples and tittering scenes of excitement about the big fat college acceptance letters set the stage in “It Happened Here,” a documentary focusing on the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses from award winning producers Lisa F. Jackson and Marjorie Schwartz Nielsen.
“This wasn’t the school I went to two years ago. I loved this school,” said Erica Daniels, one of the documentary’s five subjects.
The 2014 documentary focused on UConn’s campus and follows five college women: Kylie Angell, Daniels and Carolyn Luby from UConn, Angie Epifano from Amherst College and Sarah O’Brien from Vanderbilt University after being sexually assaulted or harassed on campus.
Angell, Daniels and Luby were at the center of the Title IX lawsuit brought against the university that was settled in July 2014. Along with Silvana Moccia and Rosemary Richi, the women sued the university for failing to properly handle their cases and received a $1.3 million settlement as well as inspired a campus wide discussion on rape culture.
Prior to the screening of the documentary, Suze Cayer President of Revolution Against Rape thanked people fighting against rape culture and said, “this documentary event is to celebrate survivors and allies…I hope what you learn will leave here and you will educate others in the community.”
While the event was a celebration of survivors, it also marked a moment in the movement against rape culture on college campuses. Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies and Political Science professor Heather Turcotte, who Cayer introduced as “a very brave woman” spoke to the context of the documentary.
“It is important to remember that this isn’t the end of the conversation, it just marks the end of one particular moment,” Turcotte said.
Turcotte gave a background on the film saying that currently rape culture is becoming a national conversation with films like “It Happened Here” and “The Hunting Ground.” The conversation she said began when Luby published her open letter to Susan Herbst in April 2013. After publishing it and experiencing fierce backlash, Luby went to Washington, D.C. to mobilize with other students and met the filmmakers as well as the other subjects of the documentary.
“They heard some of the stories Carolyn had relayed both to them and other participants and the film makers came,” Turcotte said.
The film begins with scenes of the women remembering how excited they were to start university and how quickly those feelings of pride and excitement disappeared. After their assaults, the women were treated with apathy and disdain from the administrators handling their cases and threats of violence from classmates.
UConn student Carolyn Luby was attacked both anonymously and in person after writing a letter to President Herbst that addresses rape culture and pointed out how UConn’s recent switch to a more aggressive mascot spoke volumes to the lack of thought as to how violence permeates campus culture. Luby pointed out that athletes violated the student code and the law and were rarely disciplined. One critic of Luby told her “I hope you get raped by a husky,” after the letter was published.
Similarly, when a friend raped Kylie Angell in her dorm room, she reported it to UConn Police only to be told, “If women would stop spreading their legs like peanut butter, rape wouldn’t keep happening.” While Angell’s rapist was expelled on four counts of breaking the student code, he appealed the decision and returned to campus, breaking his no-contact order within two hours. Angell was not notified of the decision and he continued to harass and stalk Angell and has been accused of assault by other women.
“I brought my case to community standards. She told me that most people come to community standards first and then got to the police if they weren’t happy,” Angell said. “They told me it was too severe to expel him.”
While the documentary tells the story of the women and their successful action against universities, it tells the bigger story of how rape occurs on college campuses. One in four women and one in sixteen men will be assaulted in college, with the probability increasing if a person is of color or a member of the LGBTQ community. On college campuses, an assailant is more likely to be a friend, intimate partner or classmate rather than a total stranger. The documentary points this out when it tells the story of UConn student Erica Daniels who was drugged and raped by a coworker who was then promoted while Daniels had to quit her job. Similarly, a trusted friend raped documentary subject Sarah O’Brien, an athlete at Vanderbilt.
O’Brien felt pressured to party at Vanderbilt and would go out with her friends on the football team and try to keep up with them. After a night of drinking, O’Brien was incapacitated and “one of my friends on the football team offered to take me back.” He then raped her. O’Brien never reported it because she knew of a Vanderbilt female athlete who had reported her rape and was forced to drop out of the university after retaliation from her peers.
“As much as I would have liked to see him kicked off campus, I’d much rather see something larger happen,” O’Brien said. “So it doesn’t just benefit me, but benefits others.”